Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023, started like any other day.
No, it didn’t.
It was 50 degrees and sunny in Minneapolis in November. It was an exceptionally beautiful day.
And on this beautiful day, Illinois football fans experienced the entire spectrum of emotions that define this particular fandom.
In the stadium, an altered video from Breaking Bad was shown in which the Gophers were represented by Walter White. He told the Illini (represented by his wife Skylar) that he was the danger.
A paranoid, ruthless drug dealer in intimidating, homicidal rage, represented far more than the Gophers.
And no, I’m not trying to make a PJ Fleck/Criminal Mastermind comparison. Even though that column would surely be fun.
But the real villain in the story isn’t a former high school teacher. It’s the ghost of tragedies past.
The Homecoming collapse against Wisconsin is still a fresh wound for a fan base that just started anticipating nice things.
Years of watching Mike Dudek, Mike Epstein, and Josh Imatorbhebhe get injured are still a part of the collective consciousness of Illinois fans.
Last season’s collapse-defining losses to Michigan and Purdue are still nightmare fuel.
So that brings us to Minneapolis on the east bank of the University of Minnesota’s sprawling urban campus.
The Illini got off to a pretty expected start: a scripted first drive resulting in an impressive first-drive touchdown pass from Luke Altmyer to Tip Reiman. The Gophers responded with a touchdown of their own, but the Illini didn’t buckle. Offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. continued to use creative playcalling and Luke Altmyer and Isaiah Williams connected on the second Illini touchdown.
Things were looking up.
Without Josh McCray, Reggie Love, Jordan Anderson, and Aidan Laughery, true freshman Kaden Feagin shouldered the overwhelming majority of the rushing load. And as he has done consistently this season, he moved the chains.
He also scored a 54-yard touchdown on a screen pass that is as fun as almost any play you will see this season if you are an Illini fan.
Altmyer was scorching. He completed 18 of his first 22 passes for just under 200 yards and three touchdown passes. It was becoming the stuff of legend.
Until it wasn’t.
Even after all of these highlights, the walls started closing in. The defense struggled in spurts without Johnny Newton. They were gashed for some big plays. Minnesota was able to move the ball in the first half. The defense looked worn out without their superstar.
And Johnny Newton looked every bit the superstar. He lived in the backfield on his first series, and his teammates fed off his contagious fervor.
Newton’s passion, ferocity, and excellence didn’t stop Minnesota from eating up chunks of yards in the second half. None of that fight sealed the game for the road team. It was as if the best punch had been thrown, and Minnesota was unphased.
This is where the perception of “Oh s**t, Illinois” started to flare up. It looked like another game in which Illinois would lose a winnable game against a beatable opponent.
The second-half turnovers by Altmyer and Isaiah Williams didn’t help.
But this wasn’t an ordinary day. Remember, it was unseasonably warm in Minneapolis. The Illini got off to an early lead by mostly throwing the football. And Johnny Newton didn’t take the field until the third quarter.
When Daniel Jackson caught a 31-yard touchdown pass from Athan Kaliakmanis with under six minutes to play, the misery index in Illinois land broke the thermometer. This was the moment that the air left the tire.
And if that was a deflating moment, the absolute blowout moment was Luke Altmyer’s unfortunate interception moments later.
This game was over.
Until it wasn’t.
When Illinois got the ball back with three minutes left on the clock and 84 yards to win the game, Illini fans found themselves in a familiar position: hoping for the best, bracing for the whimper.
When it was 4th and 10, the game felt like a foregone conclusion. It was “beat the traffic” season.
And when Luke Altmyer left the field with an apparent injury, that feeling became a black cloud.
John Paddock didn’t get the memo. He was too busy orchestrating one of the most epic game-winning drives in Illinois history.
He converted the 4th and 10. And that completion was ⅓ of his total productivity. He only completed two more passes.
Of course, the final one was the game-winning touchdown.
It was a magical arc. It was shock for Paddock and redemption for his receiver, Isaiah Williams. In one moment, the Illini experience was realized to its ultimate conclusion. A heart-stoppingly dramatic climax after a stunningly disappointing fall.
Shakespeare would have been proud.
Illinois sits at 4-5 with a matchup against another beatable foe, the Indiana Hoosiers, on tap.
With Iowa and Northwestern remaining on the schedule, the Illini could finish the season in myriad ways.
But thanks to a magical day in the Twin Cities, one of those possibilities is a bowl game.
And with three minutes left in the game, that possibility was at best a fever dream.