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Illinois receives the opening kickoff of the second half. The defensive stop at the end of the first half seems even bigger now. We scored to take the lead, forced Rutgers to punt in their two-minute drill, and now we get the ball to start the second half.
The first set of downs goes well - third and inches is converted by a QB sneak - and then Isaiah Williams sets up a 2nd and 3 by making something out of nothing. Wait, there's a flag. Chop block on Illinois. 2nd and 3 is now 1st and 25. This is not an offense that will convert many 1st and 25's. The Illini have to punt.
No damage, though. Rutgers gets into field goal range, barely, but their 46-yard FG attempt into the wind falls woefully short. Illini take over at the 28.
On the first play for the Illini, a false start penalty. Instead of first and 10, it's first and 15. Carlos Sandy gets zero yards on a jet sweep, Isaiah Williams gets seven yards on second down, and then on 3rd and 8 (not 3rd and 3), an incompletion and the Illini have to punt.
This time, there's damage. Rutgers goes 88 yards in 13 plays, assisted by a ridiculous catch on third and nine by former quarterback Johnny Langan and a fourth-and-five completion thrown by third-string QB Gavin Wimsatt. Rutgers punches it in and takes the lead 17-14.
On the third Illinois drive of the second half - it's already the fourth quarter at this point - Illinois starts with a five-yard run from Chase Brown followed by a two-yard run. On third and 3, a nice completion from Brandon Peters to Michael Marchese to pick up the first down.
Wait, there's a flag.
Facemask on Julian Pearl. First and 10 at the 37 becomes third and 18 at the 17. The Illini do not pick up this first down and have to punt. You probably know the rest. Rutgers has to punt and their punter hits a beaut that goes out of bounds at the one. Three conservative play calls later Illinois punts. Rutgers tries to ice the game but can only get a field goal. Illinois, down six and driving for the win, gets to the Rutgers 34 and... I don't want to talk about it.
For me, this game hinged on those three penalties. You probably already knew that because it's mostly all I tweeted about in the second half. Penalties can absolutely destroy a drive - first and 25 is a tiny bit harder to convert than first and 10 - and after two really solid touchdown drives to end the first half we began the second half by firing the gun at our foot three consecutive times. The Illini played a mostly clean game with only three penalties. And all three penalties eventually led to punts. Add Rutgers' punt going out at the one and the first time we got a clean look at an offensive drive in the second half was with 3:53 left in the game.
As I said on the From The Stands, this was mostly an even game between two rebuilding Big Ten teams, one in Year Two and one in Year One. It was a bit of a slugfest, with Illinois punting 8 times and Rutgers punting 6 times. It was going to be the team that made the key plays that would win. Rutgers made those key plays, converting all three 4th-down attempts (including one when their QB had been knocked out for a play and their third-string guy came in cold and threw a perfect pass). Rutgers made the plays, Illinois stalled three consecutive drives with penalties.
Rutgers 20, Illinois 14.
+ I want to address a comment I received today. It's a comment that I've gotten before. And I just want to address it. This is me addressing it. I will address it now.
The comment is always something along the lines of "you just predict losses as a hedge so that if we lose you can say 'hey, don't get mad at me, this is what I predicted'." That may seem like the case, but that's not what I'm going for. We, uh, well - we lose a lot.
And I'd like to point out that when I use that line - "this was the game I expected" - it's because the final margin is close to what I predicted the night before. (As I'm typing this out here I'm realizing that if you want to get to me, send that comment my way. The whole "I won't predict the game until the night before" thing isn't just shtick - it's my process and it puts me in the best position to make the prediction. So when that's minimized to "just a hedge", I grumble under my breath for hours.)
I'll just make my case. Here's the last six SOC predictions and the result:
- Maryland - I predicted a three point loss and said that I didn't expect the Illini to win but I expected the Illini to cover. Result: Illini lost by 3 (didn't win but covered).
- Purdue - I predicted a 21 point loss. Lost by 4. Bad prediction and I wasn't on the right side of the spread because Illinois covered.
- Charlotte - I predicted a 14 point Illini win. Illini won by 10 (and the spread was 10 so a push).
- Wisconsin - I said Wisconsin would win by 26. Wisconsin won by 24.
- Penn State - I went with Penn State 28, Illinois 16 and said I expected a bounce-back game (much like my Maryland prediction). Illini won 20-18.
- Rutgers - I said close game with Rutgers pulling it out in the end and predicted a four point Rutgers win. Rutgers won by six.
(I'm not sure why I only picked the last six games. I had Virginia covering the 10.5 point spread as well. I just didn't predict a blowout.)
As I always tell people when I write something like this, do not ever attempt to bet my predictions. Especially not after I point out how I have a pretty good handle on the team. Ego is now involved, so my Minnesota, Iowa, and Northwestern predictions will all be clouded by pride (and wrong).
But the point of this is to say that I feel like I've built up enough cred to say "this is the game I expected". Besides the Purdue game, in the last seven games, we've mostly seen the game I wrote about on Friday night. I feel better now and will stop talking about this.
+ I rarely take things in the "if I was the offensive coordinator, here's what I would have done" direction, but that's what I'm going to do right now. If I was the offensive coordinator - and you'd probably hate me as an offensive coordinator simply because of stuff like this - on 4th and 1 from the Rutgers 34 with 1:11 to go, I'd throw it. Maybe even throw it to the endzone.
Think about it. Fourth and one. They're completely focused on the run. Every muscle of every Rutgers defender is just waiting for the snap of the ball because they want to fly forward, make the stop (which they did), and win the game for their team (which they did). So why not fake the handoff and see if you can get Daniel Barker streaking past the safety?
I know, I know. If Rutgers plays sound defense now you're putting the game in a jump ball situation when you could have just gone QB sneak for the first down. And if you do connect on some crazy, ballsy touchdown pass, now there's still a minute on the clock for Rutgers to try to win it with a field goal. So yeah, this idea is stupid. Told you you wouldn't want me as your offensive coordinator.
But I still wish we would have made that statement. I still wish we'd play football in a way that attempts to rid the world of Same Old Sorry Illinois. We didn't get the first down anyway, so the result was the same. I just want to see an Illinois team approach things with a "things are different now" mentality. Mike White throwing deep on the very first play from scrimmage in his very first game, just in the form of throwing it to the endzone on fourth and one from the Rutgers 34 with 1:11 to go.
End Same Old Sorry Illinois, is what I'm saying.
+ It's fairly amazing how many "final drive, we have the ball and a chance to tie or win" moments we've had in losses this season. The list:
- UTSA, down seven, driving trying to force overtime. Got to the UTSA 15 yard line, but the final pass to Casey Washington is too deep - he catches it but can't get a foot down inbounds. UTSA wins.
- Maryland, tie game, Illinois gets the ball with 2:13 remaining. The drive goes backwards, Illinois punts from the goal line, and Maryland is able to set up the winning FG as time expires.
- Purdue, down four, Illinois gets the ball with 5:44 remaining. Drive gets all the way to the Purdue 19 before stalling out. A rush for no gain and then three incompletions and Purdue wins by four.
- Rutgers, down six, Illinois gets the ball with 3:53 remaining. Drive gets all the way to the Rutgers 34 before a turnover on downs. Rutgers ices the game and kneels it out.
It's not like those four drives lost those games. There were other mistakes along the way that led to the games even being close. But the thought hit me while watching the crowd file out. Just think of some Illini fan who has attended the six home games so far plus the road game at Purdue. In four of those seven games, they had the "getting the ball here - come on, offense, just one time" feeling. And all four times they shuffled out with the same feeling they had today.
+ I was just sitting here wondering how to close this post and so I took those stats above and tweeted them. And I just got this response, so let's close with that. One question mailbag!
Could not embed tweet.
Fair point. My response: what are the other options?
You could quit, I guess. Many have. I can't. But you could quit. That has to be the easiest option here.
You could go the "no money until it's fixed" route. I know several people who have done that. Remove your donation, dump your season tickets - not one single cent until it's fixed. But I've always made the argument that with college athletics, that's quite counterintuitive. If you want Illinois football to win, the best possible thing you could do is give them your money. I'm totally and completely serious. We still lack resources, and you could personally be responsible for some of those resources.
Since you're tired of "it will be a few years of rebuilding", I guess the only option there is to take the "win now or get out" stance. Personally I don't see any shortcut here and believe that "it will be a few years of rebuilding" is the only route, especially for one of the five-worst Power Five programs in America the last 30 years, but I do have "win now or get out" friends who view college football the same as the NFL. "If you can't win immediately, you should be fired immediately." Keep firing until you get a coach who wins immediately.
But short of any of that, I don't have answers for you. Four coaches have tried to rebuild Illinois football and failed. With each failure, it becomes harder to sell the program and the next guy has an even bigger task. Lou Tepper was handed a rock-solid boulder on top of a mountain and now it's at the bottom of the valley needing to be pushed back up to the top. Each time a coach attempts to roll it to the top and fails, the footing gets trickier for the next coach. Oh, and it just started to rain.
All of that is basically why I'm Positive Polly. If I know one thing about myself it's that I can't quit, so if I can't quit, I don't think I really have any other option than to hope. I, too, often have the "it's never going to change" feeling, wondering if I'm going to write about the same thing for decades and never see it happen in my lifetime. But this is my school, and these are my guys, so I'm going to hope and hope and hope until I see the boulder rolling up the hill. And when it gets to the top, I'm going to experience a feeling that no Ohio State or Alabama fan could understand.
We'll all be Andy Dufresne in the rain with our face to the sky, and it will be amazing.