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On a perfect fall Saturday in Champaign, the ball sails between the uprights and I hug every person I've never met as my team beats #6 to end their national title aspirations while the entire college football world does a double-take and says "hey, did you see what Illinois did?".
On a cold, windy Friday night in Madison with no fans hugging anyone, the ball sails towards the turf time after time as my experienced, ready-for-anything team gets absolutely embarrassed while the whole college football world laughs and says "did you see what Illinois did?".
We just kept fighting. Even after the Imatorbhebhe touchdown was brought back for an ineligible man down field - a thing that usually kills any and all Illini hope - we kept punching. Even after we were stuffed on fourth down in the 4th quarter, more punching (literally - Hansen punched the ball out). So much fight.
We just kept folding. Any ounce of momentum on offense - the two big runs from Peters, the nice sideline shots to Hightower and Epstein - we'd just slam on the brakes and do something ridiculous like "3rd and 2 and we get 1 yard and then 0 yards". We just immediately smothered any ounce of momentum we'd acquire.
"A day like this makes all of this worth it."
"Is any of this worth it?"
Tonight felt like the exact opposite of last year. Last year, after waiting and waiting and waiting, finally, a breakthrough. It's a day I'll never forget. Finally, these players get to celebrate a real moment on their home turf. This year, with each "Brandon Peters said he was surprised at how much his backup played" quote I read on Twitter, I couldn't feel any more opposite of that. A warm feeling of "finally the perfect Saturday in Champaign"; the cold feeling of wondering how long I'll have to wait for the next one.
I think we all kinda knew that Wisconsin would get their revenge. Each Jake Ferguson catch felt like "you think you're going to jump my route this year, Tony Adams?". It's like in the 80's when Northwestern would beat us one in basketball and they'd celebrate for months and then we'd be like "come get your 17 consecutive beatdowns now". The universe corrects itself.
But I didn't know it would feel like this. I forgot what the opposite of October 19, 2019 feels like. I'm going to wake up tomorrow morning and when I remember this score I'm going to have... the exact opposite emotion of waking up on October 20, 2019. I don't even want to go to sleep just so I can prevent that awful "oh, right" feeling.
I said last year that going through all the crap makes a moment like McCourt's field goal feel so much better. If Iowa beats #6 Wisconsin 24-23 on a last second field goal, there's not a single Iowa fan who can come anywhere close to feeling what I felt that day. We all endured so much to get there.
It's just that... nobody tells you that when you flip back to "going through all of it again", you immediately (and I mean immediately) believe that there's no payoff coming. Coming face to face with "what if it's five years before I feel that way again?" is not a fun way to start the weekend.
Are we sure we wanted Big Ten football to reverse course and play a season?
+ I said it the entire summer, right? This season couldn't be more simple. There's not even anything to debate. 25 seniors, top-12 nationally in returning production, fifth year, fully overhauled roster - there's not a single reason to not win. If 2017 and "the youngest team in college football in at least 10 years" was 93% "no coach could win right now with what was left behind after Not Ideal" and 7% "things should be so much better by now", 2020 is 99.4% "things should be so much better by now". It's excuse-free college football fandom.
June of 2019, before last season, I wrote that article I called Click. I won't quote a big chunk of it, just the final few lines:
It's simply a click. We, the fanbase, should expect a click. Not "you know, you can kind of see this team improving" - a click.
I've been patient. I've explained the slow motion rebuild as I've seen it the past three seasons. I've said "youngest team in college football" a hundred thousand times. And doing that has earned me my click badge. Which I will now lay on the table and shove towards Lovie.
One click, please.
We got that click in the Wisconsin game. The Michigan State game was more of a turnover-driven comeback, but the Wisconsin game was dead even in the yards-per-play category. Stood toe to toe with Wisconsin and won. A click.
After the click, I can only describe fandom as "easy". You still evaluate things like strength of schedule and injury lists, but for the most part, it's just sit back and see what you have. The coach has his players, the schemes are fully implemented - you can either coach them to wins or you can't. You've either developed something or you haven't.
That doesn't mean a winning season in The Year With All The Seniors declares "this is an excellent coach", of course. You're only about halfway there. I've referenced Mike MacIntyre many times here. He built Colorado up to 10 wins in his fourth year - they're back! But that was the only winning season of six and he was fired two years later. "The coach rebuilt this basement-dwelling program" can't really be declared until somewhere around the seventh season. (At LSU it must be declared by midway through the third season or you're fired.)
So if the first watermark is a click, the second is a peak. Show us what you're capable of building. If this sounds familiar, I've written this post six times over the spring and summer. This is an "easy" season: everything is in place, now win.
Wisconsin 45, Illinois 7.
Illinois offense: 0 points
Time of possession: Wisconsin 43:38, Illinois 16:32.
Yes, I did write last night that Wisconsin was the best defense we will face this season. Yes, I predicted 35-14, saying that we probably weren't ready and that the real test is where we stand next to Purdue. But still, I did not expect the Wisconsin loss to look like that. Year five, 12th-most returning production in college football, coming off a bowl game, 45-7 (with the offense being shut out) should never, ever happen.
The defense? I'm honestly not all that angry. No Gay, Witherspoon, or Eifler (first half), Hansen goes out in the first quarter, new defensive line in their first game (at Wisconsin) - yeah the safeties were really bad but I'm not mad mad given the general parameters of the game. 3.4 yards per rush, 5.7 yards per play allowed - I'm not all that upset when the defense was forced to be out there for as long as they were. Tarique Barnes balled out, Keith Randolph declared to Owen Carney that his starting spot is in jeopardy, Rod Perry looked like the real deal - there's enough there. I'm not mad, I'm just disappointed.
For the offense? My goodness I don't know what to say. I could list a bunch of stats here, but maybe I'll just point to this one and then ask a question:
That's a plan? Like, maybe Peters just panicked and throw-it-to-Josh'd. But this didn't feel like a "Wisconsin shut down everything we tried to do" shutout. This felt more like "what are we even trying to do?". Rarely do I have a "what's the plan here?" feeling (the coaches can do whatever the coaches think will work), but I just couldn't figure it out tonight.
Like, when we did the Aaron Bailey package in 2013 it felt like a very specific thing. Almost too predictable. This Isaiah Williams package tonight - I don't get what the thinking was (when and where it was implemented on the field). I knew what they were trying to do with Bailey in 2013 and I begged for more of it - what were they trying to do with Williams tonight? I'm good with playing him, just... what was the plan?
I need to move on to another topic. Doctor's orders.
+ I hate when we lose so badly that complaining about the refs seems silly. Because:
- He was half a yard short.
- Mertz clearly fumbled.
- Hobbs had his jersey, not his facemask.
- Four Wisconsin players made Hightower flinch.
- Beason had hands-to-the-face but they had a hold on the same play.
Dammit refs - this absolutely should have been..... a 38-13 Wisconsin win.
+ Good things: nope, not gonna do it. I'm sure others will write about Barnes and I mentioned Randolph above so that's enough. This drained my fan battery down to 2% and I'm not going to use it just to praise the few bright spots. Need to go find a plug-in because if this thing goes to 0% I'm not sure it will take a charge again.
+ I can't believe I didn't write anything about "first road game" last night. I remember compiling a list before the 2018 Rutgers game saying "I'm scared to death because the last time we played well in our first road game was 2011". It's a longstanding tradition for Illini football. Even the 1983 Rose Bowl team lost their first game on the road (to a 7-5 Missouri team).
I'll just close this post with a list of first road games between 2012 and 2017. Seems like the right way to end it. Really drives "we're Illinois football and we can't be trusted" home.
2012: 45-14 loss at Arizona State
2013: 39-19 loss at Nebraska
2014: 44-19 loss at Washington
2015: 48-14 loss at North Carolina
2016: 31-16 loss at Nebraska
2017: 47-23 loss at South Florida
Then we won two. At Rutgers (that's the game where they played that skinny QB and he should have been picked off at least 9 times) and at UConn (they were driving late down eight but a Dele Harding INT sealed the win). And now, 45-7 at Wisconsin.
Somebody find a way to make the opposite happen.