The First Day Of School
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I walked out to the car this morning not realizing how cold it got overnight. So I walked right back inside and went to grab a jacket. I had to dig deep in the hall closet because I needed to find my black jacket which I hadn't worn in a while. Finally found it and headed to the stadium. Six minute drive. Nice.
When I got out of the car, I put the car keys in my jacket pocket and I felt a receipt in there. Pulled it out and looked at it: a Schnucks Floral receipt from when I bought my wife flowers on Valentine's Day. I smiled (I think I even said "huh" out loud) because I knew what it meant. Valentines Day was the day I quit my old job. Today was the day I started my new one.
The drive to the stadium was very first-day-of-school. I've done this for years - I've been in the pressbox since 2013 - but this is the first thing I've "officially" done since moving to Champaign. Honestly, every single task I've performed the last eight months could have been done in St. Louis. All press conferences are on Zoom, all practices are closed. Today, though - today was twelve total minutes of driving instead of the usual five hours and fourteen minutes. I cannot tell you the difference that makes. And will make when there's a November week in the future with back to back Saturday home games plus a basketball game on Monday and Thursday.
But the walk was still cold so I needed a jacket. And I never wear Illini gear in the pressbox or on press row - not even a jacket. I do not cheer and I do not wear orange. The words coming out of my keyboard still say "we should have gone for it on fourth down", by my clothing says "Illinois might regret not going for it on fourth down".
The reason I laughed and said "huh" when I saw the receipt? I remember that day. After 23 years and two months at the same desk (yes, the same exact desk, just in different office spaces), that part of my life was over. I'm not embarrassed to admit that when everyone left the office that evening, I laid my head on my arms on the desk and sobbed. Part the people I would miss, part the feeling that I had failed, part the fear of the leap I was making. My emotional dishwasher was full and it was time to send it through the rinse cycle.
I left the office, headed to the store, got some flowers for my wife, and (apparently) shoved the receipt in my pocket. I took my jacket off when I got home (probably put it in the old hall closet) and haven't worn it since. Why? Because when it's been chilly since - in February or even this October - I've worn one of my three Illini jackets. I haven't had a need for a non-Illini jacket since that day.
But I did today so I wore it. And seeing a receipt dated February 14th was really special for me. The journey from Valentine's Day to Halloween was a very long one. But I was happy to be back in the pressbox covering the game.
When I sat in my seat, I'm not going to lie, I was a bit emotional. Not lay-down-my-head emotional, but "so now it begins". I was trying to keep track of who was on the field (and who wasn't), but it was hard because I wanted to acknowledge the moment. After all this time, I was really going to begin.
That faded quickly, of course. And by the time Purdue started their first drive 21 yards, 19 yards, 10 yards, 29 yards, I was fully in fan mode. How is it possible for offense to be this easy in Memorial Stadium with a walkon quarterback?
That was as demoralizing a drive as I can recall. I've framed this game as two rebuilding programs, both having gone 10-15 the last two seasons, and this will be a great head-to-head test. And that's how the first drive goes with their head coach's offense against our head coach's defense.
By the time it was all over and we lost (I'll get to the game in a minute), I had mostly left my first-day-of-school moment from the beginning of the day. I was so bright-eyed and hopeful driving under the tracks on Kirby Avenue and seeing the stadium in the sunshine in the distance, ready to check out my new desk. And several hours later I was beaten down again (by the same friend who has beaten me down for 30+ years now).
Driving to the game? Nothing can take away this feeling. Driving home from the game? Nothing will take away this feeling.
First day of school? Pop quiz first hour and we failed.
+ Let's start with Covid. And we'll begin here. I screencapped the list of players who were out to refer to during the game:
Then I counted the players I saw in sweats on the sideline (meaning they were out because of injury, not out because they were quarantined during contact tracing). Here's what my notes say:
Confirmed by the school that they were out because they tested positive: Freshman tight end Griffin Moore, senior QB Brandon Peters.
On this list but were in sweats on the sideline meaning they're injured: Brevyn Jones, Kerby Joseph, Michael Marchese, Moses Okpala
Was out with an injury last week so I'm assuming it's the same this week: Trevon Sidney
Must be in contact tracing because I didn't see them (some of these players might have been down there - it's hard to see every number): Christian Bobak, Shammond Cooper, Doug Kramer, James McCourt, Keith Randolph, Jordyn Slaughter, Isaiah Williams.
Peters and Moore have to sit out three weeks. If you test positive, you're out for 21 days (both for Covid recovery and myocarditis screening).
The official press release said that the contact tracing players will be out next week as well. But those players, as long as they don't test positive, can return for the Rutgers game.
This week and next week are obviously the craziest weeks. Starting QB is out, backup QB is in contact tracing, 3rd-string QB got hurt on the first drive today (ankle, it looked like). So for Minnesota I'm guessing it's just Taylor and Spann. Then, for Rutgers, Taylor, Spann, and Williams. Maybe Robinson gets healthy in there somewhere (although whenever an ankle isn't taped on the sideline and the player just keeps his shoe off, I always think 3-4 weeks), but with Peters not back until Nebraska, it's gonna get interesting these next few weeks.
+ Coran Taylor deserves his own plus sign. He was both the reason we lost and the reason we were in the game in the first place. That's a bad way to put it. He's... the reason we lost a close game instead of getting blown out.
The four turnovers were the game, really. Yards were basically even (Illinois 472, Purdue 456). First downs were dead even (27 apiece). Time of possession was 30:38 to 29:22. So the difference was simple: four turnovers for Illinois (all Taylor) and two turnovers for Purdue. Purdue won by a touchdown, and that was basically their defensive touchdown.
But we're also nowhere anywhere close in this game without Taylor's 57 rushing yards and 273 passing yards. I don't think Matt Robinson would have put up those numbers (based on what we saw from Robinson in the last home game against Northwestern). 273 yards after not taking any reps with the first string at practice this week is really impressive.
So it comes down to turnovers. It's always been the issue for Taylor. I remember a practice in August of 2019 where Rod Smith said something to Coran like "when you make dangerous throws like that you make it harder for me to play you" (not an exact quote - it was just the old "coach tells young player that turnovers make the road to playing time so much more difficult" thing).
I feel like we had this discussion after the 2019 spring game, too. Taylor was playing well, but then he threw a pick six. And we were all like "if he's going to score as many points for the offense as the defense then he's going to struggle to work his way up the depth chart".
Still, 273 yards through the air in your first game was impressive. Get him in a full week of practice as the starter, form the game plan around him, and maybe we can see a great game against Minnesota. Clean up the turnovers and he's now right there in the mix with everyone else once Peters and Williams return.
+ Looking over the stats, I'd say the biggest thing that jumps out is that Illinois was in the redzone seven times and came away with two touchdowns and a field goal. Inside the twenty seven times, 17 points. That's really bad.
Of course, Purdue was bad in the redzone as well. They had five trips in the redzone, scored three times (two touchdowns and a field goal), but also fumbled at the one yard line and went for it on fourth-and-goal from the one and didn't get in.
It's crazy how "balanced" this game was even though Purdue led 31-10 at one point. Every time I think "man, Illinois really blew it by turning the ball over and failing on fourth down when threatening" I realize Purdue did the same thing several times. Kill a drive with penalties? Both teams. Really questionable playcalling on fourth down? Both teams.
+ The real story here, though, is simple: Brohm's offense against Lovie's defense. We hired a defensive head coach and he runs that defense; Purdue hired an offensive head coach and he runs that offense. That offense went up against that defense today. And both were mostly healthy (Purdue had the biggest loss with Rondale Moore out). The result: a running game held mostly in check (80 yards on the ground, 2.6 yards per carry) and a passing offense that could do whatever it wanted.
Their passing statistics: 29-35 for 376 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions. That, right there, is a problem problem. Through two games, I don't even need to look at the efficiency stats: we have one of the worst pass defenses in the country. 20-21 and then 29-35 - that's enough right there. All day to throw, receivers finding soft spot after soft spot. Such an alarming thing.
And now Minnesota comes to town with their Morgan-to-Bateman combo which is better than O'Connell-to-Bell. Come on, wind and rain.
+ Need to find some good. A list:
- The second half defense was better. The only touchdown drive went 23 yards. One 23-yard TD drive and then no other second half points (besides the Purdue defense scoring on a fumble recovery).
- Jer'Zhan Newton is now the #3 DT and with Jamal Woods leaving this game with an injury he might start next week? His forced fumble kept this team in the game.
- Walkon tight end Tip Reiman is on kickoff coverage and is shockingly fast for a 6'-5" guy. Caught my eye on kickoff coverage (saw him running and was all "who is THAT?"). I'm marking that down in my brain as "a guy who will help sometime in the future".
- Chase Brown and Mike Epstein split the carries (Epstein had 13, Brown 11) and put up 24 carries for 136 yards (5.7 ypc).
- With starting center Doug Kramer out plus sixth-man Jordyn Slaughter (and who I'm guessing was seventh-man, Brevyn Jones), 8th-man Alex Pihlstrom, a walkon, started at left guard. And this is only his first year at OL having spent his first three seasons at tight end. Really great showing for a guy who had played in one game his career (mop-up duty late in the 4th quarter against Rutgers last year).
- Pretty mad that Blake Hayes' first punt wasn't downed at the one. Would have been a great day for him. "Two punts, one to each coffin corner, one downed at the one, one downed at the three". Compare that with what Purdue's punter did and it's night and day.
I think that's all I have. Started out as a great day, now I'm headed to bed to think about what 0-3 means if we lose to Minnesota next week.
I kind of don't want to go back to school now.