In another extremely winnable game, the Illinois football team made critical errors throughout Saturday's 24-14 loss to Northwestern and the Illini's season ended with a thud at chilly Soldier Field in Chicago. Illinois couldn't stop the Wildcats' Justin Jackson, who was force-fed 37 times for 172 yards and a touchdown, and the Illini offense wouldn't score after its opening drive found the end zone.
Here's a few morsels to dissect what happened Saturday and looking at the bigger picture.
1. Illini make losing plays at the most critical times
This isn't a groundbreaking statement but: Illinois is never going to have the talent to consistently compete with the upper echelon of the Big Ten. In order to win games and be a relevant program, the Illini have to be one of the most disciplined and technically sound football teams in the conference. Right now, Illinois is neither. A personal foul on a punt (jumping over the punt shield) extended a stalled Northwestern drive that eventually led to a touchdown, and couldn't convert in the red zone late in the game the Wes Lunt threw an interception and the Illini had a false start on fourth-and-1 that forced Cubit to kick a field goal, which senior Taylor Zalewski shanked. These are avoidable mistakes that cost Illinois the game.
2. The 'Take over Chicago' initiative hasn't caught traction
Sitting in the stands at Solider Field on Saturday and it was painfully obvious that neither of these teams deserve the moniker of "Chicago's Big Ten Team." There were *literally* four fans in the upper deck along the sideline and the announced attendance of 33,514 was grossly inflated. The old adage is that Illinois must lock down Chicago in order to have success, but there's been little progress made in energizing the massive alumni base in the Windy City. It goes without saying that Illinois isn't in a great spot as a program, but Saturday's meager fan turnout was another reminder.
3. Settle in, it's going to be a long offseason
The real news of the day came before the ball was even kicked off Saturday: Bill Cubit agreed to a two-year extension to remain head coach of the Fighting Illini. While it remains unclear how long Cubit will be at the helm -- the move was mainly to keep pressure of the to-be-named Athletic Director in finding a football coach -- but it's a discouraging development nonetheless. 2015 was aligned to be a successful year for Illinois; a chance to build off a bowl game from the year before and continue making progress forward. Instead, it was one of the most tumultuous and unsteady years in program history. As we look ahead to next season, 2016 figures to be a "rebuilding" year for the Illini. Losing key members of an already shaky defense like Mason Monheim (S/O for a pick-six), Jihad Ward and Clayton Fejedelem will make it difficult to expect consistency from the Illini's defense. On the other side of the ball, there's more hope as Illinois will bring back Lunt for his third season as starter and have intriguing prospects looking to make a step forward like Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Desmond Cain and Malik Turner -- though losing do-it-all back Josh Ferguson and captain Teddy Karras (who I always thought was the heart of the team) are big holes to fill. Still, it stings that a season where seven wins looked realistic in the preseason ends with such a bitter defeat. On to basketball season it is. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯