Bob Asmussen's take on Saturday's 17-3 loss to Minnesota:
— What a beautiful day for football. In November. Which might explain the “larger than you expected crowd” of 46,912. And, to the credit of the folks in the stands, they hung in there despite the wind, even after the sun went down. Maybe they were going to a later showing of “Skyfall.”
— You want the Illini offense to be more creative? The coaches didn’t wait long to give it a try. On the second play from scrimmage, DONOVONN YOUNG took a handoff from NATHAN SCHEELHAASE, then pitched it back to the quarterback. Wide ope down the field was SPENCER HARRIS, who caught the pass for a 49-yard gain, setting up a short Illinois field goal. That play is called a flea flicker and hasn’t been seen a lot around these parts.
— Great to see COREY LEWIS continue to add playing time. The offensive lineman, who missed two seasons with serious leg injuries, subbed at right tackle on Saturday and appeared to hold up well. In a difficult, losing season for Illinois, Lewis has been the one feel-good story.
— No question, Illinois misses JONATHAN BROWN. Freshman MIKE SVETINA has the ability to someday become a top Big Ten linebacker. But asking him to replace a Butkus candidate now is too much of a burden. A question: Will Brown’s injury situation this season have a major impact on his choice to return to school next season? The NFL likes to see guys healthy.
— You want Illinois to make good use of timeouts? It seemed to at the halfway point of the first quarter, calling for a break while facing third and goal at the Minnesota 1. But coming out of the timeout, the play didn’t show the imagination required. Scheelhaase dove into the line, losing a yard and forcing the Illini to kick a field goal. Given the struggles of the offense, a touchdown might have made a difference.
— Late in the first quarter, Illini safety EARNEST THOMAS stopped a Minnesota drive with a blitz and sack. The aggressive move has been missing most of the season for Illinois, which entered the game ranked eighth in the Big Ten with 16 sacks.
— Last time Illinois played the Gophers before Saturday, a 27-7 blowout loss last November in Minneapolis, MarQUEIS GRAY was the Minnesota star. At Memorial Stadium, he was barely involved. Gray is still a part of the team, but he plays receiver instead of quarterback. He had only one catch for 5 yards in the first three quarters. Not to tell JERRY KILL how to do his job, but a guy who owned a team a year ago might be ready for a bigger role.
— Of course, Kill got it right in the final quarter, sending everybody after Scheelhaase on a fourth and 3 at the Minnesota 36. Scheelhaase was forced to rush the pass, which fell incomplete, preserving Minnesota’s 17-3 win.
— Another beef with the Gophers: Punting on fourth and 1 from the Illinois 42 with under four minutes left in the game netted them 22 yards. A short run for a first down would have clinched the win. It doesn’t matter that Scheelhaase fumbled the ball back to Minnesota on the ensuing drive. It’s the thought that counts.
— It turns out that Indiana isn’t ready for the big time. At least, not in football. With a chance to play for the Big Ten title within its grasp, the school laid a KEVIN WILSON-sized egg against Wisconsin. Instead, the Badgers will play in Indianapolis, which we knew all along if we had thought about it.
— Next week’s game just got harder for Illinois, which will face fired-up Purdue. The Boilermakers survived a late Iowa touchdown Saturday and won with a field goal. That puts them two victories short of being bowl eligible and saving DANNY HOPE’s job. And the final two games are against Illinois and Indiana. In other words, very winnable.
— What is wrong with Northwestern? It has found more ways to blow important wins than the rest of the Big Ten combined. Saturday’s loss to Michigan was a doozy, with the defense allowing a long pass in the final seconds by the backup quarterback. PAT FITZGERALD is a great coach. He simply needs to find a way to get the Big Ten to shorten the games to 55 minutes.
In the Stadium
— Former Illini offensive lineman TONY PASHOS was honored on the field between the first and second quarter for his contribution to the football program. The longtime NFL player and his wife MICHELLE donated money to sponsor the school’s offensive line room. Pashos will have his name affixed to the room, which is currently run by his former teammate and buddy, LUKE BUTKUS.
“I’ve written some big checks before that I’ve cried about,” Pashos said. “This wasn’t one of them. Nobody had to really sell me.”
Pashos said he wasn’t worried about the status of the program when he made his donation. He went through both winning and losing seasons during his Illini career.
“This is when they needed me the most,” Pashos said.
The nine-year NFL veteran is sitting out this season while rehabbing an injured ankle. Living in Chicago, he wants to return to the league in 2013 and has been drawing interest.
— During one of the first-half breaks, the fathers of the Illinois players were honored as part of Dad’s Day festivities. They wore their son’s blue jerseys and white hats.
— Classy move by Minnesota, which is having a different player wear No. 51 each week. That’s the number worn by the late linebacker GARY TINSLEY, who died in April from an enlarged heart. On Saturday, middle linebacker MIKE RALLIS wore 51. And had nine tackles.
— The running game is pretty good in the Minnesota radio booth. Former Gophers great DARRELL THOMPSON, the school’s career rushing leader, serves as MIKE GRIMM’s analyst. Don’t scoff at Minnesota’s running past. The all-time list includes LAURENCE MARONEY, THOMAS HAMNER, MARION BARBER and MARION BARBER III.