SOC – Ohio State October 14, 2011
I pulled out my Illini Football Vault book this week. Approaching a home game against Ohio State where we could go to 3-0 in the Big Ten and they could go to 0-3 was a little too much for my brain. I needed a foothold, so I decided to look back through our history.
It was a fun little trip. When I got the book, I think I mostly read through the “good” stuff. Red Grange… Ray Eliot’s 1951 team… Butkus in the Rose Bowl… Mike White resurrecting the program… you get the idea. This time, I decided to read through everything, focusing on the rough patches. This wasn’t as easy – a book like that focuses on the good and sweeps the bad under the rug – but I wanted to get a true idea of our past.
And, as you may be able to guess, it wasn’t pretty. Bob Asmussen tried to focus on the positives, but there were obviously too many negatives to ignore. Like this:
Moeller’s best season was his first. The team went 3-8, and he coached All-Big Ten linebacker John Sullivan. The New Jersey native broke Studwell’s year-old school tackle record with 202 stops. After making another 143 tackles as a senior, Sullivan left Illinois as the school’s career record-holder, a mark broken 16 years later by Butkus Award winner Dana Howard.
The ultimate Moeller game was a 0-0 tie against Northwestern in 1978. Three decades later, Illinois fans still talk about that game for its offensive futility.
When the highlight of your three years as head coach was “coached an All Big Ten linebacker”, you know you were lucky to keep your job for 3 years.
The next section starts out with the hiring of Mike White and tosses out some crazy statistics: in the three seasons before White was hired, Illinois averaged 12.1 points per game and never scored more than 29. One more time – averaged 12.1 points per game.
I know it was a different era, and recruiting had sunk to an all-time low, but for some reason, this statistic was what I needed to hear. In 19 games under Paul Petrino, we’ve scored 631 points. In 33 games (3 full seasons!) under Gary Moeller, we scored 400. If Petrino stays for three years (please oh please oh please), by the time he reaches his 33rd game, he’ll be somewhere close to 1,100 points.
The takeaway: I’ve not been thankful enough.
We’re 6-0. We’re going to a bowl game. We’re ranked 15/16. We’re favored over Ohio State at home. We have a legitimate shot at the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game, and yet here I am, all week, worrying that “it’s going to happen again”. Worried that Lucy might pull the football.
Tonight, I reached “so what if she does”. Yes, we might lose tomorrow. But at this very moment, I’m not thinking about it nor nervous. I’m thinking about Rantoul, and Spring Ball, and all of the focused, intense practices I got to watch. These young men worked harder than any Illini team I’ve ever observed, and that probably deserves more than my Charlie Brown-ing.
I’m thinking about the Texas Bowl, and a fairly thorough demolition of a team that’s proving this year to be explosive on offense. I always used to talk about what we were missing after another 5 win season – missing the jump start that bowl practices could give to a team. Well, this year, we got the jump start, rolled our bowl opponent, and kept the momentum going right through the first 6 games of this season.
I’m thinking about trailing late in the first half of the Arkansas State game before Darius Millines burst out of a break, shook his one-on-one defender, and gave us a lead we wouldn’t relinquish. I’m thinking about trailing Arizona State in the fourth quarter, trailing Western Michigan at halftime, and trailing Northwestern 28-10… and finding a way to win all three games.
I’m thinking about how we’ve been in every single game the last 2 seasons – seriously, the last blowout loss was maybe Cincy in 2009 (although that game we only lost by 13). Our worst loss last year was Michigan State, and we led that game at halftime.
I’m thinking I need to stop being Charlie Brown. We’re probably going to lose 3 of our next 6 games, and I’m OK with that tonight. And I really don’t feel like I’m hedging. I’m ridiculously proud of this team and how they’ve come together to fight in every game.
I honestly sat down here expecting to reach the end of this post predicting a loss. I was worried all day that this would be Nathan’s Michigan State game from last year, where solid athletes and coordinators frustrate him into a few game-changing interceptions. But right now, I’m not thinking about that. I’m thinking about my 6-0 team that’s favored to win at home over Ohio State. I’m thinking they need me on that wall. I’m thinking it’s great to cheer for a team like this.
Illinois 21, Ohio State 17