Loren Tate: Hearty effort + schedule = optimism
Are you a dreamer?
Did you see bowl bubbles floating skyward after Illinois’ 45-17 rout of Cincinnati?
All of a sudden, six wins and a December trip to Florida or Texas doesn’t seem so unthinkable. OK, maybe it’s unlikely, but Saturday’s showing flashed possibilities.
Illinois has twice earned the necessary six wins with Nathan Scheelhaase as quarterback and won both bowl games. All things considered, that is a worthy goal in 2013.
Washington’s Huskies, with an extra week off after scuttling Boise State, stand as a tall order Saturday in Chicago. And then comes a Miami (Ohio) team that misplaced its cradle (of coaches), gave up 93 points to Marshall and Kentucky, and features a senior quarterback (Austin Boucher) who has completed 39 percent of his passes.
At worst, Illinois should reach October with a shot at it ... quite a change from the preseason prediction of the Illini in the Big Ten cellar.
There’ll be massive swings and adjustments over the course of the season — Cincinnati, for example, will miss Munchie Legaux — so we can’t really envision October and November. Will Illinois’ pass defense be adequate? How about the running game? Can they avoid another collapse when the going gets tough?
Based on two weekends, here’s my view of the UI’s conference slate ... in order from the most likely success stories to the most unlikely.
Akeem Hunt ran the opening kickoff 99 yards, but the Boilermakers still had a nervous 20-14 win against an Indiana State team that permitted 73 points to Indiana. The schedule is unfair to new coach Darrell Hazell as they tangle with Notre Dame on Saturday, and the first four conference games are Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan State and Ohio State.
Quarterback Rob Henry, who struggled against Cincinnati, was somewhat better against the Sycamores, but the Boilermakers failed twice inside the 5-yard line.
Kevin Wilson will have the quarterback position figured out by November, but he says it’s still a three-way battle after the 41-35 loss to Navy.
“Our offense was pretty good the last three quarters,” Wilson said, “but we only had eight possessions (Navy rushed for 444 yards, controlling the ball for 11 more minutes). It’s disappointing.”
Mark Dantonio is unhappy with veteran Andrew Maxwell and is getting raw freshman Damion Terry ready for Youngstown State. Maxwell and sophomore Connor Cook have completed 47 percent of their passes, and the Spartans were held to 66 aerial yards in a win against South Florida.
Thank the defense. This unit is exceptional at attacking and shedding blocks. It looks like Michigan State will have a lot of close, low-scoring games, and one of them could be in Champaign.
Freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg has thrown for 589 yards as Bill O’Brien nurses him through the early schedule. The Nittany Lions are always tough at home, but they might lose some of their swagger as they host Illinois after tangling with Michigan and Ohio State.
The toughest four games on the UI’s conference schedule:
Big Ten teams haven’t had much fortune traveling to Arizona State, so this game — one of four matching the Big Ten and Pac-12 on Saturday — will reveal much about Gary Andersen’s team.
“Speed is a concern,” Andersen said. “Our ability to tackle in space will determine how we do defensively. We are still evolving.”
Call the Wildcats opportunistic as they host Western Michigan.
“We’ve had 16 interceptions in the last five games,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said, the last four coming in Saturday’s win against Syracuse.
Northwestern has gathered too much momentum to think the Wildcats will be stopped before the early-October dates against Ohio State and Wisconsin. They’ll play for a favored bowl slot Nov. 30. Will the Illini?
The Huskers are No. 15 in the coaches’ poll as they confront UCLA in front of another madhouse in Lincoln.
“It’s loud, and our people are passionate about it,” coach Bo Pelini said, “and that extends to our players when we play here. We missed a lot of tackles (in a 36-30 loss at UCLA) last year. They’ll try to spread us out and create one-on-one opportunities for their playmakers.”
But can the Bruins perform in front of 91,000 in Lincoln as they did in Los Angeles? That’s the question facing the travelers ... and the Illini will serve as the fifth consecutive home foe for Nebraska on Oct. 5.
The fuss is whether quarterback Braxton Miller will be sufficiently recovered to be effective Saturday at Cal.
“I’m fairly optimistic,” said coach Urban Meyer, who also has defensive concerns about Sonny Dykes’ fast-paced attack. “We’ve never faced anything quite like this.”
For all the talk, the Buckeyes should have too much talent to succumb to a freshman quarterback (Jared Goff) and will carry championship dreams until they are stopped.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.