UFR: Not too shabby
Staff writer Marcus Jackson's views from the press box at Soldier Field:
— Losses are tough no matter the manner in which they’re delivered. But from an Illinois perspective, it’s difficult to be completely disappointed by Saturday’s outcome in Chicago. Facing the 19th-ranked team in the country, the Illini fell behind by three touchdowns in the second half and rallied to make it a one-score game late. Last year’s team probably loses that game 45-17, or worse. This group has some spark, and they’re going to compete. At this stage in the game, with expectations as low as they were entering the season, you can’t ask for much more than that.
— If nothing else, these Illini are going to be fun to watch. We saw a double-reverse run in the first half and then a double-reverse pass in the fourth quarter from former quarterback Miles Osei to Matt LaCosse that set up an Illinois touchdown. The traditional stuff wasn’t working like it had been the first two games of the season, so Illini fans have to be encouraged that there’s a bag of tricks from which Bill Cubit can choose plays.
— After last week’s convincing win against Cincinnati, I figured the Illini could attract a crowd north of 50,000 for its first game at Soldier Field since 1994, but the announced crowd was 47,312. Not bad for a team that went 2-10 last year and expected to finish last in the Big Ten. There was a lot going on in Chicagoland this weekend — with a NASCAR Nationwide Series race in Joliet and the BMW Classic being staged in Lake Forest. Those fans who showed up deserve a lot of credit. They stuck around and stayed in the game even after their team fell behind 31-10. Not sure when the Illini will return to the lakefront stadium, but an improved product should help put bodies in the seats. Based on what we’ve seen through three weeks this season, that could happen.
— There were a few fans who made some questionable decisions. Early in the game, some Illini fans sitting in the south end zone felt it wise to taunt the thousands of loud Washington fans who occupied much of the southeast corner of the stadium with a chant of “We can’t hear you!” Excuse me, but their campus is 2,000 miles away and they had an outstanding showing. Your campus is less than 200 miles away and there were a bunch of empty seats. Still, it was a great crowd, but the taunt was unnecessary.
— Teams like to use their off weeks to heal up bumps and bruises, but Tim Beckman might want to consider some old-school tackling drills this week. There are no official stats kept on missed tackles, but the Illini missed too many Saturday. The most glaring example came on Jesse Callier’s 39-yard score. Three Illini were within striking distance and they all came up with air. “Tackling was probably the major concern in the third and fourth quarter. We’ve got to tackle better when you’re playing a team that’s a Top 20 football team,” Beckman said.
— In speaking to a couple of dialed-in Illinois fans during the pregame Illini Fest outside Soldier Field, the opportunity is there for the Illini to pick up a few wins during the Big Ten portion of the schedule. Starting with the opener, Nebraska doesn’t look like such an impossible task after UCLA went to Lincoln on Saturday and pounded the Huskers. Michigan struggled with Akron on Saturday, too. I’m not saying Illinois is going to challenge for a division title, but if this team continues to compete at a high level, anything can happen.
— I love Jerry Kill and what he’s done during his career at Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois and Minnesota. But when it comes to the point where someone learns you had another seizure during a game, it’s time to re-evaluate whether the stress of coaching big-time football is really worth it. It’s the fourth time in three seasons the Minnesota coach has had an episode on a game day, and let’s just hope the news doesn’t become tragic one day. Again, he’s a terrific football coach; let’s hope he can continue being a husband and father for many years to come.
— This one isn’t Big Ten related, but this month’s Game of the Century (there are at least three every season, right?) lived up to the billing with Alabama outlasting Texas A&M on the road Saturday. Feel however you want to about Johnny Manziel, but the dude can ball. He’s the best player in the country on a very good team, and if he continues putting up video-game numbers all season and he isn’t invited to New York with the chance to win another Heisman Trophy, there’s a serious flaw in the system.
— It’s unlikely many folks inside Soldier Field thought much of Matt Loveless’ wardrobe Saturday, but I bet those Washington fans noticed. Loveless, the WAND sports director, is from Yakima, Wash., and he’s a 2007 graduate of Washington State. He wore a gray dress shirt Saturday with a red tie. Those are the colors of his alma mater, Washington’s bitter in-state rival.
“I actually have a Washington State tie with a logo on it that I wanted to wear and I thought, ‘You know, I’ve got to be professional,’ ” Loveless said. “But I went with the colors to keep it subtle.”
The rivalry between the Cougars and Huskies is bitter.
“It’s tough to tell. The Cougar fans are louder. Washington State is 300 miles from Seattle, right on the (Idaho) border, it’s not even close in proximity, but when they do fundraisers and things, Washington State fans tend to have a little more of a chip on their shoulder in the city,” Loveless said. “Seattle is a lot like Chicago, even though the college isn’t there, people migrate there to get jobs. In Chicago you’ve got a lot of Illini fans and alums, and in Seattle you’ve got a lot of Washington State fans and alums.”
The perception of Big Ten football in the Pacific Northwest, Loveless said, is the clichéd 3 yards and a cloud of dust
“The perception is that it’s slow, it’s all about running and no passing,” Loveless said. “There’s also the perception that it’s a little bit tougher. People out West think of the corn-fed Nebraska boys when they think of the Big Ten. Even though Nebraska’s only been in the Big Ten a couple of years, that’s the perception. When people come out here, they expect to play a knockdown, drag-out game in the trenches.”
In the Stadium
— Illinois’ “Chicago Homecoming Game” brought out a host of former star athletes from Chicagoland. The biggest star might have been former Illini and Bears linebacker Dick Butkus, who took the field with the Illini captains for the coin toss and flipped the coin to start the game.
— Former Illinois quarterback Juice Williams, who like Butkus prepped at Chicago Vocational, was introduced to the crowd during a timeout. Williams was joined on the Soldier Field turf for introductions with Flyin’ Illini star Kendall Gill and current New England Patriots Michael Buchanan and Tavon Wilson.
— Two-time All-American and Super Bowl champion Simeon Rice was also introduced to the crowd. The Chicago Mount Carmel product was the No. 3 pick in the 1996 NFL draft.
— Former Illinois linebacker John Holecek coached his Loyola Academy football team to a 42-0 win against St. Ignatius on Saturday afternoon. At halftime of the Illini-Washington game, he was on the field leading the band and fans in the singing of “Hail to the Orange.”
— Another Flyin’ Illini star, Kenny Battle, spent Saturday at Soldier Field with two of his sons. Battle chatted up the Illinois basketball staff during the pregame Illini Fest. Battle’s teammate, Stephen Bardo, was also introduced during a timeout.
— The Illinois men’s basketball team made the trip to Chicago by charter bus Friday night and spent the night downtown at the Marriott. John Groce and his squad were a hit at Illini Fest, signing autographs for a couple of hours for fans who waited in a line that wrapped around the event. The wives and children of the Illinois coaching staff were also on hand. The Illini players and coaches were introduced to the Soldier Field crowd during a second-quarter timeout. They were heckled by a Washington fan with “See you in the NIT!” The basketball team sat in the first two rows of seats in the south end zone and stayed until Washington sealed its win with a late fourth-quarter interception.
— A handful of basketball prospects were expected to be in attendance for Saturday’s game. Aaron Jordan, a 2015 guard from Plainfield East was among them. Jordan is scheduled to take an unofficial visit to the UI campus today. Simeon’s D.J. Williams, St. Rita’s Charles Matthews and Evanston freshman point guard Nojel Eastern also attended.