CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — There had to be at least 100,000 people at the Big House on Saturday afternoon as Michigan hosted Indiana.
Or at least that was what the live look-in at the Wolverines’ game looked like as the scoreboard at Memorial Stadium flipped between that Senior Day and the broadcast of the Senior Day game in a packed Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette — a thriller between Purdue and Wisconsin.
And then I snapped back to reality.
It was the middle of the fourth quarter in Champaign. Iowa just extended its lead to 56-0 on Mekhi Sargent’s second touchdown run of the game. The Hawkeyes were threatening for the biggest win in the Kirk Ferentz era, while the Illini were just attempting to score.
The stands were emptied at that point, packed with just a few thousand Iowa fans who made the trip to watch their team grab its seventh win of a disappointing season. Those same stands were filled to the brim just over two years ago as Mitch Trubisky and his North Carolina Tar Heels visited a 2-0 Illinois in Lovie Smith’s first season with the program. Now? Even the yells of “Chief” during the Marching Illini’s Three-in-One were faint.
How’d we fall so far?
How did we go from the center of the college football landscape for a few days in March 2016 to the laughingstock of college football, even in a year where Maryland retained (and then fired) its disgraced coach, Rutgers had a far worse record, and Kansas was about to hire Les Miles? All of that, and the team that many will point to as the worst is Illinois.
Let me make it clear: It’s not the 63-0 blowout at the hands of Iowa. Personally, I think that score is pretty funny. It’s not the first time the Illini have allowed 63 this conference season — it’s actually the third — but it’s the lack of belonging Illinois had on Saturday that made it seem so perfect and fitting, almost like the last four years squished into a 60-minute game.
Four-year seniors, like myself, graduating in 2019 from the University of Illinois will never have seen a bowl game. It’s not like they deserved it anyways; we actively talk about on this blog how some students take a sense of pride in never going to a game.
How is that cool? Literally, I don’t know any other school where it would be considered in to NOT go to the games. As always, there are excuses:
- “It’s Thanksgiving break.”
- “My dorm closes at 3 p.m.”
- “It’s cold outside.”
- “We suck.”
All of it’s true. All of it. But while maybe 3,000 fans fill a depleted Memorial Stadium in the final minutes of Illinois’ biggest loss in program history, I’m forced to watch a full Michigan Stadium and Ross-Ade Stadium have exciting games that people care about.
I’m not asking for a re-do of my four years in the Marching Illini and in college. I would never change a thing. I had an absolutely incredible time over these years getting to just cheer on and watch this team. And I’m not asking to be Michigan. I also don’t want to be Nebraska. Or Wisconsin. Or Iowa. Or Purdue. Or South Florida. Or Penn State.
Or even Maryland.
I just want to be competent.
I just want to know that no other four-year graduating class will have to suffer through this absolutely awful brand of football and 14 wins over four years. For what it’s worth, Alabama will likely win 15 games this year. Just. This. Year.
I would never blame the players in this situation. From interviewing A.J. Bush, Mike Dudek, Reggie Corbin, Nick Allegretti and others over the years, I know that these guys are invested in their craft and going out there to win football games. The effort may look like it isn’t there, but I can absolutely assure you it is.
Instead, I blame the coaching staff. I’ve been holding off on saying such for a while now, even as the blowout, non-competitive losses piled up. But it’s time.
Maybe Lovie would still be the answer, but this needs a spark. Sometimes it’s okay to admit a mistake and move on. This is one of those times.
While Lovie can argue “progress” is being made on both sides of the ball, what can’t be argued was the final score: 63-0.
That’s nearly that Michigan-Rutgers game from two years ago. That’s not good.
When the clock struck 0:00 and the teams ran onto the field to shake hands after Saturday’s romp, I felt nothing.
Lovie’s postgame presser didn’t do it for me.
“It seemed like this year there’s been some tough losses,” Lovie said. “Didn’t really see this coming.”
But Allegretti’s comments postgame did.
“I loved every second [of playing at Illinois],” Allegretti said. “If I had gone back and could’ve made another decision, this is where I still would have gone. I absolutely love this university; the academics, athletics, the friends that I’ve made on the team and outside of the team. I would not have wanted to go anywhere else.”
We talk about “Illinois guys” a lot, saying we only want guys who want to be at Illinois.
Those guys exist. They keep playing on the team. And now it’s up to someone to make them winners.
If a student is going to care enough to show up when nobody else will — some Block I members attended the game, and they should be commended — it should be worth it for them. Not 63-0.
Let those who care feel something again. And maybe the rest will fill up.
It was an amazing four years, except for the product. I just hope this era never happens again.