Football hasn’t been a kind sport to me lately. Since 2000, there have been four seasons in which Illinois finished winless in Big Ten play, and only two (not counting bowl games) where the Illini finished with a record above .500. My former favorite NFL team was taken away from my hometown in search of riches in LA in a dishonest and cold-hearted process. I’ve only watched one full NFL game since.
The violence inherent to the game also troubles me. The concussion crisis should appall anyone, and it can be difficult watching knowing that the game may be causing the participants permanent brain damage.
The growth of insincere commercialization and profiteering in the game doesn’t help either.
There are many reasons for me to no longer watch football, yet I still love it. There is no sport in the world with as great of a mixture of combat-like tactics and athleticism. A perfect combination of physical skills and a chess match.
It’s the latter that always brings me back, however. The back and forth battle between opposing tacticians, and the attempt to execute plays to perfection on the field.
It’s rare to see both a perfect play call and perfect execution on a single play. There’s nothing quite like seeing a mesh-concept pass called, watching it develop and seeing the QB throw the pass with just the right timing.
A well-run option is also a sight to behold. The beauty of an option is the offense not knowing what will happen on the play until it well.....happens. There are multiple ways every option play can go, but sometimes if an option is run against the right defense, and the QB makes the correct read....there is nothing more scintillating to watch.
Illinois had one of the worst offenses in the country in 2017, ranking 124 out of 130 teams in S&P+ Offense. The offense was full of freshman — including three true freshman on the offensive line — and didn’t have the talent or the experience to compete at a high level in the MAC, let alone the Big Ten. Soon-to-be-fired offensive coordinator Garrick McGee had no solutions to offer.
Yet somewhere in the middle of all this ineptitude, the completely ineffective offensive machine that was Illinois ran one of those rare perfect option plays.
Early in the final game of 2017, Illinois faced a 3rd and 2 from the Northwestern 23-yard line. With true freshman Cam Thomas in the game, this was obviously going to be a run. Illinois knew it. Northwestern knew it.
Illinois came out in 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TEs), in a pistol formation with tight ends at both sides of the tackles.
The Wildcats countered with a 4-3 under formation. Knowing it was a run on third and short, they brought the run blitz hoping to force the field goal attempt.
The play the Illini ran was a rather basic read-option play, with a small wrinkle of having the weak-side TE come across the line as a lead blocker to protect for the possible QB keep. But, since Northwestern was selling out on the run blitz, it was the best play call you could ask for.
Thomas read that the defensive end mistakenly crashed towards the running back and kept the rock himself, and that was all she wrote. Thomas had only one man between him and the end zone and Louis Dorsey was easily able to block the safety to give Thomas the clear path. Thomas could have run forever.
Northwestern can rightfully claim that sometimes you have to take a risk on third and short. You gamble and lose; that’s the cost of playing aggressive defense.
The play also had little impact on the final outcome. Illinois would be outscored 42-0 from this point on its way to yet another blowout loss to finish off 2017.
Yet as the sun was relentlessly setting on this disastrous 2-10 season, just one simple play — one perfectly run option — reminded me why I love football so much. No matter how much the game tries to push me away, I’ll always come back.
That’s why Cam Thomas’ 23 yard TD run against Northwestern was my favorite Illini moment of the year.