There's no question this loss hurt. When you're watching a team that's in the midst of an 18-game conference losing streak come so close to ending that streak, only to extend that losing streak to 19 games, it hurts.
When all they need to do is get a first down to end the game and they can't do it, it hurts.
When you see a defense that's been playing its best defense in months during the second half finally crack because, for once, it was the offense that couldn't bail it out, it hurts.
When Mason Monheim gets lost in coverage giving Christian Hackenberg an easy lane to complete a touchdown pass to Kyle Carter in overtime, it hurts.
When Nathan Scheelhaase, who is playing one of the best games of his career, makes that one mistake of forcing a throw into double-coverage in overtime, it hurts.
But you know what? With everything that took place in that game that could cause me to be upset about how things finished, I wasn't angry in the slightest afterward. To be honest, the first thing I did after Nate's pass was picked off and the game ended was smile.
I wasn't happy with the loss, but I was happy with most of what I saw.
Oh, you're damn right there are plenty of things the players and coaches did that I did not like. I have no idea what Nathan was doing at the end of the first half when we had no timeouts and the clock was running, but he decided to go through all his checks like he had all the time in the world.
I have no idea what Bill Cubit is thinking at times, particularly in the red zone. That fourth down we went for that we didn't get? I was all for that. I wanted them to go for it too. I wouldn't have called a pass in that situation, but I wanted them to go for it.
I can say the same about the drive after the Bill Belton fumble in the fourth quarter too. I understand that you're probably going to have to pass at some point in those three downs, but why on first down? Why not run the ball twice and try to set up a third and short if you're going to run the risk of stopping the clock? Hell, why not run that swing pass to Josh Ferguson that you were running all day with a high rate of success?
I just got a feeling from it all that not only were the players in a position they just weren't used to being in, but so were the coaches.
Still, despite all of that, I found myself more optimistic about this team after that loss than I did before it. I began to think that maybe, just maybe, the reason the Illini got beat up in their first three Big Ten games this season was because they were just playing three of the conference's better teams in Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State. Maybe, just maybe, the gap between the Illini and everybody else in the conference isn't that great.
And suddenly the remaining schedule, aside from the Ohio State game, looks a lot more manageable to me. I don't know that this team is going to win three of its last four and get to a bowl game, but I know that when Tim Beckman said after the game that this team is going to get that Big Ten win this season, I actually agreed with him.* They might get two. They could get three.
*Although agreeing with him doesn't mean I think it's something he should have said publicly. Think about it, if you're Tim Beckman right now you already have plenty of detractors among the fan base. People already want you fired, and you've given them plenty of ammo. Somebody on the coaching staff probably committed a sideline infraction just while I was typing this. And by basically guaranteeing the team is going to win a conference game this year, Beckman is providing the detractors with some possible kindling to throw under his seat, because what if this team doesn't get that conference win this year? I'm not even one of the people calling for his head and even I have already mocked him for it, though that could just be due to the fact that I'm a terrible person.
The biggest reason for my newfound optimism was that defensive performance in the second half.
Now, on the day Penn State had 490 yards of offense, rushed for 250 yards and averaged 6.1 yards per play. But the second half was a lot different. The Nittany Lions had five possessions in the second half, and while the Illinois defense let the Nittany Lions move the ball on those drives, it also made key plays when it had to. It made stops on third and fourth downs, and it got that Belton fumble at the goal line.
It put us in a position to win the game, which is just something this defense hasn't done this season.
As I said following last week's loss to Michigan State, what I really wanted to find out this week was would this team pick itself up off the mat and keep fighting, or would it just lay down and wait for somebody to just ring that damn bell. This team got up. It fought. It nearly put Penn State on the mat while doing so.
To me that says that while Beckman lost a lot of the seniors on the roster last year -- which happens more often than you think after a coaching change -- he still has this team. They still believe in themselves and believe that they're heading in the right direction, and for everything we criticize Beckman for, we also have to give him credit for that. Because look at how many people in this fan base have already given up. It's just as easy for the team to do it too.
Now, I'm not saying that I think Tim Beckman is the answer, nor am I saying that this team is going to get it turned around and go on to win numerous conference titles under him.
What I'm saying is that I was fully prepared to see the Illini get beat up by Penn State and then fully turn my attention to basketball season when it begins for real on Friday. Now I'm looking forward to the final four games of this football season -- okay, I'm not really looking forward to the Ohio State game -- and seeing whether or not this team can finally get itself that Big Ten win and give us all a reason to be optimistic about the 2014 season.
I think it will.