Rod Serling, the late “Twilight Zone” creator, returned surreptitiously from the darkness Saturday to write a new mind-boggling episode at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.
Touchdown Illinois pic.twitter.com/x9jHjU6ksf— Matt Daniels (@mdaniels_NG) November 10, 2019
One that you won’t, you can’t, believe.
Michigan State, dominating the Illini in both lines and seemingly burying the visitors with a 28-3 getaway, still led 31-10 after three quarters. This was a signal for many chilled fans to seek a warmer location ... causing them to miss a spectacular 27-3 Illini eruption that had Serling-like thrills bordering on the impossible.
If you thought Illinois’ 24-23 comeback vs. Wisconsin was a miracle, it must now accept second place behind the greatest comeback in UI football history.
It doesn’t matter that Illinois was outrushed 275-36. It doesn’t matter that Illinois’ pass defense returned to its customary porous nature. Illinois made BIG plays that will grow and grow with the retelling.
When Southern Cal transfer Josh Imatorbhebhe caught what amounted to a Hail Mary TD (46 yards) on the last play of the half, there were no indications that Illinois would score again.
Forty-five of the 60 minutes were soon gone, and Lovie Smith’s Illini were dead in the water. And even with a shocking 83-yard TD pass from Brandon Peters to Imatorbhebhe, and Sydney Brown’s 76-yard pick six, the game seemed lost for sure when Wisconsin hero James McCourt missed the kick to tie it 31-31.
Thrills came flying like a Gatling Gun in the final 3:17. It was fourth-and-17 when Imatorbhebhe made a game-saving catch to keep the final drive alive. Another fourth-down play failed, but MSU was called for interference in the end zone. Six plays inside the 5 and, finally, with :05 on the clock, Peters scrambled to find tight end Daniel Barker waving in the end zone.
And now, it is 6-4 Illinois, battered but winner of four straight, for Whom the Bowl Tolls.
Challenge down south
Switching to basketball, Illinois made the required step toward national recognition with Friday’s 83-71 win at Grand Canyon where the Finkes have departed (Mike graduated and Tim transferred to Wright State) and three other Antelopes — they have eight transfers — are currently ineligible.
Kofi Cockburn was dominant inside (23 points, 14 rebounds) and Andres Feliz (21) was clutch, particularly when the score tightened at 71-67. Feliz produced three of the UI’s six baskets in the last 12 minutes.
But Illinois will need more at Arizona on Sunday night from Ayo Dosunmu, who handed out six assists but whose 3-for-11 shooting was not “NBA-like.”
Good News: Friday’s 52-26 rebound margin gives the UI a plus-56 in two games, a dramatic change from last season’s negative output.
Shaky news: Illini ballhandling has been much too careless with 40 turnovers in two games. The bench has offered little offensive punch beyond Alan Griffin. And Giorgi Bezhanishvili, who fouled out in 17 minutes Friday, has found it difficult dealing with rival quickness at his new position.
Louisville was caught in two disgraceful basketball episodes, one involving prostitutes for prospects, and last year fired basketball coach Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich.
These incidents damaged the program so severely that the Cardinals “fell all the way” to No. 5 in this year’s preseason AP poll.
You see, in college basketball, it pays to cheat. It always has.
Take Arizona. You’d think that an anticipated Letter of Inquiry at Arizona would discourage recruits. Actually, it did a year ago. But when the Wildcats line up against Illinois at 8 p.m. tonight, they’ll feature two five-star McDonald’s All-Americans at guard, Italian Nico Mannion and Aussie Josh Green. They were outstanding in their debut as the Wildcats displayed great athleticism and flow in an easy romp vs. Northern Arizona.
Arizona is one of a half-dozen or more schools currently sizzling on the NCAA’s hot seat. According to an ESPN report that seemingly faded into nothing, FBI wiretaps recorded head coach Sean Miller discussing a payment of $100,000 in order to ensure the signing of a top recruit.
Hanging by a thread
Miller’s former assistant there from 2009-17, Book Richardson, served three months in prison after multiple payoffs. He was released last month.
Richardson earlier pleaded guilty to accepting $20,000 in bribes, told undercover FBI agents that he paid $40,000 to a high school coach (who was obliged to “take care” of others in the academic chain) to ensure that former guard Rawle Alkins was academically eligible to play for the Wildcats. Alkins played two seasons and turned pro in 2018. Richardson said he was paying Alkins’ cousin $2,000 a month.
Richardson worked closely with a business manager, Christian Dawkins, who was sentenced to a year and a day for facilitating bribes from various coaches. Said Dawkins’ attorney, Steven Haney, “Christian was sentenced for conduct that had been going on for decades ... the government is fully aware that numerous head coaches engaged in the same conduct but were not charged.”
The Athletic’s Dana O’Neil, in stating that “the university’s reputation flails in the wind, “ cited Arizona’s determination to retain Miller with this acidic conclusion: “The school has dug its heels in deeper than the desert sand, denying, distancing, rebuking and rebutting any and all accusations that have threatened to unseat Miller.”
Ah, deniability. It is a universal truism that head coaches know everything — everything! — about their programs ... except where payoffs are involved.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.