Tate: Back to the drawing board
I had this dream ... a moment of clarity ... when an almighty power with infinite wisdom emerged from the clouds, waved a wand and decreed that Midwesterners should not be further embarrassed by athletic trips beyond the home territory.
Well, not a dream exactly. A nightmare. Because it wasn't true.
Strange how the mood shifted prior to the UI's weekend journey westward. Back on Wednesday, with the UI's romp of Western Michigan still fresh, it appeared Nathan Scheelhaase would play after he suited up and went through practice that day. He had, after all, three more days to treat his sore ankle.
By Friday and early Saturday, the feeling was reversing itself. The Illini QB wouldn't play, after all. Oddsmakers turned Illinois from a slight favorite to an underdog. Paul Klee, a westerner who knows these things, warned that Arizona State would win by several touchdowns, a likelihood that coincided with modern history (Big Ten teams are 5-27-1 at Pac-12 stadiums since 1993).
Hopefully you found something else to do Saturday. Warning signals rang like alarm bells as our neighbors demonstrated remarkable feebleness throughout the long day. Iowa didn't get a touchdown, and Wisconsin barely did. Purdue followed a familiar pattern by losing close to Notre Dame. Old rival Missouri collapsed at home in its first SEC outing. Nebraska forgot how to tackle, falling to a UCLA team that the Illini defeated last December. Michigan survived despite giving up 290 yards rushing by Air Force.
You get the picture. On one hand, weaknesses in the Big Ten offer opportunity for everybody. For a fleeting moment, watching the early-day devastation, it occurred that a stout Illini defense would give them a shot against anybody on the schedule.
Then the kickoff. Then the deluge, an on-land trip on the Titanic. Oh, unwelcome reality!
Forget Scheelhaase. Sure, Reilly O'Toole is shaky and was sacked six times. And Miles Osei threw two picks. But Scheelhaase wouldn't have changed the result. Arizona State attacked the Illini at their supposed strength — a senior-laden defense — and treated the visitors as though they were middle schoolers, much like Alabama mistreated Michigan.
Coach Todd Graham, who left a weak Pitt program high and dry after one year, put a new, different team on the field in Tempe. It wasn't the weather. It wasn't the grass. It was a mismatch of talent. The Sun Devils would have scored 35 points on their first five possessions if Illini tackle Akeem Spence hadn't wrestled the ball free on the 1-yard line in the first possession.
Chris Coyle, a 6-foot-3 Arizona State junior, gave a modern impersonation of Lamont Cranston. For youngsters, Cranston made a trip to the Orient where he learned the mystic power to cloud men's mind and thereby become invisible. Ask your grandmother. She remembers The Shadow.
Thus did Coyle roam unnoticed through the UI secondary. Hey, guys, where's No. 87? If we could locate him, we'd probably find the ball.
Coyle caught 10 passes for 131 yards, emerging out of the blue. He caught two balls in the opener and six last season. He and others simply ran out into open spaces Saturday night.
One week after Illinois squelched a prolific passer — Alex Carder hit 61 TD passes in two years — alternating Sun Devil QBs played catch with unguarded teammates. This is a team that figured to have quarterback troubles when Brock Osweiler (4,036 yards last season) turned pro early. Well, Taylor Kelly completed his first 13 passes, and 6-6 Michael Eubank went 5 for 5 on the evening. It was 35-7 within two minutes of the second half.
Plenty of work to do
This is a body blow. It wasn't a hard-fought loss, which might have been expected. This was a blowout. Illini weaknesses were exposed, and their strengths nullified.
It's bad because it confirms what many people projected with their indifference. Like, so little buzz in August. Like, no telephone calls on Tim Beckman's 22-station call-in radio show last week.
The outcome will hurt crowds and in turn hamper recruiting. It puts an entirely new perspective on the Big Ten opener vs. Penn State here Sept. 29. Even though the Nittany Lions are 0-2, they were at least in close proximity to the Ohio and Virginia receivers that beat them.
"We've got to fix this," Beckman said with resolve. But I wonder what he really thinks as he returns to a blackboard that has been erased and reworked for decades with new carefully-chalked revival plans.
Oh, and before letting the offense off the hook, this makes nine consecutive Illini games in which the offensive unit has failed to score more than two touchdowns. This after the 2010 team, led by then-freshman Scheelhaase, scored a school-record 423 points.
It's a mind-boggling business. In 1961, Pete Elliott's Illini scored 53 points all season, and never more than one TD in a game. Two years later they won the Rose Bowl. Where there's life ...
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.