I headed into Saturday's game expecting to see a Rutgers win over Illinois in a close game, about 31-27. All I wanted to see on the field was a team that swarmed after the ball, and played with passion for sixty minutes. After the first thirty minutes, Illinois looked like the same team from last year, and I started thinking this was going to be a long season. I cursed out Ron Turner once again for leaving the cupboard bare with talent, such that even Rutgers, Terry Shea's former haunting ground, could expose the Illini.
The first five minutes of the second half did nothing to dissolve the thought in my head that Illinois was doomed for a loss, and a humiliating one at that, at the hands of Greg Schiano's Scarlet Knights. I watched as All-American candidate Brian Leonard hurdled Charles Bailey (yes, Charles I would have been "hurt" too after I was just hurdled by a full back I was attempting to tackle, so I cannot blame you for that) and did not even break stride en route to his 83-yard touchdown run and just shook my head in disbelief. Here it came.
Then something happened. The Illini needed to answer the Scarlet Knights with points on their next drive, and that is just what happened. Tim Brasic looked poised in the pocket. Mike Locksley looked to be getting more comfortable with the talent he had as he called the offensive plays, and the Illini moved the ball up the field on a nine play, 69-yard drive that lead to a 28-yard field goal from Jason Reda.
The rest of the second half was a great game to watch. The Illini defense needed to hold Rutgers to zero points, and that is what they did. Sure, there was a bevy of questionable offensive play calls from Rutgers, like someone in the booth did not realize that when you have an All-American fullback running against a defense that is not known for its run stopping prowess, and you have a three-score lead you run the ball up the gut consistently. Instead, Rutgers passed the ball, and passed it some more, and never sustained a drive, nor did they take time off the clock. As much as Illinois' defense did a great job in holding Rutgers in the second half, Rutgers play calling basically ensured Illinois would have plenty of time on the clock to make their comeback.
In the fourth quarter, Tim Brasic led the Illini offense on three separate scoring drives that tied the game with 1:13 left on a swing pass to EB Halsey. Halsey took the swing pass along the west sideline and ran towards the north end zone diving from the four-yard line over Rutgers defenders and into the end zone. The Halsey swan dive into the end zone will probably be the picture of the Illini football team for the pre-conference schedule as it symbolizes a team that did not give up when they easily could have.
I will admit that heading into overtime, I still had doubts that Illinois would be the team to leave the game victorious, but they were not as strong as I had throughout the fourth quarter. During the entire Illinois comeback, I was just sitting in the stands waiting for the other shoe to drop on the Illinois comeback.
I thought it was going to happen when Rutgers lined up for another field goal attempt from Jeremy Ito in the fourth quarter, but he kicked it so low to the ground, Chris Norwell could just reach up with his left hand and block the kick.
I thought it would happen with a stalled Illinois drive in the final minutes, but Tim Brasic found Franklin Payne on fourth and three for a first down.
I thought in overtime, Rutgers would lean on Brian Leonard and Clark Harris to take them into the end zone, but they didn't. It was Illinois that won the game thanks to a twenty-yard swing pass to EB Halsey that was going no where on the east side of the field before he switched sides of the field in a play that I thought I would only see in NCAA Football 2006 on the X-Box.
The next play after EB's video game style cross field run, Pierre Thomas punched it in the from the two-yard line and the Illini students (those that were left because the non-Block I section was nearly empty after halftime) celebrated with the players who ran over to the Block I. There was a lot of emotion on the field, Ron Zook became the first head coach since Mike White in 1980 to win his debut as Illinois coach (John Mackovic, Lou Tepper, and Ron Turner all lost their debuts), and this Illini fan allowed optimism to sneak into his mindset for the season.
RANDOM THOUGHTS ON THE GAME
Where were Kendrick Jones and Pierre Thomas in the first half? Without looking back at the play by play, I am pretty sure Pierre Thomas had only five touches in the entire first half. I don't think there is any doubt that Pierre Thomas is Illinois' best running back, and he should be getting the majority of the carries. It seemed like he was the forgotten man on Saturday afternoon, especially in the first half. Sure, it was Mike Locksley's first time calling plays for Illinois, but Thomas should be getting many more carries. He did finish the game with eleven attempts for 63 yards for 5.7 yards per carry.
The other person missing from the Illini's offensive game plan in the first half was their best wide receiver, Kendrick Jones. Not only did Jones not even have a pass attempt thrown in his direction, but I don't think Tim Brasic even looked at his best receiver. In the second half, Jones showed his worth to the Illini offense as both a deep threat and a possession receiver. Jones finished the game with five catches for 66-yards, and a touchdown.
It is nice to see emotion from the head coach on the sideline. Under Ron Turner, Illinois fans did not really have a coach that demonstrated emotion on the sidelines, or in post game interviews. Football was a business for Ron Turner, and he treated it as such. When you are winning, a stoic figure head does not bother the fan base, but when you are losing (and Illinois did a lot of it under Ron Turner) a stoic coach, and a team that seems to play without emotion because a lightning rod for criticism from the fans.
I don't think Ron Zook will ever be someone that fans see as not being emotional, because he was running up and down the sidelines to cheer on his team, and rally the troops. Not only did he rally his team towards victory, he also was on the referees when they made questionable calls, something that fans always like to see, a coach fighting for his own team with the refs. It's a new era in Illinois football, and the Illini coach is not going to be a calming influence on the sideline, he is going to be the person that starts the excitement (and maybe even the person that is the most excited on the field).
- What are the Big Ten's Instant Replay rules? Now, don't get me wrong, I am positive Tim Brasic fumbled at the end of the first half, but the call on the field (despite what Jim Sheppard announced over the loud speaker) was that their was no fumble on the field. I am pretty sure that under the NFL rules judgment calls like that are not reviewable by the booth, but this was obviously reviewable under the Big Ten's rules for instant replay. Why? Yes, the right call was eventually made, but I thought it would not have been a reviewable play.
How comparable are Illinois' and Rutgers' football programs? I have been saying that Rutgers was the Illinois of the East Coast, and that Illinois was the Rutgers of the Midwest in a joking manner, but the more I think about it, the more it seems to ring true. Sure, Illinois has had much more success on the field, but the lows the Illini have seen are just the same as the lows Rutgers has seen. I have heard the term "sleeping giant" used with both schools because of the fertile recruiting grounds of Illinois and New Jersey (just look at Illinois' own Matt Maddox and EB Halsey). There will always be a coach that thinks they can "turn around the program" that is willing to take a chance at Illinois and at Rutgers.
I think the difference lies in the commitment to sports between the two schools. Illinois has shown more of a commitment to sports than Rutgers has. In football, Illinois has built the beautiful Irwin Indoor Practice Facility, and is planning on completely renovating Memorial Stadium. In basketball, Illinois has the Ubben Basketball Practice Center which at the time it was built was the standard bearer for all basketball practice facilities.
Where the similarities also come is in perception. A friend from New York City asked me why I was picking Rutgers to beat Illinois on Saturday. I reasoned with him and told him the only answer in my head: "It's Illinois." He laughed, and then said the New York media was picking Illinois to defeat Rutgers, and their basic reason was: "It's Rutgers".
Both fan bases have gone through enough to know not to expect greatness, but after Saturday afternoon, the Illinois fan base got a large boost of confidence that Ron Zook could get it done.
- I hope Illinois fans remember, Ron Zook is still in a rebuilding process. While it is conceivable that Illinois could start the season 3-1, when the meat of the Big Ten schedule starts, Illinois fans should remember that it was not just a coaching change that was needed to boost Illinois into contention in the Big Ten and for bowl games. The win over Rutgers was exciting, and it has me fired up about Illinois football again, but I still find it difficult to predict more than four wins for this team this season, and it won't be because Ron Zook can't coach, it will be because Illinois just is not talented enough to battle in the much improved Big Ten conference.