I spent this past weekend at the wedding of an old friend in Newport, Rhode Island and I watched the Illinois-Indiana football game at a bar on the water. The sun was shining, the breeze was flowing off the water and it was a beautiful fall day right on the Atlantic Ocean. To make things even better, the Illini stormed out of the gate on Indiana and at about 1 p.m. you couldn't wipe the smile off of my face.
Shame one me for thinking this was going to be an easy game. Shame on me for thinking that Juice was going to end up throwing for over 300 yards for the first time in his career. Shame on me for thinking that our defense—that had played so well in the past few weeks—would never give up more than 25 points to a mediocre Hoosier football team.
The Illini offense looked invincible in the first quarter. Juice was winging the ball all over the field, Pierre Thomas was running all over the Hoosier defense and Coach Locksley had the Indiana defense completely on their heels with his play calling.
With the Illini up 25-7 and seemingly in control of the game everything changed. The Indiana defense adjusted and Illinois was unable to counter. The Indiana offense started moving the ball down the field with ease and the Illinois defense couldn't do anything to stop them. Before you knew it, the Illini were only up 25-21 at the half and any kind of momentum they had from the beginning of the game was completely erased with Marcus Thigpen's 98-yard kickoff return to start the second half.
The players didn't play well, the coaches didn't coach well and most importantly the Illini lost another game (I will throw Syracuse in there as well) that they have absolutely no business of losing. They had a golden opportunity to win their second straight Big Ten game and to set the table for the Ohio game where they could have been playing to go above .500. You can't point fingers in a million different directions, but the bottom line is they didn't get the job done.
There has been a lot of talk this week regarding some of the decisions made by the coaching staff throughout the game. While I will talk about some of those decisions here it should be noted that this game was lost on a lot of levels. Even with some of the questionable game management, the Illini had plenty of chances to win the game.
Fake Extra Point: I am all for being aggressive, but I just don't see the benefit of going for two in that spot. At that point in the game the Indiana defense was getting run all over and Illinois had all the momentum. If you are going to go for the fake in that spot you better be sure it is going to work because if it doesn't you are going to get criticized. Obviously it didn't work and it cost the Illini later in the game.
Following Two Point Conversion: I know a lot of people had a big problem with Coach Zook going for two on the next score, but I didn't. I was all for getting those points back at that point and I know there was a lot of football to be played, but when you look at the final score if they had kicked the extra point they still would have lost. If they get the two point conversion Indiana would have been kicking for a tie instead of the win.
Kickoff Return: I know a lot of Illini fans were yelling after the game that Coach Zook shouldn't have kicked off to Marcus Thigpen to start the second half, but I certainly wasn't thinking about that at the time. I am sure Coach Zook thought that Jason Reda would boom the ball into the end zone and while it was maddening to watch Thigpen return the kick my frustration lied with our awful kick coverage that let him go right through the gut all the way down the field.
Play Calling: The Illinois offense was anemic in the 4th quarter (really for the entire second half except for Pierre Thomas's long run) and I certainly think the coaching staff went conservative late in the game. In three possessions in the 4th quarter, the Illini had 10 plays (6 Pierre Thomas runs, three incomplete passes and a Juice run). While we wouldn't be sitting here and talking about this if a few of those runs turned into first downs there's no question the entire team was playing ‘not to lose.'
I know a lot has been said about the play calling, but the only real possession I had a huge problem with was the final possession of the quarter for the Illini. I can live with Pierre running the football on the first two plays to eat some clock, but on 3rd and 6 you have to have enough faith in Juice and your offensive line to try and get the first down with a pass. They didn't have that faith and it came back to bite them…
But even with the conservative play calling and the questionable decisions to go for two, the Illini defense still had a chance to end the game by making one more stop. I know the defense played well in the second half, but it was equally as frustrating to watch no one make a play as the Hoosiers marched down the field for the winning field goal.
In the grand scheme of things, this loss isn't one that is going to haunt the program for years to come. This team is improving, Juice is improving and it's easy to tell the program is heading in the right direction. What made this loss so tough to take is that in a year where Illini fans are dying to see some tangible evidence (i.e. wins!) that this team is improving this was another opportunity wasted.
**It's been pretty quiet on the Eric Gordon front and I don't know if that is a good thing or a bad thing. We are now less than a month away from the November signing day and I still don't have a good feeling.**
**It will be interesting to see how many people show up this Friday night for Midnight Madness. I still don't understand why they gave out tickets for the event, because I think you are deterring thousands of people who didn't get tickets and would love to go. In addition to that, I think there are a lot of people who got tickets for Madness in hopes they could go that won't be able to make it.
I hope I am wrong, but I think there might be some disappointing numbers on Friday night in the Hall**
**The Illini welcome in Ohio this weekend in the second game of the year that will be played under the Memorial Stadium lights. The Bobcats are led by Frank Solich—formerly of Nebraska—and while they are a decent football team this is another team the Illini should handle at home.
I think the Illini will come out angry and will play inspired in front of the night-time crowd. This team knows they gave away a game last weekend and I think they will score early and often on the Bobcats.
As I get ready to head down to Champaign and root on the METS, Still Bleeding Orange and Blue—Jared Gelfond.