Postscript, Michigan State
I love fantasy sports.
I'm not alone in this, of course. Millions of people play fantasy sports, and these days, if there's a sport, there's a fantasy game based on it.
I'd suspect most of us enjoy it for the competition. After all, it's why we like sports in the first place. Fandom is rooting for your favorite teams to perform well; fantasy sports is getting to put that team together and then rooting for their success. The competition of piecing together a roster -- finding the market inefficiencies, trying to stay ahead of the curve, pulling the right levers -- is what compels us to seek out fantasy sports rather than simply cheer for a team that someone else put together.
My game of choice is fantasy baseball. It's not because baseball is my favorite sport, although that might have been true when I started playing fantasy sports two decades ago -- I'll now watch any football game that's on, while maybe catching a handful of baseball games all season -- it's because I feel like fantasy baseball is the truest indicator of skill versus luck.
I share a fantasy football team with my uncle, and we happen to have Joe Mixon on our team. On Sunday against the Panthers, Mixon rushed for 153 yards and four touchdowns, and caught four passes for 58 more yards and another touchdown. By our Yahoo league's scoring, Mixon accounted for 56.10 points by himself. He basically single-handedly won the week for us.
Globally, then, tens of thousands of people watched Sunday as Joe Mixon single-handedly defeated their team. It didn't matter who they had. They didn't have Joe Mixon, and Joe Mixon put up a world-beating stat line, and so they lost. Better luck next week.
Fantasy baseball -- or, at least, rotisserie fantasy baseball -- doesn't have that. There are no weekly matchups to artificially pit you against another manager to see whose players get hot for the right seven-game stretch. Joe Mixon gives a boost to the fantasy players who roster him, but he's not rendering worthless the contributions of Derrick Henry to the fantasy players who roster him instead. It's my guys against your guys, but the endpoints aren't arbitrary.
That's another reason I prefer fantasy baseball -- the cream usually rises to the top. Fantasy football is a series of one-game playoffs where chaos often reigns. If the Titans get down big in the first half of a game, the game script might render Henry worthless and suddenly one of your workhorses lays an egg. In baseball, if an 0-for-4 night happens -- and 0-for-4 nights happen plenty -- there are 161 more games to go. In football, if that dud comes at the wrong time, your season could be over. Skill? Hardly.
That's how I feel about Saturday's loss. Like Robert, I'm frustrated by the disparity between the yardage and the scoreboard, but unlike Robert, I'm less interested in the field position narrative and more interested in the source of the field position troubles -- the weather.
I'm frustrated because everything says this is a game the Illini should have won. I saw on ESPN's ticker before the game that FPI had the Illini as winning the game 68 percent of the time. That sounds about right, and the yardage difference suggests that's more or less how it played out. Play Saturday's game in a domed stadium and I think the Illini win more often than they lose.
So, it's frustrating to be talking about a loss because of the weather. I think it affected Bret Bielema's decision-making on more than one fourth down. It pretty clearly affected Hugh Robertson's punting. It was the great equalizer between two teams that were unequal. (To be clear, when the weather affects a game in which the Illini are not clearly the more talented team, like the muddy mess that was the 2019 Purdue game, I'm fine with it.)
I know that both teams had to deal with the conditions, and there can certainly be a case made that the Michigan State coaches did a better job handling it. There were also more issues than just the wind. I'm not absolving blame, not totally anyway.
I just would have liked to see this game played 161 more times.
-Reggie Love's shoelaces are untied in the header photo. And Isaiah Williams is grabbing the defender's fanny pack.
-The Illini have been fortunate to not really feel the absence of Josh McCray to this point -- or at least, not lose a game because of it -- but this game was one where 2021 Josh McCray was sorely missed.
McCray did play Saturday, and no media reports after the game suggested his being limited to three carries and two catches was injury related, but if he was at 100 percent, you'd have to assume he would have gotten more work by the goal line than he did. Illinois' inability to run the ball with Chase Brown near the end zone has been glaring -- he's got just two rushing touchdowns in Big Ten play, and one was a 49-yard explosion in the Wisconsin game. Brown is incredible between the 20s, but moving the pile isn't his forte.
It is for McCray. On the drive midway through the fourth quarter where the Illini got into the Michigan State red zone with a chance to tie the game, McCray actually did catch a pass for three yards but was not on the field for the fourth-and-two play where Brown was stopped.
The lightning has been electric this year. Saturday was a reminder that we desperately need the thunder back.
-On the podcast I recorded with Robert last week, he asked about my text message thread with AJ.
This week's thread was … colorful. A sampling:
"I f*****g hate everything. I hate the officials. I hate only passing on third down. I hate injuries. I hate it."
"That's so embarrassing."
"I thought this wasn't a Tony Petersen offense."
-The officiating did leave something to be desired.
It wasn't terrible on the whole, but bad calls in two key spots really hurt the Illini.
The first was the Chase Brown illegal block late in the first half that moved the Illini out of field goal range. Obviously, there's no guarantee Caleb Griffin makes the 40-yard field goal on a windy day, and the difference in the game was more than three points, but there's no telling how making that field goal to go into the locker room up 10-9 might have changed the game going forward.
The second was the missed pass interference on the second possession of the third quarter. Isaiah Williams was mugged, a call that would have given the Illini a first down to keep the drive alive. Instead, the next play Hugh Robertson kicked it into the back of his own player and Michigan State drove 29 yards for the touchdown that turned out to be the difference in the game.
Officiating wasn't the only thing that led to an Illini loss, but it certainly didn't help.
-A stat from Saturday that tells a lot: 1-for-6 on fourth down.
*Fourth-and-goal at the Michigan State 2. Tommy DeVito throws a pass to … someone?
*Fourth-and-19 from the Michigan State 29. This was after the Chase Brown phantom penalty, and Bielema obviously didn't think a 46-yard field goal try was wise. The pass to Tip Reiman was a prayer that didn't connect.
*Fourth-and-1 from the Illinois 44. Instead of a quarterback sneak or trying to pound it up the middle, Barry Lunney called a toss that Brown dropped before picking it up and being tackled for a three-yard loss. Shades of the Rutgers game last year. Michigan State scored three plays later, a sequence that was clearly a huge turning point in the game.
*Fourth-and-2 from the Michigan State 20. Needed two. Got one.
*Fourth-and-10 from the Illinois 13. Crunch time. Turns out, it was DeVito who got crunched for a sack. Fortunately for the Illini, the Spartans went backwards five yards, inexplicably stopped the clock on a third-down pass and then missed the field goal that would have put the game out of reach.
*Fourth-and-10 from the Illinois 20. Again, without a choice, this was the only time the Illini converted, with a DeVito prayer being answered by Brian Hightower for a 22-yard gain to keep hope alive.
That's a lot of pivotal plays in the game that didn't go Illinois' way.
-If I'm looking for positives, I'm heartened by the fact that Illinois still had a chance to tie the game despite so many things going wrong.
It was also nice to see the AP voters keep the Illini in the Top-25 poll despite the loss, and to see that the Purdue line opened Sunday at Illinois -6.5. As I said last week, the line isn't everything -- clearly -- but Vegas oddsmakers seeing the Illini as being roughly a touchdown favorite going into the most important game of the season (to date, at least) is certainly not a bad thing.
Now, about that forecast.