You know that knot we get in the pit of our stomachs when our favorite team is competing favorably with an outstanding opponent? We want our team to win badly, so we feel the pressure of the moment manifesting as a pain in our gut. Many Illini fans experienced that knot into the fourth quarter of our loss to California Saturday.
Sure, the pain eventually went away as the Bears showed their dominance and pulled out a 35-20 victory. But the Illini played an inspired game against a ranked opponent in their home stadium. They defied the role of major underdog to give Cal everything it could want through three quarters. In doing so, they took a necessary, intermediate step in their efforts to transform their mediocre recent past into a rewarding future.
Before we can defeat a ranked team on its home field, we must learn how to play inspired for the full 60 minutes. We have to prepare properly ahead of time, ignore the distractions of long-distance travel, and face the challenge of a rabid fandom and talented athletes to complete the process. In a major improvement from the last two years, the Illini Saturday proved they have learned most of those lessons. Now, we just need to learn how to finish.
We will suffer from this loss for awhile, but the Illini have every reason to develop confidence and strength from their game against Cal. After all, we learned how to play with poise while our emotions are elevated to a fever pitch. Our youngsters learned what it takes to prepare diligently throughout the week, and they learned they can focus positive energy on the game while avoiding all the distractions of an away game against a top opponent. We learned that we can compete against top talent. And we saw our own future while watching Cal's speedy and talented team, one who's ascension to football prominence sets an example we can emulate to transform a couple losing seasons into major success in the span of just a few short years.
The Illini defense has taken the brunt of criticism in recent years, but it took a major step forward Saturday. Sure, final game statistics show Cal with over 400 yards total offense, but much of that yardage was obtained after the Illini's emotional bubble burst in the fourth quarter. Sure, we gave up a few big plays and didn't always finalize our tackles. But we clearly outplayed the Bears throughout the first half. This has to be a major confidence boost to our developing defense.
Former Illini linebacker Sam Ellsworth, now living in California, said at halftime that the Illini's improved defense was exciting to him. He saw the emotion, the aggressiveness, and the gang tackling common among top defenses, and he was encouraged. We dominated a good Bear offense in the first half. We clearly received Cal's undivided attention as they had to rally their forces in the second half to avoid a major upset.
Offensively, Tim Brasic continues to improve, and he continues to bounce back despite one hard hit after another. He is demonstrating he is a real warrior, and this confident, aggressive attitude serves Brasic's leadership role well. How can our offense not strive to do its best when the players see their quarterback ignoring pain to play inspired ball? It may be a minor miracle if Brasic stays healthy the whole year as his role requires frequent runs as well as passes. But, so far at least, Tim is demonstrating outstanding resiliency.
Passing became a problem in the second half as Cal's speedy cornerbacks clamped down on our wide receivers, and blitzing linebackers and safeties threw off our timing. This is the kind of smothering defense the Illini offense must face practically every week in the Big 10, so it is good practice for what is to come. Brasic didn't always find the hot receiver when subjected to the various blitzes, but the experience will make him better in the future.
And this game reminded us of the importance of having fast, athletic receivers who can gain separation from dominant defensive backs. We have a large number of receivers, but there is still more need for speed. It was encouraging to see rookie Kyle Hudson continue to play well as he has the quickness and jumping ability to get separation and catch passes in a crowd.
And it was also encouraging to see freshman Derrick McPhearson get his first playing time after recovering from a broken leg. Now that his first-game jitters are over, Derrick can show Illini fans his blazing speed and overall athleticism. He will be a deep threat who can open up the passing lanes for his teammates by causing fear among opposing defenses.
Special teams still need improvement, and Coach Zook must be ready to tear out his hair over a couple of special teams breakdowns for the second week in a row. The kickoff and punt cover teams simply must improve their tackling to prevent long touchdowns. And E. B. Halsey must learn better when to field punts to save field position. A failure to do so caused the Illini to start with bad field position on a couple occasions. On the positive side, Jason Reda made two more field goals and continues to demonstrate his strong and accurate leg. We are learning we can count on Reda to be an asset for us.
With the Big 10 season beginning this week, the Illini still have their work cut out for them to make a bowl game. After all, the Big 10 is loaded with outstanding players and teams, and every game will be a stiff test of our togetherness and resolve. But we are in as good a condition physically as we could possibly expect, and we are learning how to win. So while we will likely suffer some more frustrating losses, we also know that big wins are possible.
Little by little, we are adding more building blocks to our football program's foundation. We can't just go from losing all our games to winning them all without a great deal of fluctuation in between. Each part of the process that leads to winning must be established, embraced, and carried out to our best ability. As we learn what it takes at each step along the way, we build for the day we can pull some upsets. And then, once that is accomplished, we can learn to win while favored. If we take one step at a time and not try to get ahead of ourselves, we will fulfill our dreams eventually.
And for those who are unfamiliar with that knot in the stomach, then plan to get used to it. It will be a partner for us as we continue to grow as a team, so it is a sign we are making progress. There is no reason to fear this emotional turmoil or try to numb it artificially because it is a good thing. It is one of the consequences of having a good team. Eventually, we will experience it for a full four quarters, and we will happily accept it as a necessary evil. After all, it is much preferred over losing interest shortly after the opening kickoff.
If the Illini continue to improve in every facet of the game, one day we will look up and discover a nationally prominent team. Getting there is often more fun and rewarding than being there, so it is time for all of us to enjoy the process. And if the Illini continue to play like they did through most of the game Saturday, enjoyment will be frequent and success will come sooner than later.
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