On The Cusp
I don't think it scares me to talk about this. I'd normally hesitate, not wanting to say things out loud that might not happen. But I think I'm OK in this instance. I've said all along that this is a very clean and neat season - the defense needed fixing, and the head coach turned to the head coach to fix the defense. If it's not fixed, there are no fall guys. It's on the head coach.
This also needed to be a surge season. It happens, like, all the time in college football. Play the kids, take your lumps, a few years later, you're either good or the coach is fired. Are we good? We're about to find out.
To declare ourselves "good", we need to do one thing: win one of three football games. That's it. Win one of three and the door is open. What door?
Well, win that game and we'd go to a bowl. Go to a bowl and you really have something to sell in recruiting. Offseason momentum would be off the charts.
You also return nine starters on offense and seven starters on defense. You'd have 30 seniors. You get injured players back (Marquez Beason), you get transfers becoming eligible (Luke Ford), you get freshmen from this current class starting to contribute (Shammond Cooper) and you get some impact freshmen (Jadon Thompson).
You start the season with the following schedule (I've included the current record of those teams).
Illinois State (6-3 in the FCS)
Bowling Green (3-6)
at Rutgers (2-7)
at Nebraska (4-5)
Start 4-0 and if Nebraska is still in this tailspin... probably favored in the first six games next year? That makes me start looking for GameDay opportunities in Champaign. If Minnesota is good next year, maybe Minnesota in Champaign if we start 6-0?
What's that? I'm getting ahead of myself? See, I'm not. That's my whole point. If we lose the next three, the bowl doesn't happen, and momentum is lost, then there's our answer (and Whitman has a big decision to make). If we capitalize on this momentum and go bowling, it's all there in front of us. What Minnesota is doing right now (late season surge last year builds into very real momentum this year) could be happening to us. It's right there for the taking.
Now, that doesn't mean it's built. I should talk about the other side right now. As I said in the preview when I laid out how 89 of the 96 coaches hired across Power Five college football from 2006 through 2015 got to a bowl game in their first four years, this is simply the minimum expectation. You play the kids, you get them experience, you eventually start winning, you build on that. We've done it before and then crashed right back down. There are several tasks beyond "get to a bowl and then build on that momentum".
But for now, it's all right there in front of us. That photo of Grange Grove above? Just imagine the Grange Grove if there was a crowd of 61,000 at the game, not just 35,000. It's all possible if we can build on this. It's right in front of us.
And it doesn't scare me to talk about it.
+ OK, so we should probably talk about this game. I was not doing well at halftime. I went to get a drink (not that kind of drink) and ran into Martin O'Donnell. His face matched my own. We parted ways with me saying "because we're Illinois football" and him finishing with "and we can't be trusted". Both of us feared sitting here tonight talking about SAME OLD ILLINOIS blowing a real opportunity.
But then it was total and complete domination. I mean, look at some of these statistics:
- First half Yards Per Play: Rutgers 6.2, Illinois 4.3. Second half YPP: Rutgers 2.9, Illinois 8.3
- First half total yards: Rutgers 179, Illinois 141. Second half total yards: Rutgers 92, Illinois 183
- Second half turnovers: Rutgers 3, Illinois 0
- Rutgers second half drives: punt, punt, fumble, fumble, interception, punt, turnover on downs.
- Oh, and score: First half Rutgers 10, Illinois 10. Second half, Illinois 28, Rutgers 0. And the second string went in with 13:00 remaining in the game.
That's a little more than "Rutgers is really bad we should beat them by 20". That was taking another team to the woodshed.
+ Of course, the first half happened too, so we should probably talk about it. I spent a fair bit of time at halftime tweeting like the world was ending. That feeling - that "is Illinois happening?" feeling - is just the worst.
Basically, that's how flat I thought we'd be in the first half at Purdue. This is a game that needs to be played with emotion, and it's more or less impossible for coaches to maintain that with their teams for 48 quarters of football (which is why a Clemson, even in a year they win the title, will have an "are we even trying out there?" game like Syracuse last year).
The first half was certainly "are we even trying out there?". I noted in the middle of the second quarter (during a TV timeout) how the Rutgers offensive huddle on the sideline was 12-15 players bouncing up and down because they couldn't wait to get back on the field. Look to the other side and it's 12-15 Illini defenders hanging their heads. The emotion just wasn't there the whole first half.
But then, starting with the first play of the third quarter (Tymir Oliver basically unblocked into the Rutgers backfield), that flipped. The sideline emotion flipped. Once Rutgers fumbled that ball directly into Nate Hobbs' arms, Rutgers more or less stopped trying. They had some hope, made a surge, and then we took it back.
+ Milo Eifler played his best game as an Illini today. 10 tackles (2.5 TFL) and a sack. Was all over the field making plays.
When Eifler is playing well it allows Lovie to stay in the base defense and keep it simple. That was the biggest change Lovie made when taking over the defense this year. Out with the nickel (it's only used maybe 15% of the time now), in with the base defense and an athletic Sam linebacker who can play the run and also chase tight ends.
And I should note - the defensive rotations were just as thin as I noted on Tuesday. The back seven was simply a back eight. The seven starters + Devon Witherspoon. The defensive line rotates heavily (they all do), the back seven stays nearly the same every play.
+ Dele Harding is a first team All Big Ten linebacker right? Dele Harding needs to be a first-team All Big Ten linebacker this year. Just an incredible senior season.
Here was my "this is not a prediction" prediction from my "Click" article this summer:
When looking through the comments on football posts, there seems to be a heavy focus on what players need to step up - Ricky Smalling needs to be the alpha dog #1 receiver, one of the new linebackers like Eifler or Cooper needs to come in and take over - but that's not really how I'm viewing this. I'm willing to discuss the details - I'm going to write 25,000+ words on the details - but really, with a rebuild like this (dump the upperclassmen, play the freshmen), you're looking for a bunch of players to start contributing out of nowhere.
Some names? OK. These are not predictions, but it would look something like...
Dele Harding is suddenly our top linebacker and the anchor in the middle of the defense. A Whitney Mercilus situation where no one even knows his name the first three seasons and then in the fourth year, out of nowhere, he's The Guy. Three years of development on the field pays off.
Not a prediction. But kind of a prediction? I love walking that thin like so I can claim it as a prediction if it comes true.
+ I think it's worth noting the Illini Big Ten wins this decade:
That meets the eye test, right? Third best team this decade? Maybe a little better than 2014 so second best Illini team this decade? Low bar, but that seems right. And then next year could be... best Illini team since 2007?
No, it doesn't scare me to say that.