The Fighting Illini end their first season under Coach Ron Zook Saturday against Northwestern in Memorial Stadium on Senior Day. As has been true throughout the Big 10 season, the Illini are a decided underdog.
Northwestern's Wildcats have had an excellent year behind the heady leadership of quarterback Brett Basanez. Showing how much can be accomplished in any offense when the quarterback has five years of college and three years of starting experience under his belt, Basanez has helped NW to tremendous offensive production. Along with exciting (though underrecruited) freshman running back Tyrell Sutton and some athletic receivers, the Wildcats are a threat to score on every possession. So while their defense has been porous at times, it knows it will get plenty of offensive support.
Since few if any fans believe the Illini can compete with Northwestern after the tribulations of this difficult season, analyzing how to beat them may be wasted energy. So perhaps we should discuss what the Illini need to do to regain their self-respect prior to the long offseason.
Certainly, the Illini are at low ebb right now, wondering what has happened to them and what their future might hold. If they go into the offseason with doubts about themselves and their teammates, it will be difficult for them to stay motivated in the classroom and the weight room. And it will be hard for them to instill excitement among the visiting recruits we need to upgrade the team.
Our suggestion to the coaches is to think back to the first game of the season and use the same overall offensive game plan and optimistic attitude we had then. This was before we came to doubt ourselves. This was before our offensive line knew it was inadequate. This was before quarterback Tim Brasic took ten too many hits and began to distrust his ability to find and hit downfield receivers.
We should throw caution to the wind and play like we know what we are doing. We should mix pass and run, and we should mix short, medium and long passes. In other words, we should get back to using our true offense, the wide open one that will work when we have the experienced personnel to perform it properly. Limiting the offense isn't working. Rather, it is causing doubt in our own players and excitement in our opponents, who are learning how to stop us too easily.
Of course, our offensive line won't have tight ends and backs to support their blitz protections, so some quick outlet passes and extemporaneous runs will be required of the quarterback. But mostly what is required is a quarterback who will make his passes quickly enough to hit the receivers when open without sacks. And one who recognizes blitz packages and secondary coverages and attacks the resulting weak spots in the defense.
If Brasic can't do it, then someone else should be tried. Chris Pazan can't avoid the rush with his legs, and he tends to throw into coverage. Rookie Kisan Flakes hasn't had the practice time and might suffer psychological trauma that might hurt his development if thrown to the wolves. But we need someone, anyone, who has the courage to stand against a ferocious rush and make the plays required of him. And we need someone who will spread the Wildcat secondary by looking for and hitting a multitude of receivers with a wide variety of throws.
Defense is not Northwestern's strong suit, but this was also true of Purdue. Obviously, we need to throw out both the Purdue game plan and the tape of the game and forget it ever happened. Only then can our offense get back to being confident in what it is doing so it can move the ball against Northwestern. Given how porous the Wildcat defense has been at times, the Illini should have enough horses to make a game of it. And given how fast NW can score, we should get plenty of opportunites to showcase our complete, no-huddle spread offense.
But we have to start having fun again. Win or lose, our goal Saturday should be to enjoy ourselves and allow our ability and knowledge gained this year to aid our cause. We have no expectations, so failure is nothing to fear. We will have precious little fan support as some season ticket holders will prefer the warmth and security of their home televisions, and those who do attend may be sitting on their hands trying to stay warm. So we certainly don't have to fear embarrassment.
So why not just go out there and try a little of everything? Try some trick plays, some are bound to work eventually (hasn't it been amazing how consistently our trick plays have been called back by penalty this year?). Call the plays our players enjoy performing the most. Confuse Northwestern with every manner of unpredictability. Show the viewing audience that we have an enthusiasm for the game of football and a willingness to try anything necessary to compete successfully.
The last thing in the world we need now is a philosophy of trying to keep the score down so it will appear a close game. If we do that, we will not only be losers but boring as well. There can be no more devastating combination for destroying a future fan base and recruiting prospects than to be both bad and difficult to watch.
Up to now, it appears the Illini have wanted to win so badly they have tightened up under the pressure of game situations. So why not reverse the attitude and stop worrying about trying to win the game? Just go out onto the field not thinking about victories but about how much fun we can have. Show the world we have a sense of humor and a coaching staff that will not browbeat their players for their inadequacies but give them opportunities to play the game they love without excessive incumberances. Let recruits see they will have fun at Illinois because they will win more games and play better when they have fun.
The Fighting Illini will showcase a few good men Saturday as they say goodbye to the graduating seniors. Some were freshmen when we went to the Sugar Bowl, so it is sad to realize they are ending their careers on such a downer. But on an encouraging note, the small number of seniors means we will have many returning lettermen with experience next year. Perhaps when they become seniors, they will help lead the Illini back to respectability and hopefully some bowl games.
It has been a long season, one that is difficult for any true Illini to endure. But there is still a glimmer of hope for the future as Coach Zook is known as a great recruiter who can infuse our team with talented newcomers. It will be easier for him to recruit if the Fighting Illini can show a spark of life in its season finale with Northwestern.
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