Normally it’s a thrill to watch a college football game come down to one play. But in this case, Illini Nation would have rather not been forced to hold its breath.
Alas, other than the shakiness near the end, this one was mostly what I was expecting. A good, but not great performance where the offense took a little while to get rolling but then did in a big way. And as I had hoped for in my last blog, we saw a much greater emphasis on the passing game to the tune of 415 yards, including a career high for Nathan Scheelhaase and two players with 100+ receiving yards for the first time since 2011. Defensively, the unit showed signs of greatness early, especially against the run (66 rush yards for SIU). But there’s still plenty of work to do, as that area is still the biggest weakness of the squad.
Coach Beckman kept it short and sweet on the WDWS postgame interview when asked about the series of events with Reilly O’Toole at quarterback.
First of all, I have an update on a prize. News-Gazette Sports Editor Jim Rossow is offering up tickets to an Illini Basketball game to whoever is the top picker at the end of the football season. The specific game is still TBD, but it’ll be a home Big Ten game. There will be no midseason prize, but if someone logs a pick that gets the score and victor right on the money, I’ll try and scrounge up something for you.
Now, the good news is you all are 1-0 in the standings. The RSTDs were all over the board though, as many of you picked a big Illini win. However no one is out of the running at this point, so don’t be discouraged if you didn’t fair well.
Now, we move from dogs to cats. Bearcats, that is.
First, it’s story time. Do you all remember the last time the Illini squared off with Cincy? It was the day after Thanksgiving 2009, a 49-36 Illini loss in cold Ohio. The Illini were 3-7 at the time, and much of the media and fanbase has turned its attention to basketball season. There was even a basketball game on that same day, so even the WDWS radio crew was split up. The rest of the Illinois media turnout was the lowest I’d ever seen for a game – myself and my colleagues from the Daily Illini/WPGU, Bob Asmussen from the News-Gazette, Shannon Ryan from the Chicago Tribune, and Stu Durando from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It was about the time that the soda machine broke down and the stat monitors lagged behind (they were tinker toys to begin with) and the Internet cut out that we turned our chairs in our cramped quarters and shot each other a “What are we doing here? We should be eating turkey leftovers!”-type look. The only saving grace of the day had nothing to do with the game itself. Rather, it was the fact that I snuck away for Donatos Pizza at halftime and a Five Guys burger after the game. I felt then much like Homer Simpson in this moment.
Ok, back to the present day…
The consensus from what I’ve read is that it’ll be a two team race in the new American Athletic Conference between the Bearcats and Louisville. That fact alone puts an early tally in the Cincy column, as the Illini are nowhere near that type of discussion in the Big Ten right now. They have two capable quarterbacks and a head coach who knows what it takes to win. And the recent coaching turnover (five in the last five years if you count interims) hasn’t seemed to have an effect on morale. Senior guard Austen Bujnoch told the Cincinnati Enquirer on AAC media day, “This has been the best transition. I think everybody respects coach Tuberville and what he’s done.” It’s tough to say whether the Cincy offense is ahead of its defense at this point. In particular, both lines appear to be strong. And the Cats had no problem today handling Purdue its worst season-opening loss since 1996, despite their top receiver being limited by a nagging injury. It’s also worth noting that the Cincy D was ranked 12th in the nation last year, giving up just 17.2 points per game in the regular season. As Scott Steiner (the big guy up there) once put it, those numbers spell disaster for the Illini.
My Prediction: Cincinnati 42, Illinois 27
So now it’s once again your turn. Leave your prediction and analysis in a comment or via e-mail by 11 AM on Saturday. It’s likely that you’ll have to pick every game of the season to be in the running for the prize, so don’t fall asleep at the wheel!
Coming up next Saturday: Cincy thoughts, standings, and Washington predictions.
[Cincy photo via gobearcats.com]