Penn State proved to Illini fans and players that it is one of the best teams in the Big 10 and nation last Saturday. Unfortunately, they are merely tied in league standings right now with Illinois' next opponent Wisconsin. Anyone seeking relief from the misery of a frustrating season will likely have difficulty finding it at Memorial Stadium this Saturday.
Wisconsin has had a history of good teams during the Barry Alvarez era. While Alvarez's present team lacks the overall athleticism and firepower of a couple of his previous teams, it may have even more incentive to excel than its predecessors because of its coach's pending retirement. The Badger players want to send Alvarez out with a winner, and their 7-1 start puts them in position for a major bowl bid.
To say they will be difficult for the Illini is an understatement. A mature team with outstanding players must play an outstanding game to beat the Badgers. A young team losing confidence like water running through a sieve has little if any chance of giving them much of a scare. Unfortunately, Illinois is in the latter category right now.
Wisconsin is always a run-first team. They recruit large, quick-footed offensive linemen and then pump them up with four to five years of weight training that always seems to produce stronger players than a comparable program at Illinois. These linemen then open the holes for a string of excellent running backs. Zone line blocking lets the backs choose their holes, a big fullback clears out the linebacker ahead of the play, and the running back cuts back against the motion of the defenders into open territory. For all the years of the Alvarez regime, only Illinois' most mature teams have come close to neutralizing the strength of the Badger running game.
Judging from earlier games, the Illini have trouble defending against a team with a strong running game. Thus, one might predict the Badgers to run every play, moving the clock and the chains for a convincing victory. But Wisconsin will throw anyway since they must continue to rationalize the need for great wide receivers. And they do have some good ones again this year.
To this writer's continual amazement, Wisconsin's convervative running offense attracts one talented receiver after another. The passing routes are simplistic, with only minor similarity with what they might use in the National Football League. And the passing game always plays second fiddle to the run game, the Badgers using the pass to keep defenses honest and open up more holes for the running game.
But great receivers see the pros turned out at Wisconsin and believe it is a good school for developing receivers. Illinois under Ron Turner was much more likely to prepare those receivers for the pros than Alvarez, but it was Wisconsin that continued to attract more talent than Illinois. Doesn't seem fair or even logical, does it?
Wisconsin's defense is not as dominant as Penn State, but it is good enough to limit Illinois. Opponents are stacking their defense close to the line of scrimmage against Illinois, and Wisconsin will do the same. Penn State deployed 10 and sometimes all 11 of their defenders within ten yards of the line of scrimmage against the Illini, and we were unable to burn them with long passes. The fact we didn't even try any long passes made this decision an easy one. But our blocking was insufficient to protect the quarterback long enough to make the deep pass even when called.
If one senses a lack of optimism regarding Illinois' chances in this and its other remaining games, it is well earned. Fans know this is the first year with a new coach, and they know the cupboard was not overloaded with experienced talent when the coaching change occurred. But we are all frustrated with the differential between how outstanding many Big 10 teams really are and how mediocre we are. We could win games with our present team in conferences like the Big East (i.e. Rutgers) and MAC, but the Big 10 is the most loaded it has ever been. We are simply outmatched, and no coaching staff would find victories coming easily under the circumstances.
So instead of trying to rationalize what Illinois might need to do to bring a victory to Memorial Stadium against the Badgers, perhaps we should set more realistic goals. Right now, we need to see improvement in all facets of the game, so signs of improvement would be good after a weekend where little good occurred.
Win or lose, fans will be grateful if we can show some hustle and aggressiveness. Since we have lost all hope of a bowl bid, we must instead hope our team begins to prepare itself for a better year next year. Anything we can do to learn better how to compete in the Big 10 might help us eventually even if it is not this year.
Some realistic goals might be to see someone, anyone, run down speedy and shifty running back Brian Calhoun in the open field and tackle him for little or no gain. Even once would be a pleasant surprise. As another example, perhaps just once we could see a linebacker take on the block of powerful 270 pound fullback Matt Bernstein and knock him back or at least prevent further penetration. Some other good signs for the future might include:
1. A defensive lineman getting a sack.
2. A linebacker getting a tackle for loss on some play other than a blitz.
3. A cornerback staying with Wisconsin's speedy receivers and knocking down a pass.
4. A safety making an open field tackle.
5. A quarterback completing a long pass...any quarterback for any type of long pass.
6. A tight end making a block to open space for a runner or receiver.
7. A tight end getting separation from a linebacker and catching a ball thrown to him.
8. A running back getting the key protection block against a blitz to allow the quarterback to complete an important pass.
9. A wide receiver catching a third or fourth down pass in a crowd and then hanging on for a first down or touchdown despite being hit hard by defenders.
10. An offensive lineman pancaking a defender to open a big hole for a running back to make a big gain.
More than anything, this writer will be looking for signs the team is staying unified in an effort to get things turned around. The worst thing that could happen would be if players begin to turn on each other or the coaches out of frustration. Our current woes may not be overcome this year with unity, but we can minimize the extremes. And the unity possible when people come together to assist each other during a crisis will be an important building block for future teams.
Perhaps just relaxing and having fun on the field will be the best thing the Illini can do to compete with Wisconsin. Perhaps we have been trying so hard, wanting victories so badly, that we have tightened up and reduced our effectiveness. At this point, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain by just letting our instincts take over and play the game. Nothing could be worse than what we have already done, so maybe reversing our attitudes will allow for some improvement.
In these dark times, it is hard to see a positive future. But one is still possible if we can all just stay together and keep working for it. The 1961 and 1962 Illini football teams lost 15 straight games before pulling a surprise upset at Purdue. The following year, they went to the Rose Bowl.
We cannot predict an upset against Wisconsin, but we can hope to see progress. So fly around Illini, throw caution to the wind, and have fun. If we lose, so what? Let's put the "Fight" back into Fighting Illini so we can all leave the game with some self-respect. That would be a victory in itself.
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