I really wanted the Illini to win this game. Not because I actually hate Northwestern or consider it an actual rival, but because I wanted the 2013 season to come to an end with a two-game winning streak.
I wanted that positive feeling heading into a very long offseason.
Instead I'm left with the feeling I've had all too often when it comes to this football team, and yesterday's loss felt like so many of the other losses we've seen this year. When the play was really needed, it just wasn't made.
The Illini run defense continued to improve on Saturday, as they held Northwestern to only 2.9 yards per carry on the evening. Yet, late in the fourth quarter, when that run defense needed to make one more stop to get the offense back in the field, it gave up 11 yards to Treyvon Green on a third and six.
Third downs were a problem all night, as they had been all season, with Northwestern converting on 12 of its 20 third downs. You either get off the field or you don't, and all too often on Saturday (and this season), the Illini didn't.
Then there was the offense, who had a strong effort in the second and third quarters to get the Illini back in the game and even take the lead. But in the first and fourth quarters that same offense had six possessions and managed to run 40 plays for 172 yards with three punts, a missed field goal, an interception and a touchdown. Though that touchdown was too little and too late.
Truly, the lasting image of this game to me will be Nathan Scheelhaase's interception in the fourth quarter. I feel like Nate has been unappreciated here the last four years (and Primiano will have more on this exact topic tomorrow), but I also understood the reason for the frustration fans have had with him the entire time. For every wonderful thing that Nate has done on a football field in an Illini uniform, he's done something equally as dumb.
And that interception in the fourth quarter was another one of those moments. Was it actually an interception? I don't think so. It looked to me that Tyler Scott was bobbling the ball as he stepped out of bounds, but the refs felt differently. But that's not what matters to me here. Whether he caught it or not, what in the hell was Scheelhaase doing throwing that pass to begin with?
That was the kind of play a freshman quarterback makes in the fourth quarter, not a four-year starter on Senior Day. But that was Nate's career in a nutshell. He put up a lot of numbers the last four years, both good and bad. And unfortunately his last interception as an Illini proved to be the one that ultimately cost his team the game as the Wildcats would convert it into the game-winning touchdown.
But I'm not here to bury or blame Nate because that would be entirely unfair. As I already mentioned, there were plenty of reasons the Illini weren't able to win this game, and Nate was just one of them.
The fact of the matter is the season is now over, and the Illini finished 4-8, which, before the season began was a realistic expectation. Coming into the season we weren't sure what to expect on offense, but we know that we'd have a lot of trouble on defense and wouldn't win a lot of games. Well, it's December now, and that's basically exactly what happened.
And while this season didn't end on a positive note, I have this weird sense of optimism about next season. This is going to be a different team next year, both on the field and potentially on the sidelines. I don't know what's going to happen with Tim Banks, but I know he sounded like a man who has his own idea following yesterday's game.
"I put my trust in God," said Banks after the game. "I believe he has a plan for me. I know who I am as a coach. I know what I bring to the table. I've been extremely blessed and productive (as a coach)."
Personally I think there will be a change, and I've felt that way for over a month now. Whoever is coaching the defense next season, though, will have an experienced unit to work with. Yes, Jonathan Brown will be gone, but just about everyone else (aside from Kynard) will return to a unit with at least a years worth of starting experience under their belt. That alone won't improve this defense, but it certainly isn't a bad thing.
On offense I expect Bill Cubit to return -- he said himself that other programs won't be interested in a 60-year old coach -- and he'll have either Wes Lunt or Aaron Bailey to work with at quarterback. Josh Ferguson will return after a season in which we saw him rush for 779 yards, find himself on the receiving end of 535 more and finish with 11 total touchdowns. He may find himself on an All-Big Ten Team for that performance, which I don't think any of us could have foreseen before the season began.
And while we'll lose both Ryan Lankford and the one and only Steve Hull at the receiver position, we'll return a receiving corps that has a lot of size and potential, along with some tight ends who emerged this season. I'm confident somebody will emerge from the pack and be a top target for either Lunt or Bailey.
We'll also have a schedule that we can work with. There are six wins available on that schedule, and possibly more should we see enough improvement from the defense.
So another season comes to an end, and while it wasn't exactly the kind of year any of us should feel good about, I find myself in a much better place when it comes to this football team than I was a year ago. And I'm not sure what more I could have asked for from this 2013 team.
So for that I thank them. And should the 2014 version of this team take that next step, I hope the 2013 team realizes that the struggles it went through and the battles it fought through helped it get there.
I know I will.