Michigan State 2009 has always stuck with me. Statistically, that was going to be the year. Juice-to-Rejus. Upperclassmen everywhere. After that loss to Michigan State in the fifth game - I can point to the exact spot where I was on I-57 when it hit me - I got to a really dark "you can stop hoping now" moment.
This feels like that.
I should explain "that". 2009 was going to be the year. Juice as a senior, one more year of Rejus before he heads off to the NFL, a bunch of upperclassmen are ready to lead the team to big moment after big moment. We were favored in the Missouri game. If you wanted to bet the over in Vegas, you'd have to bet on that team winning eight games. 7-to-9.com promoting two Heisman candidates in Champaign. You remember.
The Missouri game was a gutpunch (37-9 loss), but I held on to "it could still turn around" for so long. We beat Illinois State and then lost two games to the top two teams in the Big Ten (Ohio State and Penn State) - both were ranked in the top-15. After that, the schedule lightened up. Sure, it's not going to be some great season when you start 1-3, but 7-5 was still on the table. Heck, 8-4 was on the table. 2-3 Michigan State was coming to town, followed by Indiana, Purdue, a bad Michigan team, a bad Minnesota team - a turnaround was still out there. So you lost to Missouri, Ohio State, and Penn State. Those are the three hardest opponents - now it's time to make a move. As I recall, Michigan State had just lost at home to Central Michigan. We can absolutely turn this around.
Michigan State 24, Illinois 14
At this one very specific spot on I-57, it hit me. All of that hope was for nothing. "It could still turn around!" was absolutely pointless. I put my hope in a thing, and the thing let me down.
This feels very much like that. Yes, I always say that I need to see a full 12 games before making any "call" - you could lose to Eastern Michigan but beat Michigan and get right back on "track" - but I think my hope is gone. I'll still be here on 10/12/19, and I still believe in my math (in a post-Not Ideal world, mid-Year Four should be the moment), but I don't think I'm hopeful anymore. And I'm always hopeful.
No, seriously, ask my mom. Ask my wife. Ask my sons. They'll tell you how ridiculously hopeful I am. I'm not talking about sports - I'm talking about everything. That test score, son? A temporary setback. I just know you're going to have a breakthrough soon. That elderly relative in the hospital? I just feel like they're going to pull through. The snowstorm? I feel like it doesn't arrive until just after 9:00 so your 8:40 flight will probably still take off. There's still a chance. There's always a chance.
So when I lose hope? When I break? It's quite the crash. It's a rough scene right now. My heart just breaks for these kids. They so want to be the Illinois team that finally breaks through, and their coaches are letting them down. To put in this much effort only to be out-gameplanned by Eastern Michigan? So unfair.
Because a game like this isn't on the talent - Illinois is clearly more talented. It's not on the experience - two years ago, yes, you could have said that, but not in Year Four. It's not injuries, it's not the Turnover Fairy, it's not the wind. It's nothing other than a disciplined football team with less talent beat an undisciplined team with more talent. I cannot think of a game in this stadium in the last ten years where this was more true.
And that's a hope-breaker, no? It's a hope crusher. A hope devastator. All this hope that transfers + experience result in the CLICK I've been talking about for 3+ years, and then it doesn't happen.
And not only does it not happen, we're given some false hope. Here I am, thinking the darkest thoughts, down 31-17 to Eastern Michigan, and we drive right down the field and score. 31-24, we somehow stop them just out of field goal range, get the ball back, all our hope fades with three incompletions. Fourth and 10 from the SEVEN and we have to go for it.
First down! Hope! We drive right down the field and score. MORE HOPE.
How are we supposed to hang on after that? Someone tweeted me that Eastern Michigan has more Big Ten wins the last three years than Lovie - what am I supposed to do with that? Why doesn't this program love us back?
Look at that crowd up there. I took that photo right after we scored to make it 31-24. All of those people, like me, are still driving to the games (and are still in the stadium to see us cut it to seven late against a MAC school). They're still showing up. Still hoping. And then they have to sit there and watch Eastern Michigan out-scheme and out-discipline our coaching staff. These two teams were 16 yards apart in total yards, which means one simple thing: the disciplined, well-coached team will win. The disciplined, well-coached team won.
I cannot think of a better time to miss my first game since 2014. As I've shared on Twitter, I won't be able to attend the Nebraska game. I actually wasn't supposed to be at this game either (my trip to New England was going to go through Sunday) but our Sunday plans changed and my wife and I switched to the Saturday flight instead of the Sunday flight. And the Saturday flight landed at 8:00 am, allowing me to drive to Champaign and make the game.
So yes, I woke up in Hartford this morning, got on a plane, flew to St. Louis, drove to Champaign, got to my seat at 11:09... and this was my reward. Nine penalties to two. One turnover for EMU, two for Illinois (and, thankfully, Vederian Lowe fell on the Peters fumble to prevent a third). A well-executed game plan by Eastern Michigan where they avoided our redzone defense by throwing for three touchdowns from outside the redzone. They were disciplined, tough, resilient - all the things I was hoping to see from Illinois today after a rough game in Connecticut. Hoping to see.
You know, it would be so very Illinois to win next week. With a win today, as I wrote last night, we'd be looking at 3-6 in the Big Ten to get to a bowl. That looked possible, right? Lots of struggles in the Big Ten of late, and with a Year Four team, 3-6 should be there, as should 4-5.
But now, 4-5 is necessary to bowl. And 5-4 is necessary to reach my preseason prediction of 7-5 (LOL). And we haven't won five Big Ten games since... oh God, 2007. We've only won four one time since then (2010). Every other season: 3, 2, 1, or 0 Big Ten wins.
Still, it just feels like we'll win the Nebraska game simply because I won't be there. It would be our biggest home win since I don't know when, and it's at night, and I can't be there. I missed the 2007 Penn State game and the 2001 Wisconsin game so it would make total sense for a turnaround moment to happen when I'm not there.
Wait - you're right. "Turnaround moment"? I'm doing it again, aren't I.
Putting my hope in something that's not going to happen.