One more game, one more step in the right direction. The Illinois Fighting Illini are now 2-0 after beating Western Kentucky during a wishy-washy 42-34 victory. It wasn't always pretty, but improvement could once again be found in Champaign.
The first quarter started with WKU easily running past our D-line. My body started to curl into ball, hugging my knees, preparing. But before long, the Illini forced the Toppers into a punting situation at midfield. The snap flew over the punter's outstretched hands, allowing the Illini to start the next drive from the WKU 32. The botched punt has become a good omen for Illinois -- last week, the Butt Punt turned the tide of the game in the Illini's favor.
Wes Lunt had a phenomenal day, passing for 456 yards hitting 35 of 50 passes including 3 touchdowns and 1 interception. This guy is going to be a hoot to watch while he's here, but he's still got work to do. At times, he'll be impatient, trying to fit his passes into tight coverage. He again and again displays the arm strength -- there doesn't seem to be a player his passes can't reach, but accurately hitting those receivers isn't always guaranteed. He's young, so I'm not expecting him to be flawless, but he's got so much potential that I can't help but imagine what he could be someday.
Before the season began, Illini fans (including me) were wondering how our wide receivers would pan out. There was little to no experience from that group, but two games into the season, we don't have to worry about that anymore. Four different receivers had over 50 yards of receiving. Justin Hardee had 110 yards, including a 62-yard reception where his afterburners toasted the trailing WKU safeties. Juco transfer Geronimo Allison had a team-leading 8 catches for 98 yards. Freshmen Malik Turner had 6 receptions for 56 yards, including several vitally important first downs.
But then there's freshmen Mikey Dudek. Every catch he made became greatness. He caught a pass 7-yards down field and jaw-dropping-ly wove through defenders for another 25 yards. Later, he pulled in a pass along the sideline, somehow stopping on his toes, like a cartoon starring down into the depths of a canyon, then forced himself 2 yards upfield to get the first down. I fall in love with him more and more every play.
The passing offense was great, but there is still concern about the running game. Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young combined for 28 carries and a whopping 79 yards, a sickly 2.8 YPC. Here's the deal. I've been a fan of running backs for my entire footballing history -- I was one in high school -- but this offense is not meant for them. O-Coordinator Bill Cubit is going to pass, and pass, and pass. His idea of a run is really a screen pass. Let the receiver catch a easy pass in the flat and run from there where's there's less defenders to stop him. While we have Cubit, appreciate the true rushing attempts, and come to terms with the new version.
On the other side of the ball, there seemed to be temporary lapses in concentration. WKU was regularly finding ways to push our D-line around to find running lanes, receivers were only loosely covered. They allowed WKU's lead running back Leon Allen to gain 118 yards on 24 rushes, a 4.9 YPC, (most of those yards came in the first half) and a total of 297 passing yards. Those numbers aren't horrendously horrible. The defense would stop WKU, but it felt like a dice-roll at times.
The game, itself, can be described as frustrating yet good. Illinois would play great on two plays, followed by one bad one. During one drive in the first quarter, the defense allowed a 14-yard pass, then sacked the quarterback, then gave up a 14-yard run to the outside, then created and recovered a fumble. It was like that the whole game. Each play, I would lean a little further towards the front of my chair as the offense got closer to the end zone, only to slam backwards when WKU made a 95-yard fumble recovery into a field-covering touchdown.
And, yes that play did happen.
In the third quarter, the Illini started a drive at their own 31. They marched down the field, building that inevitable feeling that they were going to score. Ten plays and 3-ish minutes later, the Illini were nine yards from the end zone. Lunt passed to his left into the arms of a receiver only for it to be stripped by a WKU corner named Wonderful Terry, who proceeded to run 95 yards to give the Toppers the lead.
At that point, a strange feeling overwhelmed me. It was a combination of depression, disappointment and familiarity. It hurt, but I'd been here before. As an Illini fan, am I cursed to get my hopes up too high? Once-in-a-lifetime comebacks in basketball, only to lose in the Finals? Starting 6-0, only to end the season going 0-6? It's a roller coaster, and the Illini are the best at it. Your stomach does somersaults moments after your brain is doing backflips; an inspiration and a car wreck. The pain seems to draw me back with the promise that the quarterback could one day be great, or that we can beat a #1 Ohio State in football or #1 Indiana in basketball. And the worst part: I can guarantee it will happen to Illini fans again.
Today, the roller coaster ended before it went too far. After that 95-yard fumble return, Lunt threw an interception born of his impatience. With WKU starting inside the 10-yard line, Illinois held them to a field goal. It was a small, understated victory that finally showed that Illinois is growing up.
Illinois continued to score two straight touchdowns, including a 75-yard pick-6 by sophomore safety Taylor Barton, to put the score at 35-27 with 10 minutes left. WKU wasn't willing to lay down and take it easy -- they still wanted to win (which, I don't blame them). Illinois found ways to stop them and score another touchdown, putting the score at 42-27 with 4 minutes left. Then WKU drove the field against an apathetic Illini secondary.
apathetic adj. - showing or feeling no interest, enthusiasm, or concern.
The Illini thought they had won, and given the situation, they most likely had, but they almost took us on another trip down the roller coaster. There was no interest in stopping them, no enthusiasm as they nudged the receivers out of bounds, and no concern for the outcome. It has to do with the discipline of the team, which should be entrenched in them by the coaches. It's been a worry of many during Beckman's tenure. Penalties and stupid mistakes have been part of Illini tradition for the past 2.16667 years. It needs to be clean up, no excuses.
It was a game that could have been won easily with just a few different turns, and alternatively, it could've just as easily been a loss. There was improvement from Week 1, but also new room for other improvements. Next week, the Illini venture out west to take on the Washington Huskies. A team like that won't be making the same Illini-saving mistakes that the Toppers did today. Beckman will need a nearly flawless performance if he hopes to remain undefeated, and so far, he hasn't gotten that. Not even once.