Tampa VIII: We Belong
When the game started, I tweeted the thing I said I was going to tweet when the game started: for the next hour, all the eyes of the college football world are on Illini football. The other games would start an hour later, but from 12:00 pm EST to 1:00 pm EST, all Illini-MSU.
(And we treated everyone to 0-0 in that hour. Hey, shut up. I like that kind of football.)
The main reason I was so focused on that hour over the last month: we've been so incredibly irrelevant for so long. I'm not sure most people really even realize how irrelevant we've been. Over the summer, whenever I'd tell some non-Illini fan the "22 losing seasons the last 27 years" stat, they all responded with the same "drop your head a little bit and say 'really?' while squinting and raising your voice a bit" thing. 22 losing seasons the last 27 years. Yes, really. Some of these teams are not like the others. Some of these teams just do not belong.
Today, we lost. But we belonged on that field. We belonged on the field with an 8-4 SEC team in the Outback, er, ReliaQuest Bowl. We didn't have our 1,600-yard rusher or our two all-conference defensive backs and we still had every right to be on that field.
Purdue did not belong on the same field with a 9-4 SEC team. They lost 63-7. We talked about that all fall. Yes, they beat us, and yes, they deserved the Big Ten title game, but they were still more or less a 6-6 football team that was very fortunate to go 8-4. We were a 10-2 football team that was very unfortunate to go 8-4.
I mean, I talked about that when I gave you the PF/PA in Big Ten games:
Purdue: PF 230, PA 219, +11
Illinois: PF 212, PA 138, +74
And when you add in non-conference games (including these bowl scores):
Purdue: PF 372, PA 383, -11
Illinois: PF 315, PA 166, +149
Illinois belonged in a New Years Day bowl game. Purdue did not belong in a New Years Day bowl game.
And that's very important to me. Because we've been us for the last 27 years, I really haven't been able to claim that we belong. Even when we made a Big Time Bowl Game, we've been shown the door. Rohan Davey to Josh Reed in the 2002 Sugar Bowl and then USC's 633 yards in the 2008 Rose Bowl.
We have another "well it was the 2007 season but it was the 2008 Rose Bowl" to add to the list here with the 2023 ReliaQuest Bowl. And while this was a step below the Sugar and Rose, we were still playing #24 Mississippi State. And we 100% belonged on that field.
Immediately after the game my focus was on the Mississippi State sideline. If you haven't seen the video of the MSU quarterback in tears as the field goal went through, you should go watch it. Really powerful stuff. Those kids have been through so much the last three weeks.
My focus five hours after the game ended? We belong. No Chase, Syd, or Spoon? We still belong. Missing our 1st, 2nd, and 3rd cornerbacks so we're starting our 4th cornerback plus a freshman Star moved to corner? We belong on that field.
Losing sucks, and the entire postgame tailgate was one big "THIS WOULD BE SO MUCH MORE FUN IF WE WON", but there was one undeniable fact:
+ I wrote last night that I expected a big game from Tommy DeVito. I told someone at the pregame meet-up Sunday night that I expected him to throw for 281 yards. He threw for 253 yards and... we scored 10 points.
That was the biggest shock for me today. 253 passing yards and 22 rushing yards. I knew we'd miss Chase, but 22 rushing yards? That was a stunner.
I'm not sure how much was Mississippi State's run defense and how much is "Chase Brown was really damn good" but you're not going to win many football games when you rush for 22 yards. Especially not when you're a football team built around run game and defense.
+ Xavier Scott was probably the player who impressed me the most this game. Remember, he spent most of the preseason (and early season) working with the safeties. Then, when corners started dropping like flies, he moved over to corner. And then he's suddenly asked to start at Michigan (as a true freshman). Looked like he belonged.
It's really quite amazing what the staff did last year finding players late in the recruiting window. Gabe Jacas. Matt Bailey. Xavier Scott. All are huge parts of the defense starting next season.
+ Offense was always the concern going into next season, but I feel like that's even more of a concern after today. Chase is off to the NFL. Tommy didn't get a waiver and has used up his eligibility. Palcho isn't going to get a 7th year. I still have concerns with Cory Patterson players still being on this roster come August.
So it feels like this offseason is going to be extremely offense-centric. If Newton and Randolph return with Coleman and Jacas, we'll have one of the top defensive lines in the Big Ten. Matt Bailey and Xavier Scott showed today that the future is bright in the secondary. There are concerns, but overall, you have to feel good about the D.
Offense? Line needs to be reworked, need to find an RB1, WR depth must be found, quarterbacks go rs-SO, rs-FR, FR... there is a ton of work to do between now and September.
But I'm excited to observe (and write about) that work. Despite our offensive struggles today (and let's be honest - no offense in the country would struggle with the loss of one running back more than Illinois and the loss of Chase Brown), I still see an Illini football needle pointing up. This "final game of the season" feeling is a lot better than the last, oh, 27 years. I'm legitimately excited about this offseason. And I'll let Pat tell you why:
Whatever we deny or embrace, for worse or for better...