While beat writer MATT DANIELS wishes a real top hat was awarded to the winner of the Illinois-Northwestern game, here are three things he learned Saturday:
1 Bank on it. Tim Banks stood in his customary spot in the corner of the Illinois team room, calmly answering questions about the problematic Illinois defense after Northwestern won 37-34 at Memorial Stadium on Saturday. His wife, Robin, waited patiently nearby. When Banks was finished, he grabbed his bag, took a look around the room and exited, holding hands with his wife. The question now becomes whether Banks will still get the chance to answer questions in the same spot next year.
“I haven’t really heard any of the criticism,” strong safety Earnest Thomas said. “I don’t really pay attention to a lot of it. I would love him back. He’s taught us a lot. If there is any criticism, it shouldn’t be on him. Coaches are in a tough position because they give us calls, and if we don’t execute it the right way, they look like the bad guys.”
The stats aren’t pretty when it comes to the Illinois defense as it pertains to the rest of the Big Ten. The Illini — who will return nine starters — finished 11th in total defense, 12th in rushing defense, ninth in pass defense, 11th in sacks, 11th in turnover margin and 12th in interceptions.
“To say that the cupboard is bare, I don’t think so,” Banks said. “We’ll have a tremendous amount of experience. To say that we don’t still have some things that need to be addressed, absolutely. We’ll work through that during recruiting.”
Illinois coaches will spend the next two weeks out on the road recruiting. Illinois is the seventh coaching stop for Banks. Even if Tim Beckman decides to make a change, the 42-year-old Banks should land on his feet at another program.
“Just like every offseason, you break it down all the way from the top to the bottom,” Banks said. “Is it personnel? Is it scheme? Is it coaching? What is it that’s not allowing us to be successful in certain situations, and from there, we’ll make adjustments.”
2 Looking ahead. The nonconference schedule isn’t big on name opponents next year for Illinois. But a winning record going into the Big Ten opener at Nebraska isn’t a guarantee, either. Youngstown State (Aug. 30), Western Kentucky (Sept. 6) and Washington (Sept. 13) all went 8-4 this year, albeit Youngstown State is an FCS school. Texas State started out 6-3 before losing its final three regular season games to finish 6-6 under Dennis Franchione. Having Purdue, Minnesota, Iowa and Penn State in Champaign could provide a boost to Beckman’s team. But games at Camp Randall and the Horseshoe are stern tests. Plus, Illinois hasn’t won in Evanston since 2002. If your spirits are now in the doldrums, remember this: Wes Lunt is eligible next fall.
3 State pride. They might have a small press box. A small stadium, too. But nothing is small about the way Northern Illinois and quarterback Jordan Lynch play. The Huskies will go to a bowl game for the sixth straight year. They’re the only team in Illinois that will do so, marking the first time since the 2009 season that has happened. The bowl game was a certainty almost two months ago when NIU held off Akron 27-20. It doesn’t quite have the same ring as a win against Alabama or Auburn, but the Huskies have accomplished what only Florida State and Ohio State have done this year. Which is beat every team on their schedule. The folks in DeKalb will get another BCS bowl game to attend. If the Huskies can get past Bowling Green on Friday night in the MAC title game at Ford Field. At least one team in our state is playing meaningful football after Thanksgiving.