Bye Week Beach Break
As I'm typing this, I'm staring at the ocean. I'm not ON the beach - can you imagine getting a bunch of sand in a laptop keyboard and hearing a bunch of crunching sounds when you type? - but I'm looking at the sun over the ocean. There's something about the sound of the ocean that restores the soul.
I've done this several times during the football bye week - I think this is Bye Week Beach Break IV - and it's nice to not be constantly thinking about Illinois football. Usually, when I watch other college football games, I'm constantly thinking about the impact to Illinois - "oh man, Kent State is getting killed, and that means our close victory looks worse" - but when on vacation, for some reason, I can just watch the games. I'm still thinking things like "oh man, both of these teams would destroy us", but I think less specifically ("how can we run on this defense") and more globally ("wow, I'd love to put together a comeback like that"). Some general thoughts after unplugging:
This is really the stating point for me. I just want to get to the point where we are a competitive college football team. Gross as it may sound, let's call it the Indiana point.
Indiana wasn't competitive for the longest time. They went 1993 to 2007 without a bowl game. They hired Kevin Wilson, gave him a long leash, and asked him to build a program around his offense. They didn't jump to 9-3 immediately, but they did slowly build to the point where they're competitive. Their path:
Then Wilson was let go for Beckman-y reasons and defensive coordinator Tom Allen was given the job. His record so far:
That might not seem like much, but they made the jump from "why even watch?" to "wow - competitive in most every game". I think they took a hit when they had to change from Wilson to Allen, but their recruiting is improved, Allen's defense seems like a sustainable thing, and they're a few rungs up the ladder after two decades of futility.
The next rung after that is probably Kentucky right now. Indiana will want to progress to the next rung like Kentucky has done. There was great rejoicing in Kentucky when they hired Mark Stoops (they went from something like 8,000 fans at their 2012 spring game to 35,000 fans at their 2013 just because Stoops had been hired 3 months prior.
But it didn't happen right away, and Kentucky fans grew restless, but I believe they were slowly climbing rungs:
5-0 (3-0), ranked #17 and rising
I'd say that's the next rung. Kentucky got to where they were competitive in their second and third year, got a little better in their fourth and fifth year, and now, in the year where all of Joker Phillips' fifth year seniors have graduated and the roster is 100% Stoops, another rung climb.
This point is always interpreted as "just be patient and every coach will get there". Obviously, if Kentucky was on year eight of Joker Phillips, they wouldn't be ranked #17 (well, most likely - you can't really say with coaches fired after year three). That's not really what I'm saying.
I'm saying I believe in rungs, and that programs like Northwestern have somehow climbed out of the cellar by slowly climbing rungs (Barnett made Northwestern relevant, Walker clearly took Northwestern up a rung, Fitzee has built on that to take the program up another rung). If Indiana makes good decisions I think they could do that with Allen and their next coach. I don't think programs like Indiana are capable of hiring a Mark Dantonio and everything is suddenly great. I believe you have to climb completely out of the basement first.
And, obviously, I believe this about Illinois. I want a program. I want incremental rung climbs. And the first step is to compete.
(And before you say it, no, I do not believe these last two games indicate that we are there. I believe in full-game analysis, not "we were competitive for three quarters". Flip the Penn State fourth quarter with the Penn State first quarter and we're all saying "we were down 42-7 before we could blink" during the bye week. I still need to see more. I still think we're losing to Rutgers because I won't ever believe we'll win our first road game until it happens three times. We haven't made that rung climb yet.)
So the goal for this season: two games we can probably toss out the window (Wisconsin and Iowa), but six games where I want to see us compete. And then be more competitive the next season. And then even more competitive the next season. Make a full rung climb, steady ourselves on that level, and then reach for the next rung.
I watched the second half of the Penn State/Ohio State game last night. Contrary to popular believe, I don't watch much college football outside of Illinois. On Saturday evenings I'm usually avoiding all college football because I don't want to be reminded of that day's loss (or, occasionally, I'm watching every highlight show imaginable hoping to see highlights of Illinois' improbable win). My Saturdays revolve around the Illini game, so I watch very few other games.
But at the beach, when you return from a fantastic dinner (that's the view over the inter-coastal waterway from the restaurant last night), and our wives are exhausted and head to bed, I can sit down with my friend Dave and watch some college football with no feelings tied to how Illinois had done that day.
And I cannot believe the play call from Penn State on fourth down. They need maybe 15 more yards to kick the winning field goal, it's 4th down and 5, Trace McSorley has made play after play (400+ total yards), and you take the ball out of his hands and run it? Dave made a great point - it was the Princess Bride Decision. "Clearly you think that I'm going to pass it, so I will run it. But you might think I'm going to run it, so I might pass the ball - the obvious choice, but the one you're almost too obviously expecting, so it will be a reverse surprise. HOWEVER, you might be thinking of THAT, so I will run it since you're expecting that I'm expecting you're thinking we're going to pass it." Two timeouts to overthink it later, Penn State runs it, loses two yards, and Ohio State wins.
I think that's one reason I don't mind Lovie's conservative, stick-with-what-works playcalling from his assistants. I think the Lovie decision there is "the QB has gotten us here, no matter what, we put the ball in the QB's hands". It's frustrating when he punts from the 45 on fourth and 2, but he believes Hayes pinning the ball at the five is the percentage play there. I'd prefer some riverboat gambling in that situation, but I do think the "don't get cute - make the expected play call" can be a benefit at times. James Franklin sure wishes he would have gotten on the headset and said those words last night.
I'm continuing to focus on November. I really, really want November to give us hope for the next two seasons. And I think the schedule allows for it. Right now I see:
- An opportunity to soundly beat a vulnerable Minnesota team in Champaign.
- An opportunity to go on the road and keep a bad Nebraska team down.
- A chance to have a real fight with a good Big Ten team in Iowa to see where we measure up.
- A chance to possibly keep Northwestern out of a bowl game.
That's just where my thoughts are going right now. As much as it pains me, I just don't see an October win. Rutgers is our first road game, and for nearly a decade we've looked like we've never heard of football before in our first road game, so I expect a loss. Purdue has a quarterback who is going to throw for 450 against us, so I think that's a certain loss (willing to change my mind if we can show any kind of pass rush whatsoever). Wisconsin is an auto-loss, and Maryland is going to out-athlete us. Again, we might beat Rutgers and I have to recalibrate all of this, but right now, that's where I see it.
But then, for some reason, I feel good about a surge. Maybe even a 3-1 November? I know that sounds insane - I should pick us to beat the horrific teams (Rutgers) and have zero chance against the good teams (Iowa). But I've always written about my gut feelings here, and those are my current gut feelings. Scared of October. Surprisingly excited about November.
Everyone is stirring. I will now take my gut to the beach. Talk to you on Tuesday.