These aren’t easy times.
For what seemed like the 100th time, an acquaintance walked up to complain: “I’m discouraged and I don’t recall so many of my friends feeling the same way.”
That’s the recurring theme. Tim Beckman’s Illini football team figured to have its hands full with Louisiana Tech and Penn State, and losses certainly seemed possible. But two tossup games turned into routs, and most of the 40,000-plus in attendance made early exits. Memorial Stadium in the fourth quarter has become more of a graveyard than a launching pad.
Along the way, new Illini basketball coach John Groce finished second to Notre Dame in his quest for the best guard in Indiana, Mishawaka’s Demetrius Jackson, and Illini volleyball received another setback at Purdue. The UI’s three leading spectator sports are getting hit from all sides.
Oh, and the best-looking freshman in the spring football game, Ta’Jarvis Fuller, withdrew.
Scanning the sour mood at halftime Saturday, athletic director Mike Thomas stated quite simply: “We have to earn it.”
That’s right. The Illini not only need to win some supposed tossup games, but it’s incumbent on them to win games they’re not expected to. And it must happen more than once. A single win at Wisconsin on Saturday would be uplifting, but it would also be viewed as an exception to the rule. If the Illini don’t get the ship righted at Wisconsin and Michigan, they’ll be 2-5 and in danger of being no better than .500 for the 16th time in 20 years. That is not a small sample. That is 20 years, an unmistakable trend. And the arrows continue to point down.
On the plus side ...
Come on, Tatelines, write something positive.
Check the points scored and the aerial production around the country. Offensive explosions are everywhere. Some of those guys look like they’re playing a different game.
In West Virginia’s astounding 70-63 defeat of Baylor, the rival quarterbacks threw for 1,237 yards and 13 touchdowns. In one game! Illinois hasn’t passed for that many yards in five games. Illinois is at or near the bottom of Big Ten statistics in scoring defense and total offense, a bad combination.
Of those teams ranked in AP’s Top 12, the winners averaged 40 points per game this past week. Georgia permitted 44 and won. Texas allowed 36 and Oregon State 35, and both won.
If you watched football Saturday night, particularly the feverish Nebraska-Wisconsin and Texas-Oklahoma State games, you came to realize these teams were competing at a higher level of intensity than Illinois. Nebraska’s offensive thrusts, with both their linemen and ball carriers, were extraordinary in a 30-27 comeback win from 17 points down. The place was jumping, which raises another question of what it meant to visiting recruits, as opposed to the large number of preps viewing the atmosphere here.
Some have concluded that the Illini have been unlucky in scheduling teams just as they peak. This seems true in the case of Louisiana Tech, which rolled over Virginia 44-38 on Saturday and has put up 208 points in a 4-0 start.
Well, when it comes to scheduling, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Illinois catches Cincinnati and Washington (in Chicago) next September, and these two teams pulled off two of the nation’s most stunning triumphs Saturday. With Stanford fresh off a resounding 21-14 defeat of USC, the Washington Huskies knocked off the Cardinal 17-13. And Cincinnati, which was 10-3 last season after Thomas left for Illinois, is 3-0 after nipping Virginia Tech 27-24 via a 39-yard TD pass with 13 seconds left.
Oh, and by the way, Illinois picks up Nebraska in the 2013 Big Ten opener, and follows against Wisconsin and Michigan State. Nebraska and Michigan State replace Minnesota and Michigan from the opposite division.
That’s not exactly a lineup around which to build fan confidence, what with Ohio State becoming postseason eligible and Northwestern, now 5-0, developing its own high-scoring tendencies.
That’s why, with all the key seniors on this UI team, a bowl qualifier seemed more logical this year than next. Now, having seen Illinois give up 87 points at home the last two Saturdays, neither the immediate nor long-term view appears positive.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.