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.
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.