Postscript, Iowa

Nov 22, 2021

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I'm not gonna quote the speech.

You know the one. The one that Al Pacino gives in "Any Given Sunday" ahead of the climactic football game. The one that probably gets used in every stadium jumbotron pump-up-the-crowd video.

OK, I'll paraphrase it. He talks about how football, and life, are a game of inches. A half-step here, a half-second there, it all adds up. Those inches are the difference between winning and losing.

(I'm still not gonna quote it, but if you want to watch it to get you fired up, it's here.)

I was reminded of the speech by Saturday's game. If ever there was an example of the importance of precision in football, it was a game in which a few plays, off by a few inches, might have changed the outcome.

Eleven Illinois defenders technically had a shot at tackling Charlie Jones, for instance, but among them was James McCourt taking the wrong angle and missing a chance to push Jones out at the Iowa 40-yard line. Instead, Jones took the kick 100 yards for a momentum-shifting touchdown.

Late in the second quarter, with the Illini driving and trying to answer Iowa's 17-straight points, Chase Brown has a ball bounce off his hands on a second-and-five that likely would have moved the sticks and kept the drive going. Instead, the drive stalled and they have to settle for a field goal.

In the middle of the third quarter with the Illini pinned deep in their own territory, Casey Washington beats his man with a double move but has to slow down to catch a Brandon Peters pass that has too much air under it. If it had been thrown a bit sooner, or a bit farther, Washington might still be running. Instead, he was tackled at the Iowa 42-yard line and Illinois settled for a field goal later in the drive.

Those little inches added up. There were more -- a deflected pass bouncing off Tony Adams' facemask, an underthrown deep ball to Daniel Barker, Luke Ford unable to corral the fourth-down pass that effectively ended the game, etc. -- and in the end, there were just too many to overcome.

Of course, it could cut the other way as well. Iowa receivers had drops, and their defensive backs missed some chances for picks, and an inch or a second might have been the difference between a close win and a blowout. There are no shortage of instances in every game that help dictate the outcome, one way or another.

It just felt like too many times on Saturday it was the Illini on the wrong end of those inches.

-If one was searching for silver linings or moral victories, the first place to start would be the fact that an Illinois-Iowa game was competitive.

That's new around these parts in recent years. And the game was clearly more competitive than the final score. In fact, if you remove the fluky plays that led to points, on both sides -- the muffed punt that gave Illinois the ball at the 30-yard line, the Jones kick return TD and the late pick-six -- Illinois actually outscored Iowa 20-19.

I was frustrated and disappointed by the result, because it felt like a game that was within reach. That feeling itself says a lot about how far we've come since 63-0.

-Kerby Joseph. There's that man again.

-Iowa isn't a flashy team or one laden with elite athletes, so this isn't a perfect analogy, but there's at least something noteworthy about one team's returner sparking a comeback with a 100-yard kickoff return while the other team's returner could secretly be replaced by a fair catch-calling robot dog and nobody could tell the difference.

-On that note, on Saturday afternoon I tweeted that I've never been more convinced that the offense's conservativism is a function of not having the skill players to run a real offense.

I know Friend of Illiniboard Bob Zuppke, among many others, has been critical of offensive coordinator Tony Petersen all season. In a previous Postscript I, too, questioned some of his playcalling tendencies.

Watching Peters sail throws and Illinois pass-catchers struggle to shake Iowa linebackers and defensive backs on Saturday really drove home to me, though, that Petersen and Bret Bielema just inherited a below-average set of skill players outside of the running backs room. Couple that with an offensive philosophy that skews conservative anyway, by virtue of Bielema's preferred style of football, and the playbook is a strong shade of vanilla.

That's not to say it can't still work, or that the offense couldn't be better. The first drive of Saturday's game proved that. More drives could look like that, in theory. But airing it out with a quarterback who's completing 52 percent of his passes, to receivers who struggle to get separation, is a bad recipe.

Getting a quarterback in the transfer portal will be the most important thing Petersen and Bielema do between now and spring. (Besides, you know, this next thing.)

-Confession time, here's what I've got: I haven't always been a diehard Illini football fan.

Don't get me wrong, like many of you, I started early. As a child, my Illinois-alum dad would take me and my younger sister to the Homecoming game most years. I had a Danny Clark No. 48 jersey. I absolutely loved throwing a football around on the quad in the fall leaves, walking around campus hearing stories about his time at the university and eating at Papa Del's after the game.

The football fandom was less intense. I followed the team, sure, but I didn't live and die with the results like I do now. I was in the Block I in my freshman year in 2004 as we chanted "MVP!" at Steve Weatherford. My buddies and I have been going on an annual pilgrimage to Champaign for a game since 2012, but for the first few years it was mostly about drinking and singing "Hail to the Orange." (I mean, it's still mostly about drinking and singing "Hail to the Orange.")

If I had to pinpoint when I really started caring about results, it was probably the 2015 season, randomly. Don't ask me why. I just remember feeling something when the Middle Tennessee State kicker missed the game-winning field goal try. The heart wants what it wants.

So, in my true Illini fandom, I haven't seen them win a Stovepipe Scuffle. I remember pacing around my in-laws' living room at their family Thanksgiving get-together, sleeping 7-week-old baby in tow, willing the Illini to win. That didn't end well, and none of the following five games have, either.

Opening as 6.5-point favorites, at home, this is the best chance the Illini have had to win the Land of Lincoln Trophy since I've been paying attention. This time I'll be at my parents' house for their Thanksgiving get-together, possibly with a sleeping 7-month-old in tow, pacing around their living room willing the Illini to win.

Let's start a new tradition for my two sons, shall we?


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