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Fighting Illini October 7, 2012

I feel like I’ve written this post 15 times. No, not an “Illinois had a chance in this game and we lost” post. I’ve written that 30 times. This post:

I’m an Illini football fan. I do not know why. The easy answer is that I went to the University of Illinois and my favorite sport is football. But there are lots of people like that.

The difficult answer is that something draws me to this team. The sight of our helmet makes me giddy. I can’t sleep the night before driving to Camp Rantoul every year. Walking up to some random college in Oakland to watch us practice before some no-name bowl game makes me excited like I’m 10 and arriving at little league practice on my bike. Weird as it may sound, an Illini football practice feels the same as visiting my hometown and driving past my high school. Familiar. Nostalgic.

Because of that, because it feels so close, I think I watch Illinois football like a parent. Those are my guys out there. They’ve put so much into this. Nobody knows the blood and sweat that has gone into this moment. They chose to wear orange and blue, so I’m forever in their corner.

And because of THAT, I feel like I simply judge them based on effort and togetherness. Much like I am with my three sons. Respect each other, show that you have each other’s backs, and we’re good. The sight of my three boys working on some project together, all fully invested in the outcome, is one of the greatest moments for me as a parent. Those are my guys.

That’s how I watch an Illini game. Respect each other, show that you have each other’s backs, and we’re good. Coaches are another story (more on that later), but as for the players, I just want to see effort and togetherness. Which is exactly the opposite of what we saw during the Louisiana Tech and Penn State games. Bickering on the sideline during LaTech. Morbid, quiet sideline during Penn State. Nothing anywhere close to the Proper State Of Mind.

But yesterday it was different. Yesterday I saw fight. Yesterday I saw togetherness. Sure, we crumbled in the fourth quarter, and we have a lot to fix, and there are still some serious coaching flaws that need to be corrected, and we’re probably not going bowling. But I saw a team that was fired up on the sideline. And I saw players going hard on the field. And after the last two dreadful weeks, that was very encouraging.

When I’ve spoken of this to my friends over the years, I usually get the same responses. “If our fans don’t demand wins we’ll be mediocre forever.” Or some variation of “should everyone get ‘played hard today’ stickers and ice cream after?” Of course that’s not what I mean. I want a winning football program at Illinois. I need a winning football program at Illinois. There’s no reason there’s not a winning football program at Illinois. It’s ridiculous that we’re as historically bad as we are.

But none of that has anything to do with Matt LaCosse. He showed me a few things yesterday. That catch-and-turn on his 12 yard reception with a reach to make sure he got the first down. A great block on a running play that gave Nathan a little room to run. We gave him a little more time on the field, and he responded with a few nice plays. That thrills me.

As did Darius Millines finally getting healthy and getting out there . As did Hugh Thornton playing hurt. As did our fired up defensive sideline greeting their teammates coming off the field. I was so much more encouraged after this game than the last two weeks. We fought. We played together. We gave ourselves a chance, trailing only by three going into the fourth quarter. On the road. At Wisconsin. Play like that, and there are very winnable games on the schedule. Keep improving, keep getting better, and we could actually make some progress during the latter half of the Big Ten schedule.

That’s all I’m looking for. I just want my guys to get after it. And they did that yesterday.

Ice cream for everyone.

+ But about those coaches…

I’m probably a little more discouraged after this game than the last two. We seemed inspired, and we seem prepared, and perhaps I should give them more credit for that.

But we wilted. Again. Wisconsin’s schemes punched, and we didn’t have any response. And that’s my biggest concern. In each of the last three games, our opponent has hit us with a wave of offense, and we’ve had zero response.

Last year (the last two years, actually), we always seemed to have a response on defense. A scheme change. Moving Tavon Wilson up to cover that tight end who is killing us. Rush three, drop eight, with a delayed blitz. Vic was always trying different angles to shut down the opponent. And his players were always assignment sound. He believed in setting up the film all week for what the opponent was going to try.

I just don’t see that this year. Wisconsin coaches out-guessed us so many times yesterday. The long screen pass touchdown? “They’re going to do what they usually do on third down – let’s exploit it”. The Scheelhaase interception? Cornerback has been told that we’re likely throwing an out at the sticks and to jump the route (double move kills that guy right there, but we don’t have the pocket time for double moves).

I want my coaches one step ahead. And it doesn’t feel like we’re even thinking like that. We’re gameplanning and scheming, but we’re not adjusting to what they’re showing during the game. And after two years of watching Vic Koenning defenses, that’s really hard to watch.

+ I usually don’t talk about the officials very much. Maybe once per year. This is that once.

Fumble, maybe?

Block in the back, maybe?

Our player is carted off the field in an ambulance yet is penalized for hitting a “defenseless” receiver?

Maybe there is something to this whole “lower tier teams in the Big Ten will just never get the calls” or something. Even Danny Kanell and Bob Wischusen were scratching their heads outloud. I mean, how great was it to hear an ESPN play-by-play guy say “If I’m an Illinois fan at home right now…”

You have no idea, Bob.

+ One more coaching thing: I’m still not sure about this defensive rotation. I mean, we rotate so many players. Maybe I was wrong last year for criticizing Vic and his “we’re playing these 15 guys and that’s it”. It just always seems like when there’s a big third down conversion, there’s a very green freshman somewhere around the ball.

Maybe it will pay off later in the season. Both last year and the year before, our defensive numbers faded near the end of the season. Those 15 players were dog tired. So maybe we’ll see during the Minnesota and Purdue games that we’re rested and ready for a winnable game.

But for these games, it’s still tough to see. We have so many players learning on the job. At Wisconsin.

+ Winnable games – that sounds good to say again. I think we do have four winnable games left on the schedule: Indiana, Purdue, Minnesota, and Northwestern. Play like that, play with heart and play together, and we have a chance in all four of those games. I don’t think I could say that last week.

The bad news: We have to win all four to make a bowl.

taz October 7th, 2012

I followed the game on my phone yesterday, because I was at the nephew’s jfl fb game in the south burbs. As I proudly wore my orange Illini hoodie, I looked around for some fellow fans. All the orange and blue I saw was bears stuff. And I thought “the bears got those colors from the Illini-that’s some history, and we should have the historical status to go along with it.” But we don’t. So sad.

Lou-a-villini October 7th, 2012

(Just to get it out of the way….) I suppose another characteristic of being a lower-tier team is that the TV announcers still don’t know the name of the head coach. However, after the cameras then went to “Todd” Beckman, he was sticking a big pinch between his cheek and gum. Kind of a low-tier moment, unfortunately.

CapitalCityOutlaw50 October 7th, 2012

Spot on analysis.

I share your pain as a fan with an emotional attachment.

pygreg October 7th, 2012

But win all 4 (even 3) and we’ve made improvement in our Big Ten play with new coaches and schemes…that’d be hopeful at least. I’d be down with 3

illiniranger October 7th, 2012

we have difficulty making in game adjustments. i just don’t think our offense is very good – i’m not sure there is much of anything we can call to get an advantage because our offensive line can’t block anyone. we did a nice job mixing formations early in the game getting under center and play actioning, but then went away from it. defensively, we’re just a schematic mess in my opinion. you hit the nail on the head mentioning the Wiscy adjustment to the screen pass. it’s really not that hard – our coaches just make it look that way.
i continue to have deep reservations that we are in a spread. i just don’t think we can ever recruit to that scheme in a state that produces very, very few elite skill players. seeing lacosse line up at TE and get the play action pass you mentioned is exactly who we need to be because we can recruit to that. i loved it. we’ll never consistently see it with this head coach because he wants to be “spread” for whatever reason.

uilaw71 October 7th, 2012

Speaking of hope, anyone notice who Mighty Mizzou lost to yesterday? They had significant injuries. But Vandy? At home?

illiniranger October 7th, 2012

and speaking to the point that we played harder, yes, we did and that was encouraging. but……
you’re supposed to play hard. why are we such an effort roller coaster? you can’t always control your talent, and you can’t always control your matchups, but you can ALWAYS control your effort.
i think our effort will continue to yo-yo all year

Harry Lime October 7th, 2012

Taz, there was a fair amount of orange in Madison yesterday. I was surprised that so many went up to see a struggling team.

chief23 October 7th, 2012

Beckman dipping on the sideline was pretty classy. Zook always looked lost on the sidelines now we’ve got a coach using tobacco during a game.

Special teams are still dreadful, if there has been improvement from last year I’ve missed it. We still don’t do any of the little things right. Defense bites on every play action, that’s on the coaches. I agree with ranger, effort should never be an issue.

HHSILLINI October 7th, 2012

Several things…

HHSILLINI October 7th, 2012

#1–Hull is so horribly bad. Please move him to receiver. There has to be a freshmen that can look just as bad to fill his spot.

#2–Our punter is so horribly bad. A ten yard punt with no pressure with the wind…really?

#3–The refs were brutal again. That was CLEARLY a fumble and there were several blocks in the back on that punt return that weren’t called. How in the world does TH get a penalty on that play. The flag came terribly late too. We’ll see if Becks takes it up the rear or bites back!!

#4–Why can’t we utilize our athletic TEs? I think we threw them each 1 pass. Just HORRIBLE coaching.

#5–Speaking of horrible coaching…why are we kicking it onsideright to their best receiver as slowly and accurately as possible when we have 3 TOs and 6:40 left to play down 10? What were we going to do…recover, score, and then recover a second onside kick. Instead we should have just kicked a laser at one of their guys and it we didn’t get the richocett, then it goes all the way down to their territory as they had no one back.

#6–Why are we kicking a 47 yarder into the wind with our backup kicker?

#7–Thought I’d never say this, but how are our ST worse this year? Ferguson running backwards to the 6 on the last kickoff sealed the deal. Also, why can’t our kick returners make one stinkin cut. They constantly have a lane to the right or left but instead run straight into the tackle.

#8–I have to judge the intelligence of a coach who sends 8 coaches to Creepy Valley all decked out in Illini gear and also one that chews wacky tabacky on Naional TV. I’m afraid he’s just not too bright.

*How’s that LASAGNA tasting now?*

tman57 October 7th, 2012

Chewing smokeless tobacco is a secondary violation of NCAA rules.


Joe John October 7th, 2012

How can you say those games are winnable? Seriously?

ATOillini October 7th, 2012

Some things you just know. I kept thinking about your “we’ll cover the spread” SOC from Friday night as the game headed into the 3rd quarter. Then it just seemed like the Hawthorne injury, bad ref calls and shanked punt all happened in about 90 seconds. Classic Illini bad karma.
Definitely some improvement yesterday. Hoping for more 2nd half of season.

Joe John October 7th, 2012

Also not sure how you can applaud effort when the defense just flat quit in the 4th quarter. That Wisconsin team isnt very good…in fact they fired their OC and offensive line coach earlier in the year. They came in with the worst rushing attack in the Big 10 (despite having two good running backs).

And please…no more STEVEHULL references…not sure if you were joking before or serious…but the dude cant play.

Joe John October 7th, 2012

Ranger – good point about playing hard. Its definitely what you are SUPPOSED to do. I’m not big on giving credit to teams for doing what they are supposed to do. Nobody should get credit for showing up to work on time.

Really, there’s ready made excuses for every type of game Illinois has this year….Get blown out vs La Tech (well maybe its just 1 game..LA Tech is really good)…Get blown out vs Arizona State (well its the first road game of the year, maybe its just 1 bad game)…Get blown out vs Penn State (well, I’m still an Illini fan and I’ll be here no matter what)….Lose easily vs Wisconsin (well we werent going to win anyway and we didnt lose by 28 and the team played thats ok)….

Then get blown out vs Michigan (well thats why recruiting rankings matter…they have way better players…)….Then get blown out vs Ohio State (same thing)….

Its just ready made excuses every single game.
I’m of agreeance that Illinois will not be good until the accepting mediorcity mentality ends…

If I’m Mike Thomas, I go get Bobby Petrino ASAP. (and hope he doesnt bring his brother with him…been there done that :)

GrogsBBQPepperoni October 7th, 2012

Yeah, I don’t feel like Hull can handle that position and has to be suited better somewhere else. He was left flat-footed on a number of moves where guys scored or got big gains and I’m not sure he even got a hand on them as they ran right by him. And his pick was really more of a “wild pitch” pick. He didn’t get it via good coverage or some instinctual great play on the ball it was just a throw into the abyss.
I’m actually more discouraged from this game than encouraged. Their QB was/is really terrible and we still lost by 17. He missed a few wide open plays that would have given them even more points. Our special teams is worse than ever (we cannot do a SINGLE thing to average performance). And our offensive play-calling is just … offensive. We have to at least throw deep sometimes to keep them honest. I left the game when we were down 10 because it seemed impossible that we could come back. We were down 17 before I could make it to the gate.

tbird October 7th, 2012

I have to wonder how much Nate’s return played into the effort. I’ve heard from people who work with the team that the kid is a warrior. Having him back on the field full time must have helped. He may not be the best QB but this team seems to need his leadership to play inspired.

And I love that the announcers kept saying he was at 98%. Not 97, not 99. He was at 98%. Did you give them that stat?

PittsburghNellie October 7th, 2012

I’m sure it helped a lot, but I really thought Nate would be a much better play by his 4th year.

16th&mission October 7th, 2012

“wacky tabacky”? surely that’s grounds for dismissal.

illiniranger October 7th, 2012

I don’t think nate regressed so much as our oline play the last 13 games has been really bad

Illinigrad October 8th, 2012

Nice post Robert. It reaffirms many reasons, some of which I had not taken time to articulate, about why I am an Illini fan. Robert: On the coaching. Isn’t it time to just admit that we have less than a stellar coaching staff. I am not impressed. Beginning with two reasons, 1. trying for a two point conversion when there was NO REASON on earth to attempt such a conversion and the FACT that we had months to prepare and the coaching staff repeatedly could not convey play signals from the sideline to the team, says to me “enough.” This staff does not have what it takes. It will continue to be a recurring problem. For another poster about Vanderbilt: Don’t be too hard on MO losing to Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt is miles ahead of IL right now in FB and will mostly likely go to a bowl. They lost to SC by only a few points and will be a tough team to beat down the stretch. I was not surprised that MO lost to them.

Illinigrad October 8th, 2012

Oh, did I mention: Chewing tobacco on national TV made me really realize what a goober we had as a H.C.

AHSIllini32 October 8th, 2012

Boy Robert, you may want to disable the “comment” portion of your blog. It’s quickly turning this fantastic blog into the illinihq comment section. I’m sure you won’t do it because of how much you love interacting with other Illini fans which is completely understandable but I just hate seeing all the ridiculous comments spoiling such a great place to read about Illini sports. Good post as always my man.

illiniranger October 8th, 2012

the illinihq comments section is a dumpster fire. that’s why i stopped going there. i wonder what Brumby thinks of that now. also, the old scout board is a total mess. they changed the format and it is pretty much unreadable now. terrible.
i think everyone is angry right now because we are just a really bad team and everybody thought with the talent on defense we would be much better. certainly not the case. maybe we really are this bad, i don’t know. i’ve sort of recalibrated my evaluation of our talent that maybe we are pretty bad and we were going to be 3-9 through 5-7 no matter what we did.
offensively we are a shambles. i think part of that is scheme, i think a lot of that is offensive line. we’re pretty bad on the o line. i hope we see improvement there, we are awfully, awfully young. i think all of our offenses problems the last 13 games really boil down to some terrible o line play. it was really ugly last year and hasn’t gotten any better – and last year we had some really good players in jeff allen and jack cornell. i think our o line and no AJ Jenkins is the simple explanation why we’ve seen nathan underperform. it is hard when you have no time to throw and no big time weapon to throw to.
our scheme just makes me want to puke, but part of that is bias and part of that is talent. i hate the spread at illinois. i don’t see us ever recruiting the athletes to run it. you have to complete about 66% of your passes to make it work – otherwise all those incomplete throws on 1st down leave you in way too many 2 and 10s, where you predictably run the ball and end up in 3 and 9 or worse. it seems like Juice Williams entire career was in 3rd and 9 and now we are seeing a replay of that. i think one of the reasons our offense really popped in 2010 was because we ran the football with Mikel Leshoure on 1st down 4 out of 5 times. we always seemed to be in 2nd and 3 or 2nd and 6, something like that. how much of that was Leshoure? probably quite a bit, but DYoung is a good back that could get us solid results in such a scheme.
the zone stretch play that we seemingly get hit for a 3 yard loss play every time is driving me crazy. we are awful at that play. other teams (LaTech) run it pretty well, but we stink at it. that play is literally the base play of this offense. everything comes off of it – and we run it for -3 yards every. single. time. if that’s the staple, the coaches HAVE to figure out how to run it and I think i have only seen us gain a first down running that play one time on DYoungs 52 yarder against PSU. Also, Jon Davis never touches the ball. I don’t know how many articles i read before the season about how Davis was going to be the X factor. Well, the X factor never touches it. He had some great runs against WMU and i haven’t seen him run it out of the backfield since. maybe he’s hurt, i don’t know. but jeez, it gets old not seeing him get the ball 5-10 times a game.
defensively, who knows what the problem is. Tim Banks had a lot of success at Cincy and is having virtually none here. is some of it scheme? assuredly. Robert pointed out the screen pass for 62 yd TD. That is about the easiest screen for TD you can get. that’s all scheme and coaching points. the problem with the defense is it appears we coast through big stretches of the game. i think there is some elite talent on that side of the ball and some so-so talent. some players have played well (Earnest Thomas, Mason Monheim) and others not so much. The thing that bothers me on defense is they don’t seem to consistently have effort. i will remember this defense for one play. PSU’s first TD run and on replay Glen Foster’s back is to the play and he’s at least 5 yards deep in the end zone. that’s an effort issue. and I like Glen Foster, but that falls on the players AND the coaches. nobody is innocent there.

uilaw71 October 8th, 2012

Here’s what Michigan folks think about us:

See you there Robert? We’re near the top of Section 8.

Hoppy October 8th, 2012

I talked about the defense with my brother yesterday.
What I finally came up with is that Tim Banks came in and installed his defense and expected the players to both buy in and perform under it. The only issue here is that Tim Banks fixed something that wasn’t broken. The D was the only bright spot last year. Being in the military, (and probably the same for most jobs) I see this a lot. A new commander comes in (rotates every 2-3 years) and makes changes to policies and the current procedures.
What it causes is dissension amongst the every day flyers because we are the ones who have to spend late nights kicking out old ways and habits while implementing ones that we are ignorant to and aren’t sure exactly how they would work. I think that is what our defensive players are experiencing. Tim Banks’ defense may end up being great and giving up less points then VK’s EVENTUALLY. But he needs his players (coverage guys…i.e. our recruiting class) and buy in. Mason Monheim seems to have bought in because he didn’t experience last year. Maybe the young guys that will be filling up the depth chart next year will show that the D can work.
But no matter what, in both scenarios, the lowly guys have to shut up and color. You do your job because it’s your job. But Tim Banks still has to command that respect from his players. If he can’t do that, he needs to go…but how long do we give him to right his ship and get his crew? For now, you have to give him this year and into B1G play next year. That’s how I stand for now, but maybe that will change if we get blown out by Indiana.

illiniranger October 8th, 2012

i was in the Army 8 years, commanded a rifle company in the 82nd. I liked your new commander analogy. the thing Banks doesn’t have in his corner is a 1SG, the PSGs, etc. When I took command I was the only guy that changed. with Banks and the new coaches, they are all new and didn’t even work with each other before.
the more i have watched this season unravel the more i have become convinced that we weren’t set up for success for a lot of reasons than just Tim Banks sucks. it sucks that he has become the scapegoat. he clearly got the job done at Cincy, so there is no reason he can’t do it here.
the thing that bothers me most about the coaches is it seems our players aren’t playing with the same effort. that falls on both players AND coaches and we really need to address that.
i was fairly OK with the Wiscy loss because we played hard, even if we did get scalded in the 4th QTR. i think the scUM game will be a real test. we are likely to get beat very badly and it will be interesting to see how we respond as the game evolves.