Postscript, Michigan State
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As the Illini offense flopped around in the third quarter Saturday, I texted my buddy AJ, "They're getting their ass kicked and all I can think is, a TD and they're only down by two scores. Dumb."
It's what we do. Those of us still hanging onto hope that this team could be a thing have gotten proficient at figuring the angles, mapping out the improbable roads to success regardless of how imminent the failure might seem.
Saturday's game was a master class in that discipline. For three quarters the Illini showed no reason to believe they would make it a competitive contest, let alone somehow come away with a victory.
The Spartans dominated every aspect of the game. A Justice Williams circus catch was the team's only offense for the first 29 minutes, and the Spartans inexplicably letting Josh Imatorbhebhe -- not the last time Michigan State's approach for covering him in an obvious "this ball is only going to Imatorbhebhe" situation was questionable -- get free in the end zone was the only reason the Illini had 10 points at halftime.
Little improved in the third quarter. The Illinois defense got better, but the Illini offense couldn't move against a stout defensive line. Keeping the Sparty offense at bay was all fine and well, but it didn't mean anything if the Illini offense was inept.
The hangers-on kept watching because we only get 12 Saturdays a year to watch our team, and we already had it carved out of our afternoon schedules, and because this is what we do. And so, even though things seemed bleak for most of the first 45 minutes, we hung on.
And unlike every other time we've hung on without reason -- literally, Illinois football fans have never seen a comeback win of this magnitude -- this time we were rewarded. This time, the ending was joyous. 27 points in the fourth quarter, an incredible rally, a pick-six, a last-second touchdown -- we would have stuck around anyway, but this time it was justified.
If Saturday's game was a reflection on Illini fandom, it was also a microcosm of the season as a whole. Slow start? Check. Disappointing record at the midpoint? Yep. Furious comeback in the second half? Absolutely.
On Saturday, we were rewarded with one of the great finishes of all time.
Come December, we'll be rewarded with our first bowl game since 2014.
-I've been a skeptical believer, which is to say, perhaps not a believer at all.
A month ago I wrote this after the Michigan loss:
A win Saturday would have complicated things, though. The Lovie train seems to be barreling toward the cliff at breakneck pace, and the brakes are out. Your first win over a ranked opponent, and that opponent being Michigan, no less, could have had the potential to slow that train.
Especially if more wins would have followed. The Illini likely still beat Rutgers in a few weeks. They might hang with Purdue, even after Purdue dismantled Maryland. Northwestern seems vulnerable, if still a bit better than the Illini.
So there's a scenario where Illinois beats Michigan, wins a few more games and suddenly they're a bowl team, or at least a bowl contender. Does that save Lovie's job?
More importantly, should it? If Illinois would have beaten Michigan, would have finished the season going 4-3 in their last seven games and would have gone to the Idaho Potato Bowl, can we really say this whole thing isn't working? Because ... it would be working, wouldn't it?
It's an interesting thought experiment, but unfortunately a journey we won't be taking this year. Or at least not that path to six wins and a discussion about Lovie's job security. They lost Saturday, and they're 2-4, and the train is speeding down the track toward a rebuild.
Anybody who says they didn't at least have creeping thoughts about whether Lovie was the right man for the job is probably either lying or is Josh Whitman. It remains amazing, though, how different things can look in a month.
-A lot of things went into the miraculous comeback, but the coaching malpractice by Mark Dantonio is high on the list.
Perhaps we can excuse the bomb at the end of the first half as being a broken play -- one that was a few inches away from being a disaster for Brandon Peters -- that went right for the Illini. But the fourth-and-16 to Imatorbhebhe to keep the final drive alive was inexcusable.
With Ricky Smalling, Trevon Sidney and Dominic Stampley sidelined, the Illinois receiving corps has been Imatorbhebhe, Donny Navarro, Caleb Reams and Casey Washington. (Seriously, how has this team won four straight Big Ten games?) Anyone who's paid attention to Illinois football this year knew their best hope, by a country mile, was a prayer to Bhebhe.
And yet he somehow wasn't double-teamed on that fourth down play. It was a brilliant play call by Rod Smith -- run Peters and the entire rest of the offense to the right, knowing Peters has the arm strength to get the ball to Imatorbhebhe across the field anyway -- but Michigan State has to force Navarro or Reams or Daniel Barker to beat them on fourth-and-16. They didn't.
-The offense left a lot to be desired, but it seemed like Rod Smith and Peters got into a rhythm in the fourth quarter. This team has become a team that seems to make second-half adjustments fairly well, and getting Peters on the move was part of what helped them negate the Spartans' stout defensive line.
Halftime adjustments. What a concept.
-This has been mentioned in a couple places but the thought crossed my mind as well, even as it was happening: If James McCourt makes the extra point to tie the game with five minutes left, I'm not sure Illinois wins.
At the very least, the game takes on a different shape. In that scenario, Michigan State would have gotten the ball back with an urgency to score that was absent from their final drive Saturday.
Of course, they did get a field goal to cap that drive (in a few situations Saturday the Illini went FG safe to prevent any trickery, including on that last field goal, a decision I appreciated -- don't let the game end without your offense getting a shot) but with the way the offense moved for stretches of Saturday's game, a more aggressive offensive approach could have yielded more points or at least more yards that would have allowed the Spartans to grind more clock. As it was, a conservative third-down playcall let the Illini get off the field and gave the offense one last crack at winning the game.
-A final thought on how crazy this all is.
Somewhere during the second quarter, I mentally moved on to the next game. In fact, I'd already moved on to the season finale, fully prepared to enter the Northwestern game 5-6 and needing to avoid a very Illinois-like loss to our in-state rivals to become bowl-eligible.
If Saturday's game hadn't gotten better -- let alone if they hadn't actually won it -- the next three weeks would have been a buzzkill. Assuming they don't go into Iowa City and beat the Hawkeyes after the bye, any momentum they'd gained in the past three weeks would have been gone. All that stuff I wrote after the Michigan game would be poignant.
That's not the fate of the 2019 Illini, though. This year, and perhaps only this year -- you mean to tell me there are teams that run this good more than once a decade? -- Illinois football kept it going.
No deflating loss.
No anxious bye week.
No win-or-go-home on the last day of the season.
This year's team is different.
This year is different.