CHAMPAIGN - Better to be discouraged with a 3-1 record than discouraged with a 2-2 record.
Enter any cliché you prefer.
“A win is a win,” Illinois senior Clayton Fejedelem said of the Illini’s 27-25 win over Middle Tennessee State.
A win, based on Illinois making a field goal (Taylor Zalewski’s 51-yard attempt with 2:09 left) and the opposing team missing one (Middle Tennessee’s wide-left 43-yard attempt with 0:04 left)? Don't be ashamed to welcome it with open arms.
“I’ve never seen an ugly win,” Illini interim coach Bill Cubit said. “It’s either a win or a loss. Sometimes you play really well and you don’t win, and sometimes you don’t play really well and you win. We’re going to take it, and we’re going to enjoy ourselves.”
The Illini were probably due a “lucky” win following several “unlucky” losses in recent memory -- immediately coming to mind are a 10-6 loss at Iowa in 2007 when Eddie McGee’s touchdown was called back, Fresno State’s lineman two-point conversion in 2009 and Derek Dimke’s missing a field goal while taking on snowballs at Penn State in 2011.
Unlike home losses to non-power-five conference foes (like Ohio in 2006 and Louisiana Tech in 2012), Saturday’s too-close-for-comfort victory probably won’t be remembered as vividly thanks to a few fortunate breaks.
“That’s a fact,” said Illinois defensive coordinator Tim Banks. “That’s exactly how it is. No one will remember. They’ll just be like, ‘Oh, the Illini won.’ I’m just happy for the kids because in the past, you could’ve easily lost that game. Right? Guys would’ve panicked, falled down, tried to do too much and not just play to execute the defense.”
If the MT field goal wouldn't have curved left, the Illinois season may feel lost: an interim coach with the most miniscule chance of keeping the job pernmanently leading a team that limps into Big Ten play on the verge of that all-too-familiar feeling of a lost season by mid-October.
Instead, with the win, the Illini record (3-1) is what most would've predicted after four nonconference games, keeping the Illini goals intact. After all, those three too-close nonconference games last season still counted toward bowl eligibility.
Still, some fortunate breaks do not cover up the Illini’s many sins on Saturday -- for which there were many -- that would likely haunt them during Big Ten play.
Cubit’s always-go-for-it playcalling aggression probably should’ve cost him on Saturday.
Up five in the third quarter, he elected to go for it on 4th-and-1 from the MT 4. After burning two timeouts, Marchie Murdock dropped Wes Lunt’s pass (which if completed would have been a first down).
“I’ve always been more of an aggressive guy than play it safe,” Cubit said. “So you’re always going to open yourself (for criticism) there. To me, you play the game one way. You go after it 100 mph. And sometimes -- you know what? -- it’s not going to work out.
“But I feel comfortable with what we did.”
Cubit also seemed to abandon the run game in the second and third quarters before finaling effectively relying on Josh Ferguson (83 rushing yards on 20 carries) and freshman Ke’Shawn Vaughn (80 rushing yards on 13 carries) for a big chunk of the second half.
“People say, ‘Well, why didn’t you run the ball earlier?’ Well, it doesn’t work that way,” Cubit said. “The run game, you got to get them tired up front. That was a big physical group up there. We wanted to get them doing a lot of rushing up the field and then all of a sudden get into the run game. I thought that worked well.”
Lunt (29-for-49, 238 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT) and the Illini passing game are not nearly as sharp as expected, due mostly (though not all) to an inexperienced and mistake-prone receiver corps (which had 21 drops through the first three games).
Lunt started the game 8-for-11 passing but completed just five of his next 14 passes. The Illini quarterback was visibly frustrated during the second half due to miscommunication with or misunderstanding from his young receivers.
“As a quarterback, sometimes you’re going to get frustrated,” Cubit said. “Especially when (the receiver) doesn’t get the signal or you don’t run the right route. He’s going through his reads. There’s a bunch of young guys running around out there. The one guy we can sort of count on right now is G-Mo (Geronimo Allison, who had 10 catches for 128 yards). But we got to get those other guys up to par. If we don’t pretty soon, it’s going to be an issue -- more of an issue, excuse me.”
The Illini offense scored just 10 points on its first five trips into the red zone, missing a 38-yard field, turning it over on downs once and punting (following a sack of Lunt).
The Illini miss their two top tight ends -- Tyler White (concussion) and Tim Clary (arm injury) -- who are both keys to the Illini’s 12 personnel (double tight ends), which they often use in the red zone. Clary had made key blocks inside the red zone during the first two games, and three of White’s five catches this season were touchdown catches inside the red zone.
“It’s hard to run the style of offense we want without those guys,” Cubit said.
Special teams struggles
The Illini special teams made a game-changing play -- Caleb Day blocked a punt that Fejedelem recovered for a touchdown -- and the game-winning play (Zalewski’s game-winning field goal). But it also too often cost the Illini.
The Illini averaged just 18.75 yards per kick return, thanks to two penalites on returns. Punter Ryan Frain averaged just 37.8 yards per punt.
V’Angelo Bentley allowed what should have been a fair catch at about the Illinois 20-yard line to bounce and MT downed it on the one-yard line. Lunt fumbled the snap on the next play, and the Illini were tackled in the end zone for a safety -- costing Illinois two points and an offensive possession.
Some teams, like Minnesota, make seasons based on winning ugly. Illinois will take more ugly wins, like Saturday's over MT, if it means more winning.
“It’s a big deal,” Ferguson said. “Winning those sloppy games going into Big Ten play is always awesome. I feel like if we can hone in on the little things we need to fix -- the fundamentals of the game, catching the ball and things like that -- then we’ll be fine.”
The difference between 2-2 and 3-1?
“Big difference,” Allison said. “Confidence really. That’s the most important thing.”
The Illini’s 3-1 record doesn’t portend success. The Illini were 3-1 after nonconference play in 2013 and finished the season with a 4-8 record. The Illini were 3-1 after nonconference play last season and lost their next three before winning three of their last five to gain bowl eligibility.
“I feel like we’re better than we were the last couple years when we were 3-1,” junior LEO Dawuane Smoot said. “We played some good competition. Middle Tennessee was good competition. They were better than people think.”
Illinois was lucky to get the win on Saturday. And the result doesn’t cover up their sins.
But it sure makes them easier to swallow -- for now.
“Usually, you don’t win games like that,” Cubit said. “We feel fortunate to win. But we’re 3-1. We can say all we want, but you know what? We’re still 3-1.”