Death And Transfiguration
I have a playlist I listen to in the pressbox. We've been over this. To keep myself from cheering (because you can't cheer), I calm my nerves with classical music. I've developed a playlist over the years - music that keeps me calm. This past week, I added another piece to the playlist: Death And Transfiguration by Richard Strauss.
When I put the playlist on shuffle today, that's what came up first. It's a 21 minute tone poem (you can get recordings that are 24 minutes, but I like my D&T with a little pep in its step), so it's a nice, calming starter for the beginning of a game. The pick six happened while it was still playing, and it helped keep me calm, so I started it over when the 21 minutes finished. And then I started it over again. And then I stopped with the shuffled playlist and just listened to the same 21-minute piece over and over until the end of the game. I'm telling you - it works. Try a little Strauss to keep you calm during a game like that.
Because man, I needed it. This game played out just as I expected it to go... and the experience was so much worse than I could have imagined. When your team commits penalty after penalty and then gives up turnover after turnover, there's just no way to enjoy that. When it was 13-0 UConn, I was clinging to Strauss.
Death And Transfiguration was something he wrote at the age of 24, imagining what death might be like (go Illini). Let me go find a quick snippet describing the piece. Here's something from the NYT:
The conductor, Lawrence Loh, began the concert by excerpting a repeated theme in the Strauss piece that he said represented a dying man's "irregular heartbeat." He went on to describe the piece itself, how it is broken into four parts that roughly correspond to a series of steps toward death: A man understands he is dying, he physically experiences the battle between life and death, he sees his life pass before him and, finally, at the moment of death, achieves transfiguration.
Physically experiences the battle between life and death? Sees his life pass before him? GO. ILLINI.
That's not really my point here. I'm not going for "see, it looked like we were DEAD and then we were TRANSFIGURED into a winning team". I'm simply relating my experience today. I really needed this piece of music to help me survive the day. It's part darkness, part hope, intentionally repetitive with the same theme returning and then returning again, eventually leaving the listener at complete peace. And when you listen to it ten times in a row, I swear it plays out like some sort of meditation exercise. The violin solo three minutes in can solve all of the world's problems.
Which was the only way to survive this game, right? Is there any more of a "staring over the edge of the cliff" experience than trailing UConn 13-0 early in the second quarter? Four years of rebuilding, you're playing one of the worst teams in college football, you're favored by 22, and you're down 13-0? I can think of no greater precipice. I thought it would be an uncomfortable win, but a loss, especially if it stretched out to something like 34-6, would have been absolutely devastating.
Thankfully, that didn't happen. We pulled out a win. It still means mostly bad things, which we'll talk about in a minute, but at least it wasn't a loss. A loss would have been... man, don't make me think about it.
So thanks to Richard Strauss for getting me through this afternoon. I honestly needed to get to that triumphant ending eight or nine times just to survive. I'm going to go listen to the final five minutes right now just to prepare myself for this deep dive. You can join me if you want. This is the recording I listened to all day.
+ Let's begin with my five concerns from last night. It will help us see how this was much worse than I feared.
1. Illinois was 128th in yards allowed last season but returns 9 starters and should be much improved. UConn was 130th in yards allowed last season but returns 10 starters and should be much improved. If we're going to say "yeah, we were bad last year on defense, but we were young and now we should be better" about Illinois, you have to say the same thing about UConn.
I do think UConn's defense was much better than what they showed last year. But still, we should have run run run until we couldn't run no more and we just didn't. 3.7 yards per carry. YIKES. More on this later.
2. We're going to turn the ball over a decent amount this season. We just are. I don't think any of the quarterbacks I saw at camp were the "can limit interceptions to single digits this season" type. The first game where I expect a lot of turnovers? The first game on the road. If I was a Texas fan I would expect it to go this way.
Three turnovers on the day, one of the pick six variety, one handing the ball back when we just got at takeaway of our own deep in UConn territory, one a non-blindside (sightside?) sack where the DE just took the ball away from Brandon Peters. And we were inches from a fourth when Kenyon Sims fumbled as he was being tackled but was able to get back up and dive on it. This is not a team that can dominate opponents when turning the ball over that much.
3. Mike Epstein is out for the season and Reggie Corbin left the last game with a hip pointer. I know that Corbin is basically "probable", but I've experienced one too many "Lovie was just smoke-screening - he's not dressed today" situations the last three years to at least not be a little concerned that Corbin might not play.
Corbin didn't play.
4. I think UConn would beat Akron by 17. I know that UConn had the worst defense in football last year while Akron beat Big Ten West champion Northwestern, but this year, I think third-year-of-the-rebuild UConn beats first-year-of-the-rebuild Akron fairly easily. I'm guesing we look back in December and UConn is 4-8 while Akron is 1-11.
I still think this. Akron lost to UAB today and I still think they're headed for 1-11. UConn isn't last year's UConn and I could see them winning three conference games.
But they're still not a "good" team by any means. Which means this entire game should have looked like the second quarter. Like, did you see what Maryland did to a ranked Syracuse team today? If we're a year-four roster announcing that we're here to contend, then we should be doing something like that. Not only was this not that, this wasn't anywhere close to that.
And - AND - they started a true freshman QB because their starter was injured. I wrote all of these concerns before learning that their QB was out. Yet we couldn't put the game away.
5. We're Illinois football and we can't be trusted.
This might be the first time I've ever used the term after a win, but it's true, right? We haven't proven we can be trusted yet. That's what we were hoping to see after an encouraging Akron win, but we didn't see that today. When we go on the road and take care of business in a game like this, maybe we can begin to trust. Maybe.
+ The biggest concern today (for me): the lack of a run game. And I feel like my big concern from the preview reared its ugly head: when the defense is convinced the QB isn't going to run, last year's dominant rushing attack can be shut down.
Brandon Peters had six "carries". Two of those were sacks, I believe three were "pocket collapses and he takes off", and only one was a read-option where he kept the ball (and I want to say that only went for one yard?). Yes, Reggie Corbin was out and yes, Mike Epstein is out for the year, so we were starting our third-string tailback. But still, when Corbin returns, if a defense plays us like this (and the defenses who play us like this will be perhaps six times more talented than UConn), we're in trouble unless Peters can keep it and rack up some yardage on the ground.
But hey, maybe we'll make up for that with the Peters, Smalling, Bhebhe, and Sidney show? Grasping, I know, but maybe that's a thing?
+ Actually, we should talk about that. Let's give credit where it's due: the second quarter was the best Illini passing offense since the 2013 season. When Peters is in a rhythm like that, wow.
Unfortunately, football games are four quarters, not one quarter, so the other three quarters were, uh, not "wow". But it's still a thing to build on. Peters to Smalling, Barker, and the USC guys = a thing. The stats:
Peters: 22 of 33, 225 yards, 4 TD, 1 INT
Smalling: 5 catches for 54 yards
Sidney: 5 catches for 25 yards
Imatorbhebhe: 4 catches for 42 yards, 2 TD
Barker: 2 catches for 44 yards and a TD
Again, UConn defense. If the offense plays like this against Wisconsin or Iowa, we're not getting to double digits. But for today, it was a Thing.
+ Let's talk about the biggest positive today: Illinois made the plays it needed to make to win. Want to see how easy it is to get to a loss? I can do it in three plays:
- UConn has 3rd and 3 from the Illinois 8. The play is stretched to the Illinois sideline and Tony Adams makes the tackle for loss. Adams was the last line of defense - if he misses that tackle, the UConn RB waltzes in (or at the very least, gets the first down). UConn settles for a field goal instead of a touchdown. 4 points gained.
- James McCourt nails a 53 yard field goal just before the half. Put it in the net from 53 yards, I should add. 3 huge points.
- 3rd and goal from the UConn 9, the blitz comes, Brandon Peters rolls out to avoid the sack, steps out of a diving foot tackle, and hits Josh Imatorbhebhe in the endzone. 7 points instead of 3.
So that's 4 + 3 + 4. 11 points. I know it doesn't work like this (though it kind of does?), but that flipped a 23-20 loss to a 31-23 win. Three plays where we maxed out our opportunity in that moment.
+ Unfortunately, there were so many plays where we didn't. If I dug hard enough, I could probably find flipside plays to those. A third down roughing penalty keeping a drive alive which allows UConn to drive down and get a field goal. Getting the ball deep in UConn territory and then handing it right back. Dre Brown returns a kickoff all the way to the UConn 31, the very next play Dominic Stampley apparently doesn't know he's getting a handoff and it's UConn ball. That awful fourth down play. So really, this should be going the other way.
Do those against nearly every Big Ten opponent and the game is over. There is so much that needs to be cleaned up. And we shouldn't be talking about that in game two of year four.
+ I need to end on a positive. This is my first road pressbox win since... the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl? Every time I go on the road, we lose. Which leaves me crabby the next few days as my wife and I turn football travel into a vacation. Tonight, while I'm not in the best of moods, I'm at least not 2014 Washington/2015 North Carolina. We came away with a win, the #DriveFor6 is a third of the way there, and I can head to Maine tomorrow morning feeling positive.
What's the positive I'm hanging on to? Wole Betiku. That's now 5.5 sacks in two games. Plus four QB hurries. Plus at least two more sacks if holding weren't legal in Connecticut.
5.5 sacks will probably lead the nation once the stats come out tomorrow. The USC transfer has stepped into Bobby Roundtree's shoes and done an incredible job. Long way to go, but at this point, he's on All American radar.
Which means we now only have 46 issues to fix.