I've talked before about how I'm never at ease during a game, even if we have a big lead. We can be up 24 at the start of the fourth quarter and I'm still nervous. Until the clock strikes zero, it's not over. It's never over.
The thing I haven't really talked about much is how I'm just the opposite if we're trailing by 24 at the start of the fourth quarter. I'm constantly projecting that forward and thinking "what if we get on a roll here and come all the way back?" I might always be nervous, but I'm also always hopeful. I'm never not daydreaming.
Which, let's be honest, is a really rough way to go about being an Illini football fan given that we've won something like 65 of our last 170 games. That's a lot of losses where I'm still thinking we can win in the fourth quarter. But for my brain, there is always hope.
So when that daydream comes true in front of my eyes, I have absolutely no idea what to do. None. I've spent so much time imagining late-game scenarios like today that when it actually happens, it doesn't feel real. I remained hopeful... and then I was rewarded with a final-minute win.
Which, if I may, is something I'd be OK if we stopped doing. I'm not sure my heart can take it. We beat Maryland on a last-second field goal, then we lost to Wisconsin on a touchdown with 27 seconds left, and then we beat Minnesota on a long touchdown pass with 50 seconds left. I said last night that I'm not sure I can take much more of this, and then I got more of it.
But this kind of game I will take. This kind of game is why we do this. Any game that drags you to the brink of despair and then delivers you from evil (all in, like, 15 minutes of real time) makes you feel alive. I mean, this tweet was at 5:35 pm:
You invest and you invest and you start to think "can we really win this game 21-20?" and we force the punt and we have the ball and we even pick up the first down and then *two turnovers in two minutes and 38 seconds*— Robert Rosenthal (@ALionEye) November 4, 2023
And then this tweet was six minutes later (after the Crisler holding penalty):
It's like the football gods are up there "now give Illinois fans the exact play from the Wisconsin game - roll out right, first down completion for 20 yards, bring it all back for a holding penalty."— Robert Rosenthal (@ALionEye) November 4, 2023
Followed by this tweet seven minutes after that:
He grew up an Illini fan.— Robert Rosenthal (@ALionEye) November 4, 2023
His great grandfather, grandfather, and uncle played for Illinois.
He left his starting job at Ball State to walk on and fulfill his childhood dream of playing for Illinois.
He wore Illini gear every day to his Michigan HS.
And he just did THAT.
The despair makes the joy feel so much better. I held onto hope, I thought through scenarios where we still pull it off (like I do nearly every game), and then one of them came true. And this scenario included our backup QB going 3-3 for 85 yards on back-to-back-to-back plays. I told John Paddock's backstory in the From The Stands so I'll leave that there. Here, I just want to talk about daydreams
As a kid, I was a daydreamer. Hell, as an adult, I'm a daydreamer. I don't know why this is the case, but I feel like I'm constantly imagining scenarios that might come true. "And then the conductor of the train came to me and said 'the engineer wants to know if you'd like to drive for a bit' so I went up to the locomotive..."
(To be clear, that's an adult daydream, not a child daydream there.)
I was like that in college ("that cute girl from my Rhet 105 class was listening to Blues Traveler and we struck up a conversation about their upcoming concert...") and I was like that at my job ("and then the client spoke up at the meeting and said 'you know, we just need to acknowledge Robert's hard work here'.") And I'm definitely like that with Illini football.
So when I saw John Paddock come into the game, having written "here's hoping he gets a moment this season" back in August, all I could think about was the dream scenario of him leading the team down the field for the winning touchdown. It played out in my head like all of the other daydream scenarios in my life. They're always based in some "wouldn't it be cool if..." scenario. But then they never happen.
This happened. We won. We went 85 yards in three plays AND THEN WE GAVE UP ZERO YARDS ON MINNESOTA'S FINAL DRIVE. The scenarios I'm constantly playing out in my brain were suddenly being acted-out on the football field. We beat Minnesota for the third year in a row and we put ourselves back on the bowl path.
If I'm dreaming here, nobody wake me.
+ I want to shout out four huge plays today. I'll just make a list:
- Ryan Meed stripping the ball on the opening kickoff (and then CJ Bufkin recovering the fumble). Ryan Meed, walkon from Brooklyn. CJ Bufkin, walkon from Chicago (via Missouri Western). Seven free points thanks to these two gentlemen.
- Clayton Bush swiping the ball away on Minnesota's pass back to the QB (their two-point attempt). If that's complete, it's 28-21 and then Isaiah's touchdown only ties the game. It was incomplete, so Isaiah's touchdown won the game.
- Johnny Newton's third-down sack after we had fumbled at our own 12. Instead of 7, they got three, and this was a game we won by one. (This one you knew would be on here.)
- Julian Pearl scooping up that fumble (and advancing it a few yards) on the play where Altmyer was injured. It shortened what Paddock had to do on fourth down (his very first play) and also, you know, prevented Minnesota from recovering the fumble and kneeling-out the clock.
- This list was just extended to five because as I was typing number four I got a text from my friend Dave identifying the "underrated play of the game": the Xavier Scott tackle on Kaliakmanis (second down on Minnesota's drive to put the game away with 3:00 left). It looked like Kaliakmanis had a certain first down but he cut it outside and Xavier Scott cut him down with one hand. Dave is right - huge, huge play. Their third down pass would be incomplete and they'd have to punt. We would then drive for the winning score.
The little things keep you in the game and then you can do the big things at the end. John Paddock did the big things at the end.
+ It's fun to look at the defensive stats without Johnny Newton and the defensive stats with Johnny Newton. Here's a side-by-side of the first half stats and the second half stats:
Total yards for Minnesota in the first half: 191. Total yards for Minnesota in the second half: 69.
Better yet, look at yards per play. Minnesota YPP in the first half: 6.8. Minnesota YPP in the second half: 2.4. What a difference a Newton makes.
It's funny. Minnesota still scored 9 points in the second half because we gave them the ball at our 12 (they got a field goal) and we gave them the ball at our 34 (they threw a touchdown pass). We made the same field position mistakes of the last month, handing over short fields for easy points, but this time, we overcame those points with big drives of our own. Hallelujah.
+ I'm 71% certain you already texted this to your best friend but I'm so glad that it was Isaiah Williams who caught the winning touchdown. After that fumble (which was a fantastic play by Minnesota's Cody Lindenberg), I know Isaiah was down on himself. So for him to redeem himself by catching the winning TD, man, so glad it was him.
His numbers on the season now: 59 catches for 693 yards. I think 1,000 yards is definitely on the table. He'd need 307 in these final three games (so, more than 100 yards per game) if we don't go to a bowl. But if we do go to a bowl, he'd only need 76.8 yards per game. Totally doable.
+ Let's not let Luke Altmyer's game get overshadowed by what John Paddock did with his three throws. Altmyer's statistics:
24 of 31 (77%)
3 touchdowns, 1 interception
That's a solid game. Add it together with Paddock's numbers and we're three yards short of throwing for 300 today.
+ Let's close by looking forward.
Indiana beat Wisconsin today, so that's not a gimme. Iowa won 10-7 over Northwestern so their offense continues to be putrid. I need to look up the total yards in that one because maybe Mikel Leshoure had more?
OK, I looked it up and that's something I need to tweet. This is the moment where I put this up on Twitter:
One final thought from today:— Robert Rosenthal (@ALionEye) November 5, 2023
Iowa & Northwestern *combined* total yards at Wrigley today: 339
Mikel Leshoure *rushing yards* against Northwestern at Wrigley in 2010: 330
So those are our three opponents. Indiana (bad team, we'll be favored). Iowa (great defense, zero offense). And Northwestern (still bad). After today, I want to run the table.
Yes, after the big win at Penn State in 2021 we then lost to a bad Rutgers team at home. Indiana sets up as the same kind of trap game. But given that we've played a top-10 toughest schedule so far, and given that we close with three shaky teams, I'm fully focused on closing out the season winning four in a row and finishing 7-5.
The goal is still 6-6, of course. This season set up as the ultimate "Illinois fell back to 5-7 after a great season in 2022" scenario, so 6-6 clears the bar. We can accomplish that by beating Indiana and Northwestern at home.
But I'm greedy. I want more. I want a 4-0 finish. Beat Indiana, beat Iowa, beat Northwestern.
I can daydream, right?