Pick Me Up
I'm absolutely spent. Fried. I always think I can handle everything and then I can't handle everything and I crash. Hard. With about 10 minutes to go, I crashed. Just started to melt down. And then this fanbase and these players picked me up.
Look, it's not about me. But I write about my experience, and this is my experience. With my son and his fiancee coming to our house for Christmas, I consolidated this bowl trip into 30 hours. Flew here this morning, flying back tomorrow morning. We hosted events at our house on the 23rd, the 24th, the 25th, the 28th, and attended parties elsewhere on the 26th and 29th. Also, my birthday (went out to eat) was on the 27th. 46 year-old humans can maintain this pace, right? Crap - now I'm 47.
Last night, I was able to fall asleep by 10:30ish. But that's because I had to be up at 4:00 for the flight. Flew to Denver (with my son and daughter-in-law-to-be!), had breakfast with them in the Denver airport, got on our separate flights, and I headed to Santa Clara. Got here, Carmen picked me up, we tailgated with Craig and three random Cal fans, and then Craig and I headed for the pressbox.
(Because Craig is writing about the game, I feel the freedom to vomit my feelings all over the keyboard here. Strap in.)
I should have mentioned - I have two other things on my plate right now. I'm helping a friend with a project and my stuff was due today (I didn't get it done and will now have to send ~that~ email). I also have a professional training thing I need to take care of which I'm going to attempt on the airplane tomorrow. Probably won't get that done either. And did I mention we have friends in town for the first time in a few years and we're doing a New Years Eve thing with them tomorrow night? That's after I fly back across the country while trying to complete my online training. OH, and our subscription service is shutting down their small blog service tomorrow and I need to write a big post about how that's going to work in the future (hint: the whole month of January will be free). It's also New Years, so I need to write about the Ten Names You'll Learn. Maybe during my layover tomorrow?
The point: I've stretched myself way too thin. My nerves are frayed. If someone came up behind me right now and said "boo!", I'd probably scream and run. I'm a hot mess. Go Illini.
So it's in that mental state where I began to melt down early in the fourth quarter. My Twitter mentions fill with oppos at times like this ("oppos" is my term for those fans who short the Illini - they get happy when we're losing and want me to hear about it. You can only mute so many.). I really, really wanted this game - nearly the exact opposite of my "who cares let's just have fun" trip out here in 2011 - and I began to accept that we were going to lose. Eighth losing season in a row. After the MSU win I said the only thing that could really bring me down would be losing out to finish 6-7. We lost out.
At times like that, I just can't be around anyone. I still have my headphones in, so I've tuned most everyone out, but I just can't do it. I need solitude. This is a massive pressbox, and only about 1/3rd of it was being used, so I went as far to the end as I could. That photo at the top (taken after the game after the crowd filed out) shows where I went. The closest laptop you can see down there is the closest anyone was to me. I just needed some alone time because I was so, so depressed. 6-7? This really ends with 6-7 and letting two awful offenses (Cal and Northwestern) beat us up?
As soon as I got down here, things changed on the field. We went right down the field for a touchdown with Brandon Peters throwing to wide receivers 9 through 13 on our roster (yes, Navarro and Washington would be in the rotation, but this would be mostly Bhebhe, Smalling, Sidney, and Reams). Guys like Carlos Sandy and Trenard Davis are out there catching passes and moving us down the field. Jake Cerny is playing well in his first-ever start on the offensive line, second stringers are making plays on defense, and we start to climb back in it. We cut the lead to 35-20, force a punt, and are driving in Cal territory again trying to cut it to 8 or 7.
And the crowd - these crazy insane people who decided that a trip to Santa Clara for a Monday afternoon game was in the holiday plans - the crowd was standing up and cheering for the defense to come up with a third-down stop. It was quite the moment for me. Here I am, pouting in the corner, and there they are, completely believing we were going to score, get the ball back, and score again to tie it.
We didn't, of course. A double-tipped interception (hi Michigan State) fell to a Cal player and our drive was stopped. We forced another punt (there goes that crowd again), and then found ourselves in 4th and Bhebhe (4th and 17) with no Bhebhe. The next play brought me all the way back.
Brandon Peters scrambles, gets hit, dives for the marker (I mean, "I know this is going to hurt but I want a first down" dives) and comes up just short. They review, and given how every single review during the game had gone, we knew what would happen, and yes, just short.
But that's not even the point. ALL I ASK is for a team that gives their all. I've said that 75 times here. And today, from Nick Walker filling in on defense and Isaiah Williams playing wide receiver and Carlos Sandy grabbing four catches and Brandon Peters diving like I've never seen him dive, these players FOUGHT.
And that brought me back. Yes, 6-7 sucks, but I won't walk out of here depressed. I'd like to see some coaching staff changes, and I remain concerned that we won't be able to put it all together next year for the most important season of the last eight, that this turnover-fed 6-7 season was the best it will be, but as a fan, I walk out of here pleased. Maybe it's the lack of sleep, but I was so inspired by those final eight minutes. 20 injured players and they're next-man-upping like I've never seen from an Illini team. We even had walkon linebacker Alec McEachern filling in for Eifler (Milo's backup, DeGroot, was injured too) and there we were, fighting.
In the end, Cal made the plays, Garbers was really good, and Cal walked out with a win. We couldn't get the third-down stops when we needed to (STILL). But I'm not regretting going to get drinks with Illini friends right now. I'm no longer moping. This team showed me they'll never quit, so I certainly can't.
Thanks, seniors, for a bowl game. Juniors, you're up. This whole thing has been building to 2020, and it is now upon us. Next season defines the next decade. Let's get back to a bowl - a better one - and let's win it.
I promise to not pout at this one.