Whatever your impressions were of how this season was going to go for the Fighting Illini, one thing is clear: this program is a long way from being complete. A 3-1 start sparked by a rejuvenated offense gave the fan base some hope, but it also raised expectations a level or two too high.
It's hard to think that way after Saturday's 42-3 loss to Michigan State, especially considering how close the Illini were to being up by a good margin in the first half. When you're on the track that Illinois is on – one of a once-proud program trying to claw its way back to respectability – you have to take advantage of your opportunities. Nothing is given.
Illinois had the chance to get up early on Michigan State. Everything was going right on the first drive until an apparent touchdown pass from Nathan Scheelhaase to tight end Jon Davis was called back due to a holding penalty. The Illini still went up 3-0, but that won't cut it.
For once, the Illini defense was making plays, forcing a first-quarter fumble. On the whole, Illinois couldn't capitalize on the Spartans' mistakes and added to the problem by making their own mistakes, including a failed fourth down try at the MSU one-yard line and botched reverse in its own territory.
"I know I'm not real happy about it and I don't think any of our kids are, but that stuff will happen at times and, unfortunately, we just didn't play real well," Illini offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said. "A lot of it's going to go to the Michigan State defense. I don't know if I've run through a game plan and called that many types of plays just to get something going and then once you get one thing going, they shut it down."
Illinois forced Michigan State into third-downs, but as the game went on, the Spartans continued to convert those third downs, including the twice-tipped pass that fell into the arms of MSU receiver Bennie Fowler. The Spartans ended up converting 14 of 16 third downs in the game.
"We had a few chances to get a stop," linebacker Mason Monheim said. "Whatever it was, we couldn't make a play. The majority of the time, we were in position to make plays. I just think we have to make that stop when it counts."
That's a familiar refrain for Illinois, but it's also a familiar refrain for teams that have had to play three opponents like Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State in a row. Illini head coach Tim Beckman is very prone to giving the other team credit after a loss, but it's hard to argue with him.
Does it get at least a little easier down the stretch? Outside of Ohio State, yeah, it does. Right now, Illinois is in the basement of the Big Ten. When you're that low on the totem pole, you have to be able to beat teams on your level (Indiana, Purdue) and maybe steal one or two from someone above you (Northwestern, Penn State).
That's probably what is so frustrating about Saturday's loss to the Spartans. It actually was one of those "maybe" games, especially in the first half.
Illinois started well; it just has to finish that way one of these days.