As I sat in the West Balcony on Saturday afternoon, I went through three different emotions while watching the Illini: hope for a victory, then sudden despair when I knew the loss was inevitable, and then hope again for the future after the offensive spark in the fourth quarter. I would like to look at these three emotions, and point to what was causing them on the football field.
HOPE FOR A VICTORY
In the first half of the game Illinois really looked like they could beat Syracuse. The defense was playing rather well, despite the Orange's 14-7 lead heading into the break. On the first two possessions, the Orange were forced to punt, and one of their two touchdown drives was highlighted by what can best be described as a fluke fumble recovery / return for a touchdown.
At halftime, the Illini were down seven points, and they would have the ball to start the game. The Illini had been able to string together two drives to end the first half of fifteen and then twelve plays on offense, but they were still way too undisciplined. The undisciplined nature of the Illini's play especially in that twelve play drive capped off by a Tim Brasic interception (which basically served as a punt) with 3:47 left in the second quarter.
Speaking of that drive, what was it looking like before it was derailed by penalties? Actually, a lot like the drive right before it when Tim Brasic marched the Fighting Illini down the field on a fifteen play touchdown drive capped off with a five yard quarterback keeper. The drive started from the Illini 20, and went as follows:
1st & 10 from the ILL 20: 9 yard pass to DaJuan Warren
2nd & 1 from the ILL 29: Pierre Thomas for 4 yards up the middle. FIRST DOWN ILLINOIS.
1st & 10 from the ILL 33: Thomas over the left end for one yard.
2nd & 9 from the ILL 34: Pass to Thomas for 5 yards.
3rd & 4 from the ILL 39: 8 yard pass to Jody Ellis. FIRST DOWN ILLINOIS.
1st & 10 from the ILL 47: DaJuan Warren on a reverse for 12 yards. FIRST DOWN ILLINOIS
1st & 10 from the SYR41: Jody Ellis rushes for 3 yards.
2nd & 7 from the SYR38: Thomas over left tackle for 6 yards.
3rd & 1 from the SYR32: Thomas up the middle for 2 yards. FIRST DOWN ILLINOIS
1st & 10 from the SYR30: Incomplete pass.
2nd & 10 from the SYR30: PENALTY Illegal Block -11 yards
2nd & 21 from the SYR41: Syracuse Offsides 5 yards (I will come back to this play later, too)
2nd & 16 from the SYR36: PENALTY Holding (Maddux) -10 yards
2nd & 26 from the SYR46: Brasic rush for 11 yards.
3rd & 15 from the SYR35: PENALTY Personal Foul (Weil) -15 yards
3rd & 30 from the ILL50: Interception
This drive occurred the drive directly after the Illini took five minutes off the clock on a fifteen play, seventy-six yard touchdown drive. It showed two things, the Illini could move the ball against Syracuse and that the Illini were self-destructing on the field committing penalties and mistakes that are the key reason this program is a perennial member of the ESPN Bottom Ten list.
What were the mental mistakes made on this drive? The key mental mistake made is one the second and twenty-one play from the Syracuse 41 yard line directly after the illegal block on the Illini. The Syracuse defender jumped the snap count, and was obviously offsides. Every one in the entire stadium knew, and the Illini got the play off. Brasic was pressured in the pocket, but he was able to move around. Instead of just throwing the ball deep to one of his receivers on what was an obvious free play, the Illini senior quarterback threw the ball away. A mental mistake that a senior should not be making on the football field, especially one that started every game in the past season.
They just happened to be a sign of what was about to happen, me feeling signs of despair.
KNOWING THE LOSS WAS INEVITABLE
After the second half kick off, the Illini were looking to make their third straight drive through the Syracuse defense, but it was just not to be. On the first play from scrimmage, Tim Brasic was hit as he was running the option, and instead of tucking the ball in, he attempted to pitch it. He pitched the ball, but very meekly and the bad pitch, aka a fumble, was recovered by Syracuse for a touchdown. In a common theme, the Illini found the bad thing that would happen to them, and the team just caved in.
Right after the fumble, the Illini went three and out, despite freshman Juice Williams coming into the game. It was now up to the defense to get a stop and ensure the Illini offense would get a chance to cut the Syracuse lead to seven. Unfortunately, the next two Syracuse drives were six plays, fifty-two yards for a touchdown and then ten play, forty yards for a field goal, putting the Illini down 31-7.
There was nothing going right in the game, and it looked like for the second straight week the Illini had folded up their tent and just been ready to take the beating that the Orange were giving them. That was until a weird thing happened …
HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
I told my friends that I was sitting next to at the game that I just wanted any sign of hope to make me excited about coming down to Champaign next week to watch the Iowa game. I got just that. In one play, a perfect flip pass to Rashard Mendenhall as he avoided the Syracuse rush, Juice Williams brought energy back into Memorial Stadium. From that play on, the Fighting Illini team, both the offense and the defense, had a little something extra in their step. Juice's touchdown pass revitalized the team.
In the fourth quarter, the Illini defense was able to three punts and one interception that led to an Illini five play, ninety-nine yard touchdown drive capped off by a Juice bomb to Kyle Hudson.
There was hope on the field after Saturday's loss to Syracuse, if even just a little glimmer of it. And as an Illini fan, that is all I need to come back on Saturday to watch the Illini take on the Hawkeyes.
OTHER RANDOM THOUGHTS
- Would I like to see Illini offensive coordinator Mike Locksley use the Illini ground game more? Definitely. I have been very critical of his play calling in the last two seasons, but I thought he called a very good game on Saturday. The Illini offense did not score due to missed play calls, but they didn't score due to poor execution and dropped passes. Yes, there is a lot of room for improvement in the play calling, in my opinion, but I saw Locksley see what was open on the field and adjust the game plan to suit that on Saturday.
- Despite biting on a playfake and getting burnt for a touchdown on Saturday afternoon, Illini freshman cornerback Vontae Davis is already Illinois' best corner since Eugene Wilson. Yes, there will still be some mistakes like biting on the playaction pass, but Davis' feel for the game of football is impressive. I found myself just watching him play the game on a few plays and he always seemed to know his assignment, and where to be on the field.
- The offensive line itself has been a big disappointment this season, especially Akim Millington. Millington is a much better player than he has shown this season, especially Saturday. Saturday it seemed like he was a step slow the entire game. There were runs to the side where if he gets out to the sideline to make his block, the Illini runner would have been freed for another ten yards, but he was too late in getting there. I wondered why the Illini were not running over the left tackle that much in the first two games, but after watching Millington be a step slow and penalty-ridden all day Saturday, I think we know why Locksley has not been calling many runs off the left tackle.
- While I do have hope for the future, I also know that this is not a real good football team. In fact, it is a bad football team, and before this team can improve with the talent level, the coaching itself needs to improve. The penalties, the missed blocks, and other mental mistakes are something that points directly to the coaching on the team, and it needs to improve for this football team to improve to the point Illini fans are hoping for in the next year.