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In journalism school, one of the first things they teach you about story composition is the nut graf.
If the lede hooks you in, the nut graf is the paragraph that tells you why you should care. It's the no-nonsense rundown of the story so far, giving important context to the lede.
And context is vital. Nothing happens in a vacuum, so while a thing may have standalone value -- a vote by a city council to prohibit the sale of alcohol after midnight, for example -- its place in the larger picture -- the vote came after three separate DUI deaths happened in the early morning hours in the city in recent weeks -- is the real important part of the story.
The context of Saturday's loss to Virginia is so vitally important to the way we view the rest of 2021 right now. I was reminded of this fact while texting with my buddy AJ, one of my best friends and my top Illini commiserator. He pointed out how different we would feel about Saturday's game if we had found a way to beat UTSA and be 2-0 heading into the contest.
"The UTSA game is so dumb," he wrote. "We win that, we just write this one off. First road game, no BP, Virginia might be good. Feels totally different."
And that is how we as a collective would be feeling if we were sitting at 2-1 right now. That wouldn't totally ease the sting of a 42-14 game that wasn't even as competitive as the score would indicate, but there would be a feeling that, OK, that sucked, but we're still 2-1 and 1-0 in Big Ten play. Give that game a funeral, bury it, and move on to Maryland.
Of course, that's not how it went. Instead, a bad -- in terms of expectations -- loss to UTSA preceding a bad -- in literally every sense -- loss to Virginia now has fans and media wondering if Illinois will win another non-Charlotte game this year. There's certainly a decent chance they won't be favored in a Big Ten game this season. Even Rutgers looks tough under Greg Schiano.
Not to be that guy, but, of course, one game could easily change all that again. Maryland is a 7.5-point favorite on Friday night, but we know that only goes so far in conference games. Illinois will be back home, their second game under the lights already this year, (hopefully) ready to take out some of their past-week frustration on a Big Ten foe.
I'm not sayin', I'm just sayin', 2-2 through four games and 2-0 in the Big Ten changes the conversation. It's all about the context.
-As Robert alluded to in his From the Stands, it will be curious to see what the playing time looks like in a couple weeks if things do go further south. We saw this with Lovie when it was clear that it was going to be a complete rebuild -- he turned to his recruits and played them over the more experienced Tim Beckman holdovers.
Bret Bielema didn't have a chance to recruit a bunch of his guys to campus this cycle, but he has already shown a preference for the few that he did have a chance to add. Joshua McCray tied Chase Brown for the team lead with seven rushes, averaging 4.7 yards per attempt, and he's got 12 attempts in the last two games. DJ Johnson was already playing on special teams in the Illini's first two games but played on defense in Saturday's game. Interestingly, Kionte Curry, a guy some thought could break the defensive secondary rotation early on, didn't travel on Saturday. Bielema may like his guys, but I guess not all of his guys are ready for the spotlight just yet.
If the season takes a turn for the worst, will we see more Pat Bryant ahead of Donny Navarro? Tyler Strain over Tony Adams? I don't know. And I hope it doesn't come to that. But it is interesting that Bielema has already started giving more responsibility to some of his guys while most of the preseason goals are still in reach.
-So much of Saturday's game was troubling, but the eight-yard touchdown run by Keytaon Thompson that made it 35-14 was one of the more egregiously bad defensive plays I can remember. Did the Virginia skill position players cover themselves in Astroglide before the game?
-I think Virginia is Virginia for a reason, but I do think the Illini could stand to borrow from the Hoos in some areas. Like Virginia, Illinois now has two dangerous receivers, Isaiah Williams and Deuce Spann, who used to be quarterbacks and can surely throw the ball as well or better than the numerous guys slinging it around for Virginia on Saturday. The creative ways in which Bronco Mendenhall (and Rod Smith?) have devised to get their playmakers the ball is fun and enviable.
-Art Sitkowski's early numbers looked fine on paper, but even those faded as the game went on. He finished 24-for-45 for 221 yards and a score, with an interception. He averaged 4.9 yards per attempt. Get well soon, Brandon.
-Speaking of guys getting well, Chase Brown was sorely missed. Nobody in that Illini backfield has the burst that Brown does. He showed it on that 21-yard touchdown run, and in averaging 5.9 yards per carry on the day. If McCray is fine working in as a bigger option and guys like Jakari Norwood offer something different for the defense to think about, it needs to be Brown leading the way in backfield touches if anything is going to go right this year.
-We spent years begging Lovie to play a defense that allows its corners to go man-to-man without providing a huge cushion to the receiver. As it turns out, the grass isn't always greener.
-I do think this Virginia squad is capital-g Good this year. The competition was lacking, but that was the performance of a team that can win the Coastal Division in the ACC.
-So now, we turn our focus to Maryland. Like Virginia, Maryland is athletic and has a few different guys who can hurt you. It has the potential to be another disaster for the team in orange and blue. It will be a test, for certain.
That's the thing about tests, though. You take them, even if you don't like the questions. And sometimes, you even pass them.