Saturday's 61-14 Illini collapse against a powerful Michigan State team was a total team effort. The Illini can truthfully say that not one of their players contributed a great game to the cause. After three straight weeks of improvement, the Illini suffered humiliation and must now regroup.
Certainly, the Spartans are loaded with athletic, mature talent and are lead by a charismatic and clutch performer in Drew Stanton. They are playing with a tremendous amount of confidence as they have playmakers at practically every skill position and massive, dominant maulers in the trenches. And they got on a role early in the game Saturday, with every positive play giving them even more confidence. They looked like a juggernaut; the Illini would have trouble winning even one of every ten games against them.
But Illinois was helpless even to slow down the juggernaut let alone show promise for the future. Coach Ron Zook took responsibility for the loss, but everyone must share the blame. Inconsistent playcalling, inefficient quarterbacking, dropped passes, a porous offensive line, uninspired running, missed assignments, mediocre punting and shoddy tackling all contributed to our demise. Any knot in the pits of fans' stomachs from anticipation of a competitive contest quickly transformed into a more nauseating emptiness that many will have difficulty healing.
Perhaps the most revealing evidence for this game being a total wipeout was the three times helmets flew off Illini heads. Usually, hard-hitting defenders cause their opponents to lose helmets with their aggressiveness. Unfortunately, in all three cases Saturday it was Illini defenders who lost their hats while trying to tackle the Spartans, including two plays in a row. If there was ever an indication this was not our day, that was it.
Illini fans and players have endured massacres before. Mike White won a lot of games at Illinois in the 1980's and took us to the Rose Bowl in 1983, but he was also on the losing end of 52-7, 70-21, 45-9, 59-0, and 69-13 scores, to name a few. As tough as the Big 10 has been recently, it is not surprising a young, rebuilding team like Illinois with a new coach would lose big at least once or twice this season. The fact it happened at home against a team predicted to finish no better than fifth in the conference makes it seem especially troubling to long-suffering fans. But it was not unexpected.
It really does no good to analyze the statistics of the game because they are so one-sided. As good as MSU looked, and as bad as the UI looked, one cannot make presumptions about the two teams' futures. After all, MSU will not always get on a role like that, and we are capable of playing much better than we showed. Is there really a 47 point disparity between the teams? The answer is "no".
Some hoped the Spartans would take the Illini lightly after their upset at Notre Dame and before their pressurized intrastate matchup with Michigan next week. But John L. Smith had his troops fired up to counter an 0-7 streak in games immediately following a big upset victory. They were at a peak in focus, and they played like they were moving down hill with a strong favoring wind at their backs. They weren't, but it did seem that way.
Teams do not get into that intense mental frame often, but a team with great athletes like Michigan State looks like a future national champ when it does. Given their peak performance Saturday and Michigan's upset loss at Wisconsin, it would not be surprising to see the Wolverines rise up and conquer the Spartans next week. Such is the nature of up and down life cycles.
Right now, Illinois is in the exact opposite position. They must put aside these painful memories and maintain their confidence so they can face the rest of the season. Sometimes, it is easier to forget a blowout than a close loss, so we can hope this is true for the Illini this week. After all, there are no guaranteed victories in the Big Ten.
Coach Zook will work his troops hard this week while looking for those who dedicate themselves to making improvements. These are trying times, but this is why big-time coaches like Zook make huge salaries. It is much easier to take a loaded team like MSU and win than to rally youngsters with fragile confidence levels to future victories after such a blowout loss. The latter is Coach Zook's fate but also his opportunity. Rising like a Phoenix from these ashes may take longer than Illini fans want, but it is the goal Coach Zook and his staff will strive to accomplish from this day forward. Saturday was our benchmark. We can only go up from here.
It is likely true that our team will be able to forget the devastation wrought by hurricane Spartan and motivate themselves for a more positive future. At the least, that is what is needed from them as they fight to prevent a season-long collapse. Some Illini fans will demand they do this even though they themselves have more difficulty putting aside these painful memories.
The Illini know they played poorly and they are embarrassed. They are young and resilient and will bounce back psychologically. Whether they can defeat one or more of the top Big 10 teams with a talent level rated by everyone as inferior to those teams remains to be seen.
The Illini will need the unconditional support of the Illini fandom. They cannot do it alone. We are all in this together, and we can help create a better future if we all work together for this common goal.
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