CHAMPAIGN — In 13 seasons through 2018, Mid-American schools posted 29 football triumphs over their supposedly stronger Big Ten rivals.
Saturday made it 30 as a tough, attentive Eastern Michigan squad — two penalties compared to nine by Illinois — passed the mistake-prone hosts dizzy in a 34-31 result at Memorial Stadium.
Illinois fans, many of them looking ahead to a night showdown with Nebraska next Saturday, should be disappointed, but not shocked. The Eagles beat Purdue last year and Rutgers the year before. And they had the weapons to infiltrate an Illini secondary weakened by two absentees, Stanley Green and Tony Adams.
But the truth is, regardless of who is out there, Illinois hasn’t played acceptable pass defense since Tim Beckman, in an act that questioned his judgment, let Vic Koenning slip away just days after Koenning, replacing ousted Ron Zook, coached Illinois to a 20-14 bowl win over UCLA in 2011.
Your piano has 88 keys, and that’s how many games have ensued in which — call me a coward — fear invades my innards every time a rival quarterback steps back to pass ... 88 games since Koenning left town.
So, when Illinois managed to rally in the fourth quarter Saturday from a 31-17 deficit, tying it at 31-31 on Josh Imatorbhebhe’s splendid 36-yard TD reception, my first thought was, “Oh, oh, there’s 1:44 on the clock.” And sure enough, EMU’s Mike Glass fired consecutive 23-yard strikes to set up a point-blank field goal as the clock struck zero.
Comparing the QBs
In all fairness, these were comparable teams. But the Eagles did a far better job in backing Glass (one sack) than the Illini did in protecting Brandon Peters. Actually, Peters showed grit in finishing after being flattened violently by unhindered pass rushers. The six sacks by EMU marked the second straight week that blocking confusion hampered the operation.
And Glass gave EMU that extra element, darting 47 yards to set up the first TD and running for 18 and 8 in the Eagles’ fourth-quarter TD march.
Thanks to him, the game stats were almost even, the Illinois leading first downs 24-23 and rushing yards 167-164, while trailing in aerial yards 316-297.
Litany of miscues
Aforementioned mistakes proved to be the difference. After a first quarter in which neither team could stop the other — it resembled a Big 12 game — Illinois carried a 17-14 lead, only to see Lovie Smith’s quest for a “clean game” flubbed on the next nine possessions. Following are the offensive misdeeds in the middle two quarters:
(1) Consecutive penalties forced the UI to punt;
(2) A missed assignment led to Peters being sacked;
(3) Peters was rocked for minus-10 yards;
(4) Poor clock management, for which Smith blamed himself, left no time after Reggie Corbin’s 35-yard scamper to end the first half;
(5) Peters overthrew an easy third-down target;
(6) Peters was caught for 8- and 9-yard losses;
(7) Peters fumbled and EMU recovered;
(8) Peters threw an interception;
(9) Illinois drew consecutive 10-yard penalties.
The bottom line
OK, that’s too much information.
It adds up to this: You can’t run an effective offense if you can’t avoid penalties and allow the QB time to throw. After a flashy first quarter, the UI offense broke all the rules in the middle quarters.
Then came desperation, and the rallying Illini built hopes among those remaining in the announced crowd of 34,759. But that other cloud continued to hover, reminding that if it came down to crunch time, an Illini pass defense that hung on as EMU became conservative with the lead, would be too porous to prevent a counter-attack.
Sure enough, EMU struck late, dimming the setting for a joyous Hall of Fame weekend and turning dreams of a bowl season into an unrealistic long shot.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.