Loren Tate: Ready or not, here they come
It was Feb. 19, 2005, and a great time to be an Illini.
With a perfect basketball record on the line, Dee Brown and Deron Williams scored 18 apiece to assure win No. 27, 75-65, in Iowa City, where roughly 3,500 orange-clad fans created only the second sellout of the season at Iowa’s Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
While disappointed Hawkeye fans were seen slipping out prior to the final horn, the UI faithful stood and cheered their favorites, a fact noted later by the agitated wife of coach Steve Alford. Illini backslapping that Saturday was topped only by chest thumping at home.
But it works both ways. And the UI’s Memorial Stadium can expect a strong wave of red-wearing Wisconsinites when the No. 25 (AP) Badgers carry three consecutive Big Ten titles in here Saturday.
That’s the way it works in the Big Ten these days. If you wear red, you travel. Sometimes, as a fan with modest means, you have to travel to see a game. There is a waiting line at Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin.
Buckeye followers appeared to make up half — am I exaggerating? — the 47,333 two weeks ago at Northwestern. And considering the distance, the Nebraska crowd Saturday at Purdue was noteworthy, making up what appeared to be more than a quarter of the 47,203 assemblage. It’s impossible to know exact numbers, in part because many discouraged Purdue fans obviously sold tickets to Cornhusker fans interspersed in their seating area. The expressways back across Indiana, Illinois and Iowa were packed with cars, vans and motorhomes (no covered wagons) returning home.
Fill ’er up
That’s where we are. The Big Ten’s lagging teams, of which Illinois is a paid-up member, find themselves welcoming the extra revenue in exchange for the embarrassment of rivals filling their stands while the home folks won’t.
For all the recent success, Northwestern is the most vulnerable because (1) Chicago offers a more varied weekend getaway than most Big Ten cities and (2) there are always plenty of available seats at Ryan Field. There were suggestions, though surely not accurate, that Nebraskans bought half the 47,330 seats a year ago, though that was less than 15,000 more than Northwestern drew for the previous home game against Indiana.
It should be noted that, while Northwestern joined Michigan, Nebraska and Michigan State just outside the AP’s Top 25, Saturday’s 35-6 loss to Wisconsin ended an extraordinary run. Coming on the heels of a hard-fought loss to Ohio State, it marked the first time in 18 games that the Wildcats hadn’t either won or led in the final six minutes. They are 13-5 in that stretch.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, has established a niche under Barry Alvarez, and the style hasn’t varied over time. Illini coaches say the ground-pounding offense that Bret Bielema inherited from Alvarez has not changed at all with first-year coach Gary Andersen. Wisconsin leads the Big Ten in rushing offense with 298.2 yards and has the league’s No. 1 and No. 4 rushers in Melvin Gordon (145.0) and James White (95.7). The UI defense ranks 102nd out of 123 nationally. The UI’s inability to withstand similar attacks by Washington and Nebraska makes the home team a 10-point underdog.
Whereas the Illini once won 11 of 12 under Mike White, John Mackovic and the first year of Lou Tepper, the Badgers carry a 12-3 (one tie) edge in the series since 1993.
But are projections of 5,000 to 10,000 invaders too high? In 2011, a week after 60,670 watched Michigan win here 31-14, a 15th-ranked Wisconsin team prevailed 28-17 with 45,519 announced, some of those attendees disguised as empty seats. Best guess: Wisconsin fans travel but not quite like Nebraska and Ohio State.
— When things aren’t working at midseason, coaches often make drastic personnel changes. But if Tim Beckman is making defensive adjustments, he isn’t telling anyone. Said Beckman: “When you have youth, there are always growing pains. It isn’t a lack of effort or missed assignments. We’re building for the future and, yes, depth is an issue. These players are who we have and who we have to believe in.”
— Illinois had 36 first downs against Miami (Ohio) and matched Nebraska 24-24 in that department. But UI offensive coordinator Bill Cubit was concerned about the 4-for-15 third-down conversions at Nebraska, saying Monday: “When things are flying around, we’ve got to keep our composure. This is a different style of offense, and sometimes the guys are too quick in abandoning it. I knew it would be an issue. We just need to get comfortable. The line did a good job on the blitz, but we had other breakdowns, and we had some receivers get open that Nate (Scheelhaase) didn’t see. We just need to relax and execute.”
— Compared to last year, Cubit’s unit has improved at least 78 spots nationally in seven key statistical categories, with Scheelhaase 17th in passing efficiency.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.