— The goal of the underdog: Force folks to say, “Hmmm,” when they see the score scroll across the bottom of the screen.
Illinois drew the “hmmm” early Saturday afternoon, taking a big early lead against favored Cincinnati.
Hmmms all around. From coast to coast. And the Illini knew it. Reveled in it.
Nothing better than exceeding expectations.
“It’s definitely tons of fun,” Illinois receiver Ryan Lankford said. “It takes me back to when I first got here, freshman and sophomore year, winning games and feeling great on the sidelines. Feeling like we accomplished something real good.
“We did a great job (Saturday), but of course it wasn’t perfect. We made mistakes. It’s only going to get harder from here. The teams are going to get better.”
If you’d taken a pregame poll of the limited fans in the stands, they would have overwhelmingly sided with the Bearcats. And those raising their hands for “Illinois” would have been mostly friends and families. If that.
You can plaster the word “believe” all over the stadium. But fans need something more tangible than that.
Wins and only wins move a program toward “positivity.” You can’t ask for it and expect results without producing first.
— You can’t count the Bearcats among the Illini believers. Lankford said Cincinnati took his team lightly. Hard to believe, given the chance the American Athletic Conference team had to knock off one from the Big Ten.
“A lot of people are going to take us lightly,” Lankford said. “Hopefully after this, they will start to understand we mean business. Last year is in the past. We use that as motivation for us.”
Before the game, word got around that the Bearcats were expecting a blowout win. Word spread quickly among the Illini. Motivation Plus.
“Once they said they were going to beat us 55-20, we didn’t like that,” Illinois receiver Martize Barr said.
Doesn’t matter if it was true. It only matters that the Illini believed it was true.
Some of the senior leaders brought up the dis before the game.
“Jonathan Brown showed it to me,” Barr said. “I just told people about it to spread the word.”
— One of the “hmmms” Saturday came from recruiting guru Tom Lemming. In town with some of the state’s top prospects, Lemming was impressed by Week 2 of Tim Beckman’s team, especially after the whuppin’ Cincinnati put on Purdue in the season opener.
— Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is a finalist for the Senior CLASS award. Might as well not bother with voting. If the folks in charge of the award are doing their homework, Scheelhaase will be a runaway winner.
The honor considers a player’s work on and off the field. Character, classwork, leadership and community involvement are all considered. It is hard to imagine a player scoring higher in those areas than Scheelhaase.
“I’m always pulling for my guys,” Lankford said. “And Nathan is a guy I will always pull for.”
From the moment he arrived on campus, the Kansas City, Mo., native set an example for others to follow. He says yes to requests when most players would say, “I’m too busy.”
With his Illinois career winding down, the next steps in life figure to be successful ones for Scheelhaase. He is a guy you want your kids to emulate.
While wins and TDs are great, there is something more to our favorite game. Scheelhaase gets it. Always has, always will.
— I.T.G.S.O.T. talked to former Illini star receiver David Williams on Friday night.
It’s clear that Williams, now in charge of a steel company, would love to get back involved in sports.
One of the leaders of the 1983 Big Ten champions, Williams continues to follow the Illini. He knows about the team’s recent struggles. And he hasn’t given up hope that the program can be a consistent winner.
“Why not?” Williams says.
Getting him back to Illinois would be a smart move by Illinois administrators.
On the Big Ten
— No team needs its starting quarterback more than Ohio State. So keep an eye on Braxton Miller’s injury status. Have a feeling we won’t get a whole lot of info from Urban Meyer. “Shhhh, it’s a secret.”
— It is the college football version of “I’m taking my ball and going home.” Playing the role of spoiled brat is Notre Dame, which is apparently willing to let the historic series with Michigan go away. For a long time.
While we don’t know what went on behind closed doors, it looks more like an Irish issue than a Wolverines issue.
Go back to the Notre Dame AD informing Michigan about the series change by bringing a letter to the game. That’s like breaking up with your sweet baboo on the phone. It’s just wrong.
Notre Dame is trying to blame its new deal with the ACC as a major reason for the change. Cop ... out. The school had to realize there would have to be some schedule changes when it left the world of pseudo-independence.
Michigan faces scheduling challenges with the Big Ten’s pending move to a nine-game league season, but it sure sounds like the Wolverines are more flexible.
— Sure, the Illinois win was impressive. And Wisconsin and Penn State played well, too.
But there are serious concerns in West Lafayette and Iowa City after close wins Saturday against FCS schools by Purdue and Iowa. It is still early in the season, but a change at the top in Hawkeyeland seems more likely than not. Never thought that would be the case with Kirk Ferentz coaching.
On the rest
— For the longest time, Florida State has been looking for the next Charlie Ward. It might have finally found him in Jameis Winston. The redshirt freshman was spectacular in his college debut, throwing four TDs Monday against Pitt.
The really good news for Winston? They aren’t calling him “the next Christian Ponder.”
Ward won the Heisman while leading the Seminoles to the national title in 1993. Winston wasn’t even born.
You can see him play again next Saturday against Nevada on one of the endless ESPNs. You can thank me later.
— The ratings might not match “Dancing with the Stars” or even another episode of “The Bachelor: Savoy,” but folks are tuning in to college football by the bucketful. During the opening weekend of the season, the ESPN networks drew 73 million viewers. That’s a whole lot of eyeballs to sell to advertisers. With so many games to show, the thinking used to be there weren’t enough fans to go around. But we have tricked the system by filling up our DVRs (Boss, think of it like a VCR on steroids).
And this is before college football goes to a playoff at the highest level. The numbers will zoom next season and beyond.
— Watched Ron Turner’s Florida International team Friday night against Central Florida. Should have tuned into a rerun of “Blue Bloods” instead. “My, isn’t Tom Selleck a handsome man?”
Turner probably wishes he was in front of the TV, too, after his team dropped a 38-0 game against the Golden Knights. It looked a whole lot like Turner’s first season at Illinois.
The folks at CBS Sports were sure nice to Turner, giving him multiple chances to explain how he was going to fix the Florida International program. His comments sounded familiar. Flash back to 1997, when few gave him a chance to win at Illinois. He did eventually turn it around, going to bowls after the 1999 and 2001 seasons.
I’ll never forget the final days of the Turner era. At a frigid Ryan Field, reporters huddled around Turner after an overtime loss to Northwestern. The game was the last straw, with Turner fired the next day. You wonder why Turner would take on another rebuilding project. Maybe he wants to erase the bitter taste of the final three years in Champaign.
— Have to make room in this week’s Top 25 for Miami, which knocked Florida way down with Saturday’s win. Last week’s near miss by the Gators was a cry for help. And it wasn’t answered. Ron Zook gets no blame for the Florida loss.