Hoosiers Win on Illini's Homecoming

Homecoming may have started on the Illinois campus, but the Fighting Illini football team cannot guarantee wins for its returning alumni. They thought they had a big win last Saturday, only to see Indiana kick a last second field goal to pull the upset. Illinisports offers a unique slant on the game in this report.

The Fighting Illini football team suffered a heartbreaking last second defeat at the hands of the Indiana Hoosiers Saturday at Memorial Stadium 34-32. With the upset win, the Hoosiers ended a 27 year drought of winning at Illinois and a streak of 17 straight losing Big Ten road games. And the Illini reverted back to the inconsistent team it was prior to its big upset win last week at Michigan State.

Most Illini fans are especially frustrated with this result, as are the coaches and players. The Illini built a big early lead only to see Indiana rally to go ahead. The Illini then regained the lead and fought to keep it until the end, but Indiana manufactured a successful drive to set up the winning field goal. It was a game that appeared winnable for the Illini, so losing caused much negative reaction.

Micromanagement continues unabated 24 hours after the debacle, with many fans analyzing each individual play and situation to find fault. Their conclusions include poor coaching decisions such as a questionable first quarter two point attempt that failed and conservative play-calling once a big lead was established.

Other blame is being assigned the team for not coming out inspired, especially the defense early; a failure of special teams to corral the electric Marcus Thigpen on kick returns (one went all the way and another set up a short touchdown drive) and/or Jason Reda to kick the ball into the end zone with the wind or kick away from Thigpen; poor adaptation to the more aggressive blitz packages Indiana started using once Illinois gained the big lead; a couple important dropped passes; inconsistent tackling; and just about any other imperfection one can remember.

This writer has the benefit of hindsight as his post-game articles are not published until Mondays. The extra time allows one to regain a balanced perspective and let go of the emotional bias that otherwise might color any reports of the game. At the same time, it is our task to find a unique perspective on the game that will not overlap excessively with the common fare of other beat writers. Repeating everyone else's comments is unnecessarily redundant and boring, so another approach will be used.

When one lets go of his memory bias of individual plays and games and instead looks at the entire Big Ten football season as a whole without emotional attachment, one sees a different story. The story of the forest is much different than the stories of the individual trees within the forest, and the same is true for football seasons.

The synchronicity between last week's Illinois/Michigan State game and this week's Illinois/Indiana game is remarkable and deserves analysis. In fact, the parallels are as obvious as the nose on our faces. Illinois went into Michgan State, on their homecoming, as severe underdogs and overcame a long cycle of failure with a big victory. Indiana then came to Illinois and did the exact same thing on Illinois' homecoming.

In both cases, the home team was playing one week after a big game where they played inspired ball and expended much emotional energy. An emotional letdown was predictable, and the visiting team took advantage of it. For both Illinois and Indiana, freshman quarterbacks were at the helm and coolly led their teams down the field against the odds to set up last-second field goals. In both cases, fan reaction was one of euphoria with a belief that a positive future awaits for the victors and depression, anger and in some cases hatred for the losing coaches and their methods.

In truth, Illinois and Indiana are in similar cycles of development and were evenly matched. Their coaches are in their second years of rebuilding programs that have suffered many indignities in recent years. Both are required to use large numbers of freshmen and redshirt freshmen as starters and top reserves and are predictably unpredictable.

Both are just learning how to win and are still unfamiliar with how to handle big losses and big wins. Both have fandoms who are riddled with doubt and support the program inconsistently. And both are forced to play difficult schedules filled with powerful Big Ten teams who have played consistently well for a number of years and expect to win.

If we study the Balance Of Nature, we realize that all dogs have their day and everyone eventually sees reversals of fortune. While some teams tend to win more than their share and others lose more than their share, all teams have a chance to win once in awhile. Even long-suffering Chicago Cubs baseball fans cheered 60+ victories this year, allowing them to persevere and look to next year. Illinois and Indiana have been at the bottom of the barrel for a long time, but they have an inalienable right to keep trying for victories and to receive them eventually.

Saturday was Indiana's turn. A week ago it was Illinois' turn. It might be as simple as that. Sure, that explanation is unacceptable to nearly everyone. But that doesn't make it a wrong answer. Most people would rather keep the misery of old negative tapes running through their heads, like seen routinely on the old Jerry Springer television show. They can't consider cycles of Nature when they are still caught up in the emotions of their own frustrations and limitations. They cannot withhold judgment and forgive because they depend on victories to make their lives seem more worthwhile.

They would rather study statistics and their interpretation of what they mean. But statistics are not always a reliable predictor of success and failure. If the favored always won, there would be no fun for people watching or playing the games. Gambling wouldn't exist due to lack of doubt, preventing the poor from giving more of their hard-earned money to the rich. Television contracts would diminish to nothing as advertisers would stop purchasing ads for games that have no suspense. Eventually, there would be no games at all as everyone would become bored with all the predictability.

It is the intangibles of life that make things uncertain. It is the chance a lowly person or team can rise up and succeed against all odds that keeps everyone working toward goals that would otherwise be unattainable. Illinois had a great football season in 2001, but it had a lot of good fortune as well, making up for weaknesses it could disguise for that one year only. It is that chance that keeps us going, and it is forces beyond our comprehension or control that make such rarities possible.

We don't like to talk about these intangibles, preferring to pretend those we look to as heroes and leaders to somehow have conscious control over their actions even though we don't. It is this desire to believe the impossible that makes us angry when those leaders or favorites fail or make what we judge to be mistakes. It is a vicious circle that is difficult to overcome. We feel as if we are at the bottom of the whirlpool with seemingly no way out. But it is a magnificent obsession common with most all humans, and it will continue even when we realize the truth of the matter. We just have to trust that all people eventually suffer failure and replace us at the bottom.

Illinois fans knew we would suffer a number of losses again this year. The only difference so far, at least within the Big Ten portion of the schedule, is that we defeated MSU and lost to Indiana instead of vice versa. It is sad we now have less chance to reach a bowl this year, but only the most optimistic among us believed that to begin the season. And who knows, maybe the lessons learned from this loss will aid Illinois in it future games, making several more wins a possibility.

Yes, this one hurts Illinois in the same way last week's Illini victory hurt Michigan State. But there were some positives mixed in that bode well for the future, if only we can see through all the grief. For example, Juice Williams continues to improve game by game. His long passing in the first quarter was beautiful to behold and will force defenses to spread themselves thin trying to counter all his options. Pierre Thomas ran for over 100 yards for the second week in a row, which also compliments the work of the offensive line.

In addition, the Illini are showing a willingness to use trick plays. These are much better when they work than when they don't, but it certainly adds to fan excitement and forces opponents to prepare for more. Previous coach Ron Turner rarely used exotics such as halfback and slot receiver option passes, making it easier for opponents to defend and causing much frustration from fans who knew how few options we really had at our disposal to overcome deficits.

Defensively, the Illini showed some life in the second half after Indiana made a game of it. While tackling was not as crisp as last week and the defensive line didn't dominate Indiana's kiddie corps offensive line, there were still some good signs. For example, linebacker Antonio Steele stayed tight on Indiana's star receiver James Hardy 40 yards down the field and broke up a pass. And the secondary in general demonstrated better coverage and a willingness to pop any receiver who caught a ball. These are all positives on which to build.

Illinois will look forward to playing Indiana next year to make up for its lethargy Saturday, just like MSU will look forward to playing Illinois next year. In the meantime, the Illini will likely be fired up next week against Ohio, just as they should be. It is a game they can and must win, so it is good they won't be resting on their laurels as they tended to do at times Saturday.

In the grand scheme of things, Illinois is still a program on the rise. There will be more bumps on the road, but the Illini are showing definite signs that better days are ahead. We can take this positive thought into future weeks even though our won-loss record is still not what we want it to be.

Eventually, the Balance of Nature will go Illinois' way, and fans of other schools will argue bitterly over why their coaches are so bad after Illinois beats them. It will happen.

Go Illini!!!

Illinisports, illinisports@illiniboard.com

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