A few nights ago, I was watching a replay of the Illinois-Indiana game from 2013. For those of you who don't remember, it was an offensive explosion, a product of the two worst defensive teams in the B1G. The game ended in a Hoosier win, 52-35. But sitting there watching, even though I knew the outcome, I had hope for the future.
First, let me start out by saying that I like the Big Ten Network. It fills a hole in my soul when college football is scarce by replaying games from B1G past. Yes, they show the B1G Championships and Rose Bowl games a little too much, but overall they improve my quality of life during the summer (it also makes my offseason video-watching that much more enjoyable by cutting games down to 60 minutes).
It also lets you watch a game at a different time and with a different mindset. Back when it was live, Illini fans were understandably depressed by the dreaded 18-game B1G losing streak. This time, I watched without that burden in mind. The isolated performance allowed me to view it from a different perspective. The game that made me sick in early November now revealed silver-linings in July.
On offense, the eventual returning players for 2014 showed their potential. Josh Ferguson ran through the middle and around the ends and caught passes in the flats, creating first downs when the play looked doomed. The O-Line was able to create those holes quite often and Scheelhaase was only sacked once. Returning Tight End Jon Davis continually impressed; he has potential for a great upcoming season. In fact, the potential of the entire offense has me excited.
The defense wasn't as much of an inspiration. It was young, depthless, and just outmatched by Indiana. The Hoosiers aren't blessed by exceptional players very often, so when guys like Cody Latimer and Tevin Coleman come around, I make sure to give them props. The Illini defense simply had no match for their speed. Is that a problem for 2014? Yes, but another year of returning experience will give the Illini players, especially the DB's, more of an understanding how they need to play and where they need to be on the field.
On nearly half of the defensive snaps I saw, our DBs fell back so far that the Indiana receivers were able to get eight or nine easy yards per reception. Illinois' 'bend, don't break' defense was bending a little too much. When they weren't allowing short pick-ups, the DBs were getting torched by Latimer and Co. These young players weren't capable of keeping up with NFL talent for a whole game, but (here we go again) it still gave me hope.
There were times when the Illini defense looked only slightly less than adequate during this game. Certain players --such as returning linebacker Mason Monheim (one of the best pure tacklers on this team) -- kept the Hoosiers from moving the ball. What killed the Illini were two long touchdown receptions by Latimore (41 and 50 yards, respectively) and two touchdown runs by Coleman (64 and 75 yards). How would this game play out if a more experienced Illini defense were able to stop just two of those plays? A veteran defense won't allow the same gaps that the 2013 team did.
If the offense remains on a similar level -- which they should -- and the defense improves due to maturation, then the Illini will be a better team in 2014. How much better? I'm not entirely sure and, frankly, no one will know before it happens. But having this sense of improvement in the middle of July is what I want from every November loss. The Illini are rebuilding, and we get to watch the construction of the first columns.
I can't wait to see what they build in 2014.