Tate: Back to the drawing board

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.

Air attack

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 ltate@news-gazette.com.


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Jam wrote on September 10, 2012 at 6:09 am

This loss was or should have been very predictable.  Rarely in the last few decades has a UI team gone out west without being manhandled.  The travel obviously makes the preparations different.  The defensive line was managed pretty well by AState thus giving QB's time to find their guy(s).  I am glad the world did not end with that loss.  It is time to get behind this team and coach and not beat on them when they are down.  They will put in the work.  If this was a reality check for the sports writers then so be it. 

azmba98 wrote on September 10, 2012 at 7:09 am

What an embarrassment. ASU fans were laughing at how pathetic we looked with the delay of game penalties etc. There are still elements of the Zook era evident especially the showboating for no reason. ASU was crisp, well coached, disciplined, everything we weren't. One thing both myself and other fans at the game were wondering was why not use Davis? The guy looked bigger than most of the ASU lineman yet was a non-factor. The one thing we were all laughing at was that we the fans were all told that the practices were closed to media/fans etc cause "we didnt want to show our opponents what we have.....". The only thing we all could think of at the game was that they were all sitting around eating lasagna cause it looked like there was ZERO preparation for this game. Saw Mike Thomas at a pre-game event and said to him that with all the Illinois transplants in the valley you need to continue this series...his response was "I don't know about that, the time change is a killer". This set the tone for me going into the game that we were going to lay an egg. One drunk ASU student told me at halftime, "man you guys really suck". Told him to buy me a beer.

JESalukIL4ever wrote on September 10, 2012 at 7:09 am

This is just typical of Illinois.  Everyone seems to think we are always better than we really are.  Really check. We are just a mediocre football team.

houstonillini84 wrote on September 10, 2012 at 8:09 am

well we got whooped by a mediocre team, so I think we are somewhere below mediocre.

And if Beckman cant bring in a good recruiting class, we could be looking at several years of this.

Very depressing.

patrick wrote on September 10, 2012 at 8:09 am

We've seen this before, many times since the Pete Elliot era. A new coach arrives and says all of the right things. The players also say the right things. One thing is very different, as Loren points out--the fan base is largely indifferent. Perhaps, after 40+ years of this scenario being re-enacted, the fan base has finally gotten the message--the traition of Univ. of Illinois football is losing. There have been some decent, even good, teams over the time frame, but there's never been a PROGRAM.

There are many reasons for this, most of which have been mentioned on this and other sites. However, it appears that there's no reasonable solution. The fan base now seems to understand this.As for me, I'll continue to follow and root for the Illini, but I'll never believe again.

One other point--it appeared to me that the Illini defense simply gave up later in the game. This is the second game of the season, for goodness sakes, and they've learned how to quit already? i've learned to accept the losing, but, quitting? Never!

Bear8287 wrote on September 10, 2012 at 3:09 pm

I'm not ready to throw in the towel on our team.  Admittedly, the apparent attitude change as the game wore on is quite disconcerting.  I'll continue to cheer a team that is giving it their all even if they are losing but this team is going to have a hard time getting fans into the stands if it appears that the effort isn't there on the field.

The only Big Ten team to go 9-0 in conference play also had a bad early season loss to Missouri.  As Vince Lombardi said, It does not matter how many times you get knocked down, but how many times you get up.  We're going to have an opportunity to see what our team is made of.  The Illini could either be 4-1 after the Penn State game and possibly have a shot at knocking off a Wisconsin team that is looking more beatable every week, or the Illini could be 2-3 with the possibility of a 3rd straight bowl game being in danger.

Go Illini!

walker wrote on September 10, 2012 at 9:09 am

Loren nailed it w/ this statement:  "Our weaknesses were exposed and our strengths were nullified"

That says it all. 

OKOMIS wrote on September 10, 2012 at 9:09 am

1st, this is NOT the end of the world… 2nd, I think we’ll find ASU is NOT a mediocre team.. 3rd, we are.. it was disappointing how unprepared we seemed to be…the good news we are in a shamefully weak conference.. one thing that makes me crazy and I don’t understand is how we can be getting our teeth kicked in.. make ONE halfway decent tackle or run and whoop it up like we just won the national championship.. if that’s tolerated, it tells us allot about our coaching staff…

loulonron wrote on September 10, 2012 at 10:09 am

I totally agree @OKOMIS. Making a hard hit AFTER the guy gains an easy 7 yards is no reason to celebrate. We've seen a lot of that over the past few years, and it seems to continue...

OKOMIS wrote on September 10, 2012 at 12:09 pm

Especially when you’re getting your brains beaten in…. there was NO reason to celebrate anything.. certainly nothing to beat your chest with pride over.

calvin wrote on September 10, 2012 at 10:09 am

Honeymoon is apparently already over.

Illinigrad wrote on September 11, 2012 at 12:09 am

"Mediocre" is way too generous as a descriptor.