Postscript, Wisconsin

Oct 22, 2019

"You know, when you get old, in life, things get taken from you. I mean, that's… that's… that's a part of life. But, you only learn that when you start losin' stuff. You find out life's this game of inches, so is football. Because in either game - life or football - the margin for error is so small. I mean, one half a step too late or too early and you don't quite make it. One half second too slow, too fast and you don't quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us. They're in every break of the game, every minute, every second.

On this team we fight for that inch. On this team we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch. We claw with our fingernails for that inch. Because we know when we add up all those inches that's gonna make the &@$&^% difference between winning and losing, between living and dying.

I'll tell you this, in any fight it's the guy whose willing to die whose gonna win that inch. And I know, if I'm gonna have any life anymore it's because I'm still willing to fight and die for that inch, because that's what living is, the six inches in front of your face. Now I can't make you do it. You've got to look at the guy next to you, look into his eyes. Now I think you going to see a guy who will go that inch with you. Your gonna see a guy who will sacrifice himself for this team, because he knows when it comes down to it your gonna do the same for him."

-12th-year senior Dre Brown, I think

(Not really Dre Brown. Al Pacino.)

It's so cliche, but when I think about Saturday's game, when I watch the highlights -- over and over -- all I see are the inches. The inches that separate a near loss from a potentially program-altering win.

Like on the Jonathan Taylor fumble. He was on his way to the ground already when Jake Hansen jumped on his back, reached his right arm around and punched the ball out. If Taylor doesn't fumble there, Wisconsin likely gets at least three points and at worst bleeds a few more minutes off the clock in what's already a two-score game.

But Taylor's knee stayed off the ground by ... inches.

Devon Witherspoon chased down the Wisconsin receiver and almost had him by the waist at the 15-yard line, but the receiver slipped by. If he'd scored, the game would have been 27-14 with 12 minutes left to go, a big deficit to overcome.

Stumbling to the ground, Witherspoon somehow managed to clip the receiver's heel at the three-yard line by ... an inch.

Tony Adams dropped into the passing lane and, contorting his body, snatched a Jack Coan pass out of the air on his way down to the ground. If the pass had fallen incomplete the Badgers would have been able to punt the ball and force the Illini to march down the field to win the game; if it'd made it to the receiver, or if they'd have gone for it on fourth down and converted, the game would have been over.

Instead, Badgers quarterback Jack Coan threw just his second interception of the season by ... an inch.

And on it goes. Hansen's forced fumble while sacking Coan, an inch away from being an incomplete pass. Casey Washington's chain-moving catch on the last touchdown drive, an inch away from hitting the ground. Reggie Corbin's block of the blitzing linebacker on the Josh Imatorbhebhe touchdown, an inch away from being a disastrous sack.

Those inches, to borrow from Any Given Sunday, added up on this given Saturday, in a game that most objective numbers say Wisconsin still should have won. They led in virtually every category, including a 2:1 (!) time of possession and a 105-yard advantage in total yards.

Bill Connelly's advanced box score tells a similar story. Illinois won the game, and yet their win expectancy was just 46 percent. They weren't supposed to win that game, not just because they were 31-point underdogs, but because they got outplayed, only slightly, on the field.

They just had the benefit of the inches going their way.

-That perspective also offers an opportunity to reflect on the season to this point with a fresh set of eyes.

It's not revisionist history so much as a chance to reassess what we've seen without the wound being too fresh. Often times -- now included -- we can't help but be prisoners of the moment, seeing the world through the lens of whatever disappointing loss or thrilling win we've just witnessed.

Seeing how Saturday went, and how easily it could have gone the other way, it does beg the question -- have we been too negative? We can do this with virtually every game since the Akron rout. To wit:

Optimist: A win is a win
Pessimist: They just got a challenge from a true freshman quarterback on one of the worst FBS teams in the country

Eastern Michigan
Optimist: They lost on a last-second field goal after a furious fourth-quarter comeback
Pessimist: You serious, bro?

Optimist: They probably deserved to win that game, and were just a play away from doing it
Pessimist: They squandered that game, again proving they don't have what it takes to finish

Optimist: Minnesota is legit good and may win the Big Ten West
Pessimist: Nah

Optimist: They competed! It was a game in the fourth quarter!
Pessimist: ...and then it wasn't a game after both teams remembered who they were

The point being, we've (I've?) probably been unfairly critical of their losses and a little too rose-colored about their wins. The real truth is that they're somewhere in between a team that loses to Eastern Michigan and a team that beats Wisconsin. Which is ... probably where we thought they would be at this point?

-To that end, around halftime Saturday I texted a friend, "Did ... did they do the thing Robert has been talking about? Did they turn a corner in the second half last week? Is this gonna be Minnesota's post-Illinois surge?"

Which is a wild idea to entertain. It's irresponsible, really. But also ... maybe?

Mark Dantonio watched the game Saturday, and I thought something he said was interesting.

"I would say emotion plays a big part in every football game. And you can see the emotion, and you can see a game start to change a little bit and people start to have a little bit more belief. They were 30 1/2-point underdogs, and it gave you the notion that anybody can rise up at any point in time. And if you take small steps, those small victories become big victories at the end of it."

The "small steps, small victories, big victories" ties into the idea that maybe this isn't an abberation. Maybe this is the thing we've been waiting for these last 3 1/2 years. It's frustrating that it's taken this long, that we've had to endure the lowest point in Lovie's tenure (the EMU loss) in the same year we've celebrated the highest one, but as Robert has noted, one day things just "click."

I'm hoping the third quarter against Michigan was our team's click.

-I was publicly critical of the staff inserting Brandon Peters back into the starting lineup despite Matt Robinson's play in his absence.

And while Peters was largely forgettable Saturday -- 2-for-10 on third down, 9-21 for 174 yards in the game -- he made a handful of really great plays without which they don't win. I can't say for certain that Robinson makes the same plays.

I was especially heartened by Peters' running plays. The read-option on the first touchdown drive was perfectly executed -- the defensive end crashed hard, and Peters pulled it without hesitation -- and it gave the defense something to think about. The designed run on the drive that helped them pull within six points in the fourth quarter was a great call, and he ran like a quarterback that can move.

More of that, please.

-Last week's official "need to see more of" list: Robinson, Donny Navarro, Casey Washington, Dre Brown.

Nice list. Even a blind squirrel, etc.

-Purdue opening as favorites by more than a touchdown -- I think it opened at -9, and it's currently between -8 and -10 -- is somewhat surprising, not because Illinois just beat a goliath but because Purdue doesn't seem to be a touchdown better than the Illini.

They're without Elijah Sindelar, although Jack Plummer has been playing well, and they're likely to be without Rondale Moore as well. Standout linebacker Markus Bailey has already been lost for the year.

The line, then, says that oddsmakers are concerned about Illinois on the road, and Illinois coming off a big win, and maybe just Illinois in general. All fair concerns.

Regardless of expectations, I'm excited to watch. And it's been a few weeks since I could say that.

Hail to the Orange.


uofi08 on October 22 @ 01:56 PM CDT

Really like this writing. Glad you brought up the optimist/pessimist section. Honestly I think the pessimist outlook was the more correct outlook for all the early games. There were glaringly obvious issues in those games. Really even the Michigan game, as that first half was horrendous. I wonder if something really did click around halftime of that game, because that team on Saturday did not look like the team I had been watching earlier this year.

Back to the optimist/pessimist view, I am having trouble figuring out where I should stand after this Wisconsin game. The overly optimistic view is that "we've arrived, this was our moment." The pessimistic view is "this is 1 game after 40 bad ones." It's gotta be somewhere in the middle but I don't really know where. You can't read too much into 1 game, but this 1 game was more significant than any game since arguably 2007. This win deserves the attention.

Ultimately it comes down to where we go from here. I'm very worried about Purdue simply based on matchups. Honestly I'd feel better playing Michigan State this week. But really, it would just make a win this week that much sweeter, proving we can beat a spread offense that we've always had trouble defending. I just really hope this is a turning point and this 2nd half of the season proves we've turned the corner.

orngblu on October 22 @ 02:21 PM CDT

"They just had the benefit of the inches going their way."

Thanks for the article, but I have to disagree with this. You make it sound like we got lucky. What I saw was football players making plays. Those forced fumbles were not luck. Witherspoon had the runners toe in his hand when he went down, Washington's catch was what good receivers do, Corbin's block was big time, Adam's grabbed the interception with perfect timing and both hands. We avoided stupid penalties. We will see if this level of play can be sustained, but we had guys making plays in this game.

iluvrt on October 22 @ 02:40 PM CDT

So glad UI got the "inches" for a change. I too was impressed with Peters feet and that Witherspoon tackle is legendary in my mind. Great read

IlliNYC on October 22 @ 02:51 PM CDT

I'll remember that Dre Brown run for a long time. One of my favorite Illini sports moments of all time.

Illiniiniowa on October 22 @ 07:57 PM CDT

If we win two more gsmes, at 5-7, do we go bowling?

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