Good football teams have been known to give up 37 points and win.
The game is peaking in a high-scoring era. Fresno State was headed for a major bowl and ran into a 62-point onslaught. Ohio State got away with allowing 41 on Saturday at Michigan. Oregon won 36-35. Alabama was headed for a three-peat before permitting 34.
So it’s common.
What makes Illinois different is that Northwestern, with two overtime games counted in, came here averaging just 16 points in seven Big Ten games ... was without its No. 1 quarterback (Kain Colter) and No. 1 running back (Venric Mark) ... didn’t have a senior on the offensive line ... and simply played keepaway all day at Memorial Stadium.
To their credit, the gritty Illini seniors made it close, 37-34. In fact, they did some extra-special things: Nathan Scheelhaase broke Juice Williams’ career total offense record with a 307-pass, 55-rush day (10,634 yards), Steve Hull caught 13 passes to give him 653 yards in the last four games, and Jonathan Brown compiled 17 tackles to finish the season with 119.
But Northwestern’s Wildcats, arriving on a seven-game slide, kept the ball for 13 more minutes than the Illini, 36:23 to 23:37. From the first two drives, when they took a 10-0 lead, to the closing minutes, the Purple Gang punched holes in a soft, porous Illini defense.
When it was over, the Wildcats ran an incredible 96 offensive plays without a turnover. Trevor Siemian had his pick of receivers as they ran wide open through the UI secondary. The 37-34 result left the 4-8 Illini with just three interceptions out of 354 opposing passes. When the ball is in the air, they are seldom around. Of the 354, they were credited with breaking up 40.
Same ol’ same ol’
Through 11 games, Tim Beckman’s second edition had already permitted more yards (5,218) than any Illini team in history. They permitted 560 more Saturday ... the slippage from 2011 amounting to roughly 2,000 more yards than the 13-game bowl team allowed.
The exact number — 2,158 — represents the extent to which the Illini defense has fallen from a team regarded so bad two years ago that coach Ron Zook was fired.
Beckman remains outwardly undismayed, expressing confidence and reminding that Brown and Tim Kynard are the only departures on the defensive two-deep chart. Maturity alone should bring better results.
But the question must be asked: Is major improvement possible with the talent on hand and, if help is needed, how does Beckman recruit successfully when Illini Nation is so clearly devastated and the Memorial Stadium stands so empty?
Fewer than half the announced attendance (37,058) showed up for a sunny, 50-degree kickoff, and several thousand of the hardy souls were gone by halftime. With students on holiday, fewer than 130 made it for the Block I section, and most of the sold-out seats in the opposite horseshoe were unfilled.
It was a dismal sight as darkness settled on the stadium and Pat Fitzgerald’s athletes began to enforce their will, rallying from a 27-23 deficit to carry a 37-27 lead into the final three minutes. Northwestern has taken charge of this series and can point to a 12-7 edge on Illinois since 1995.
If you are a worrier, the next concern is who’ll come courting Bill Cubit after his extraordinary one-year reclamation project with the UI offense.
The former Western Michigan head coach took over an average line with no depth, some experienced tight ends and a quarterback who had thrown four TD passes in 2012. His best receiver (Ryan Lankford) got hurt, and two of his leading wideouts turned out to be a converted safety (Hull) and former quarterback (Miles Osei). Josh Ferguson, who ran for 110 yards and two TDs Saturday, had just 312 yards last season.
The Illini averaged 16.7 points in 2012 and upped that to 29.7 this season, an increase of two touchdowns per game.
But the point has been made: Offenses can do tricks with the passing game but, for the defense to excel, it takes an extraordinary mix of scheme and raw talent. There is doubt all around whether Beckman’s young defenders can blossom into winners.
From all indications, Beckman will be back in 2014 to take another run at fixing it, and athletic director Mike Thomas is strongly advised to meet whatever challenges arise with regard to Cubit. In the final analysis, he was the star of this 4-8 team.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.