As we are wont to do, late last week I began to have a creeping worry about the Northwestern game.
Not to be too "woe is me" -- I'd imagine every fan base worries about losing games it shouldn't lose, especially to its rival -- but Saturday just began to feel like the kind of game we could lose. Northwestern has been awful this year, but it was still the bones of a team that was very good in recent memory. Their quarterback play had been suspect, but they'd maybe found something in Andrew Marty in the Minnesota loss. And of course, anything can happen in a rivalry game.
I tried to quiet those concerns by reminding myself that Northwestern was really bad, and Illinois wasn't, and it was being played at Memorial Stadium. If they couldn't get up for this game, with a shot at a seven- or eight-win season and the chance to bring Lincoln's hat back to Champaign, what would they get up for? And that was before I knew that Bobby Roundtree would be in attendance.
Even on Saturday morning when I heard Brandon Peters was out and Matt Robinson would be starting, I remembered that Robinson has had good moments this year and that he could certainly beat a 2-9 team. I mean, the Start Matt Robinson bus I was driving after the Michigan game is still warm.
In all my fears about how Saturday would go, though, I never envisioned that. I never saw Northwestern running roughshod over an experienced, relatively healthy front seven. I certainly never saw the veteran offensive line and two senior running backs carving out a total of 14 yards on 26 carries.
Games can exist is a vacuum and we can't get too down on the Northwestern beatdown while also celebrating the Wisconsin win and our first bowl berth since 2014, but man. What a bad way to end a fun regular season.
-I know Robert said we can't blame injuries, but it does need to be noted that Illinois operated basically without an entire starting passing offense Saturday. That doesn't explain Northwestern having its way on the ground with some guy named Andrew Marty, but there's no telling how different the game might have gone if the Wildcats didn't have the luxury of grinding clock.
A buddy also noted this as the game was going on -- Robinson, billed as a guy with a decent set of wheels, ran less frequently and with less effectiveness than Peters. I've said it before in this space, but the offense has looked its most functional and potent when Peters keeps the ball on the read-option a handful of times per game. The absence of that on Saturday didn't help the running woes or any of the issues they had in the passing game.
Back to the passing front, with Josh Imatorbhebhe a surprise no-go and both Ricky Smalling and Trevon Sidney already ruled out, the Illini were operating without their top three receivers at the season's outset. Perhaps the Illini could have been competitive with Robinson throwing passes to Imatorbhebhe, Donny Navarro, Casey Washington and Caleb Reams, but the backup quarterback throwing passes to the backup receiving corps makes the mission a lot harder. It just does.
-I haven't had the heart to go back and watch the game again, but it does seem hard to believe they allowed Northwestern to run for 378 yards when the lack of a passing threat existed. Northwestern knew it would be hard for the Illini to move the ball through the air so they loaded the box and challenged Robinson and Navarro and Washington and Reams and Daniel Barker to beat them.
Illinois either didn't do the same, or they did and it wasn't effective. Either way, it's a failure.
-Nothing embodied the game and the frustration of rooting for a Lovie Smith-led football team more than the sequence at the end of the first drive of the second half:
1st-and-10 at NW 29: Matt Robinson run for a loss of 2 yards
2nd-and-12 at NW 31: incomplete pass
3rd-and-12 at NW 31: RUN for no gain
4th-and-12 at NW 31: missed 49-yard field goal
Waving the white flag on third down and just calling a run play in hopes of getting in better position for a field goal, that run going nowhere and the kicker missing the field goal anyway. Perfect.
-It's worth noting that the coaching staff didn't go away from Robinson until late in the fourth quarter when the game was out of reach, indicating that their faith in Isaiah Williams is less than that in a terrible-looking Matt Robinson. I don't know what that says, or whether it's the correct belief on their part, but that's what it says.
-Six players caught passes in Saturday's game. Total. In a game between two Big Ten teams on a day when weather wasn't really a factor. OK.
-The box score once again emphasizes how much heavy lifting the returning players will have to do to keep Illinois moving forward in 2020. Three of the four leading tacklers for the Illini are seniors (Dele Harding, Stanley Green and Kenyon Jackson). The loss of Harding will be the most impactful, but Green has really come on this year after an up and down career. Those are big shoes for ... Delano Ware? Quan Martin? Tony Adams? Kerby Joseph? -- to fill.
-I'm now fascinated by where a 6-6 Illini team will wind up during bowl season. Yankee Stadium seems to be a popular projection destination for the Pinstripe Bowl. After Saturday's loss, Detroit and the Quick Lane Bowl feels deserved. CBS Sports is surely a popular site with people planning to travel to the game, predicting they'll end up in Santa Clara, California for the Redbox Bowl.
I'm mostly just excited to see how the Illini fare against new competition. Some Pac-12 team we never get to see? Cool. An ACC team that's not North Carolina? Alright. Maybe it's something really cool that I don't even know about.
Saturday was bad. The next month will be less bad. Enjoy it, Illini fans. I will.