I'm fascinated by alternate realities.
Not, like, science fiction stuff. I'm not an Avenger, and this isn't the multiverse.
I'm talking about the ripple effect, I guess. The butterfly effect. The way that one moment in time, one small decision changes the entire trajectory of our lives.
It's not a longing, as though I'm unhappy with where I've ended up, but rather a genuine curiosity. My greatest regret is that we get but one life to live; I want to walk a thousand different paths -- what if I'd stayed an unattached sports journalist traveling the country to cover a team or got married but didn't have kids and lived in a downtown apartment in a bustling city -- just to know how it feels.
It's also why I'm captivated by other people's lives. I'll see cars driving the other way on the highway at 6 p.m. on a Friday and wonder where they might be going. I'll see a dimly lit, elegant study through a window and imagine how they might spend their evenings. I'm just endlessly fascinated by this life.
Because of that curiosity, I often revisit decisions and wonder where I'd be if a moment had gone differently. Usually, of course, we revisit the pivotal moments -- what if I hadn't chosen the University of Illinois, what if I hadn't gone out that night and met my future wife, etc. -- but even the tiniest decisions may have led us in very different directions.
You can't think about last Saturday's game against Purdue and not wonder how it might have gone differently if the Devon Witherspoon phantom pass interference, which negated an interception and led to a game-tying touchdown one play later, never was. We can talk about all the ways in which Illinois deservingly lost the game, but you also can't separate that singular play -- a pivotal moment in the game, which created an undeniable ripple effect -- from the final result.
To recap: after a few disjointed drives, Illinois had just taken a 14-7 lead with 4:33 left to play in the first half. The teams traded three-and-outs, and Purdue got the ball at their own 37-yard line with 1:58 on the clock. After a first down, Purdue quarterback Aidan O'Connell threw a flat-footed pass in Charlie Jones' direction that hit Witherspoon in the stomach, ostensibly giving the Illini the ball at their own 28-yard line with 1:49 left on the clock.
And then, the flag. Pass interference. The third time the Illinois defense had been flagged for PI in six Purdue drives. (Not to say that a team can't commit three pass interference penalties in that span; rather, to note that a pattern was establishing.) And while the first was legitimate and the second was debatable, the third was unquestionably not a penalty.
If Illinois gets the ball back there, with two timeouts and a chance to at least get into field goal range before the half, there's no telling how that could have altered the trajectory of the game. Purdue had just one timeout; if nothing else, Illinois would have gone into the half with the lead and the ball to start the second half.
Instead, they went in tied and weren't able to score coming out of the half. No need to rehash how everything went from that point on.
On the Cover 3 Podcast's instant reaction show Saturday night, noted Illini fan Tom Fornelli said the officiating crew -- which he declined to name, and I will as well -- is notorious among Big Ten fans for their questionable calls. It is, incidentally, the same crew that called Illinois' loss at Indiana earlier this season, which included the Brian Hightower touchdown catch that wasn't.
Perhaps that's the better butterfly effect to ponder. What if that one crew hadn't been on two of the team's three losses this season?
Like all alternate realities, the unfortunate answer is that we'll never know.
-It sure looked like it was Chase Brown's ankle that got bent the wrong way at the end of the game.
That can obviously still be a multi-week injury, and we haven't heard any updates on it as of Monday morning but considering that it looked like it might be a knee injury when it occurred, an ankle is at least a better-case scenario. That still doesn't help us if he has to miss the Michigan game, though.
Get well soon, Chase.
-Even with their vastly improved defense, good tight ends have been a problem for the Illini this season.
Payne Durham was one of the big difference-makers in Saturday's game. Iowa's Sam LaPorta had a good receiving line in the early-October 9-6 Illinois victory.
Michigan's Luke Schoonmaker didn't play this past Saturday, but he's a favorite target of quarterback J.J. McCarthy and seems to be on track to return sooner than later. If he's on the field, he'll be a problem for Sydney Brown and company.
-Speaking of coverage issues, Taz Nicholson's likely season-ending injury, paired with Tyler Strain's concussion, is a big problem for the secondary.
It's not necessarily true freshman Xavier Scott's fault -- being pressed into action against one of the league's best pass offenses is an unenviable position -- but he was victimized on Saturday, including allowing the pivotal fourth-and-nine conversion late in the game that let Purdue milk more clock and eventually kick a field goal that put the game on ice. Unsurprisingly, PFF had him graded out at 46.4, worst among defensive backs and all Illini defenders who played at least 10 snaps.
With a week to prepare, perhaps they find a suitable solution. Maybe Strain is cleared and able to play. Maybe they can rearrange the pieces to get their five best defenders -- Witherspoon, Brown, Quan Martin, Kendall Smith and Matthew Bailey -- on the field at the same time. Maybe they can coach up Scott or one of the other backups (wherefore art thou, Terrell Jennings?) to be ready for Saturday.
But if they get that kind of play from their second cornerback this weekend, it's going to be a looooong day in Ann Arbor.
-Robert loves analytics, so here's a stat:
Illinois' record before having me on the We Love No Other podcast: 7-1
Illinois' record since having me on the We Love No Other podcast: 0-2
-I don't know what needs to happen to generate a pass rush. But you don't win many games against pass-first offenses with zero sacks and two quarterback hurries (per ESPN's box score).
-A few weeks ago, when the sun was shining brighter and the air smelled fresher, I could see a path to beating Michigan in the Big House.
As we stand today, amid a two-game losing streak and opening as 18.5-point underdogs, I can't see it. That's not to say it can't happen -- anything can happen -- but I can't, in my mind's eye, envision how the game plays out and ends with an Illini victory.
It's one of a number of things that needs to happen if we want to keep the Indy hopes alive. And I know, those hopes basically died on Saturday afternoon. I'm not holding my breath.
But mathematically, there still exists a path. Even if they lose at Michigan, scenarios exist where Illinois wins the Big Ten West. And if you run all of the 256 possible scenarios among teams with a shot at the title, the Illini actually have the most paths to the crown. They'll need a ton of help -- in any scenario, Purdue has to lose at least one game, and if the Illini lose to Michigan, they also need Iowa and Minnesota to find losses in their final two weeks -- but stranger things have happened.
Hell, stranger things have arguably happened this year. I mean, we're talking about Illinois football being live to win the Big Ten West on November 14. Nothing seems that implausible anymore.