Seasons turn on moments.
Truths change from down to down, snap to snap.
With change being the central constant, steady leadership rights ships in troubled waters.
(Row that boat, PJ.)
Illinois’ season was on the brink in Minneapolis. A late touchdown by Gopher receiver Daniel Jackson seemed to put an immediate ceiling on Illini football’s season. It was a particularly bitter-tasting shot. It was a taste so metallic that Kam’s wouldn’t serve it.
But Illinois was able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and give a starving alumni base some bragging rights. In front of the man, Athletic Director Josh Whitman, the Illini made an electric comeback in Minneapolis.
The football program has undoubtedly had its ups and downs. This season has been a glass case of emotions for fans and a disappointing mass of inconsistency for the players. But winning cures many ills.
And leadership facilitates more winning.
It starts at the top with a passionate athletic director. Josh Whitman’s passion for the university and the football program is transparent. He doesn’t even bother to hide it.
At a pregame event with Illinois alumni in the Twin Cities, Whitman didn’t hesitate to remind the crowd that Illinois basketball just beat the No. 1 team in the country. He talked about alumni in Minneapolis and other markets representing the university with pride.
The kind of pride that inspires Whitman’s hires within the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics,
Bret Bielema was a controversial hire by Whitman. Was he a washout taking the Illinois job as a payday? Was he a misfit after his SEC stumbles? Was he really a better hire than Marcus Freeman or Lance Leipold?
Sure, there are still some questions about playcalling and recruiting. But Bielema’s voice and message are steady. Relentless execution of fundamentals is the order of the day. In his post-game media availability, Bielema summed up what the Illini displayed.
“This was a great example…It doesn’t always go as scripted. You just gotta be resilient.”
Being good at running drills is only a part of what it takes to move a program to the next level. The lessons about moving the chains and avoiding penalties only go so far. Sometimes, a coach has to until in his players a willingness to prepare for the worst and rise above it.
The quarterback is considered the leader on the field by default. They dictate the huddle, take the snap, touch the ball on every down, and get too much credit and too much blame. The quarterback is the face of the franchise for better or worse.
In Minneapolis on Saturday, three Illinois quarterbacks showed tremendous grit and leadership.
First, there was Luke Altmyer. Altmyer got sacked five times. He was under siege for a large percentage of the game. Yet he was ruthlessly efficient for 3 quarters. Sure, he turned the ball over a few times. And those have to stop. But Altmyer showed a glimpse of how he could potentially stabilize the most important position on the field for future seasons.
He shook off as many hits as he could. The last hit he took forced him out of the game. He helped put Illinois in position to win and didn’t get to enjoy the victory drive on the field.
John Paddock came into the game, and his confidence showed when he converted a 4th and 10 on his first snap. He made three throws in the entire game, and those throws took the Illini from their own 15-yard line to the end zone and a road kill.
When you listen to John Paddock talk, he vaguely resembles Mark Wahlberg early in the film Boogie Nights. He is almost unassuming in his overt confidence.
He talked about how high school and Ball State put him through the paces of one-score games. So he was ready for the situation, no matter how daunting.
“I knew the plays that were going to be called and I just had to execute,” Paddock said after the Minnesota Miracle. “In those situations, you need an offense where 11 guys are on the same page.”
Even if all 11 weren’t initially on the same page, Paddock got them there. He showcased his own resiliency by moving past his struggles in relief against Penn State. Paddock has shown himself to be a capable playmaker who isn’t crushed by the size and scope of mountain moments.
The third Illinois quarterback who showcased resilience, leadership, and grit was Isaiah Williams. Sure, he switched positions after Coach Bielema’s staff took over. But the quarterback has clearly never left his brain. He runs routes with the understanding of what a signal caller needs. He’s a steady, reliable leader in a locker room that has changed regimes and systems in his tenure in Champaign.
He also had a costly fumble in the second half against the Gophers. It looked like a surprising epitaph on what appeared to be a stellar game. But like a quarterback, Isaiah Williams and the Illini offense had short-term memories. They left the fumble in the past and went right back to One. It was a move the Illini will never regret.
After Paddock’s amazing drive, the ex-quarterback recognized the massive accomplishment of overcoming those obstacles.
“On the touchdown play, I literally looked back and I saw him step back and then step up in the pocket. Doing what he did, that’s just hard to do. It’s hard to see from the outside how he was in the huddle. Even a lot of elite guys can’t do what he just did.”
After the game, Williams said he knew he would likely be getting the ball on what wound up being the scoring play.
And like any good quarterback, he saw a weakness in the defense and called an audible…on his route. That audible left him wide open and in position to catch a beautifully thrown ball in stride.
And make no mistake about it. He didn’t take for granted that his teammates wanted to go right back to him.
“It means a lot to me just knowing that those guys didn’t give up on me in that moment. It just shows that they do have a lot of confidence in me.”
He talked glowingly of Paddock’s confidence and swagger. His praise was as effusive as it was of Tommy DeVito last season. And that is high praise.
They say in the NFL that if you are strong at owner, GM, head coach, and quarterback, you’ll always be competitive. In college football, perhaps the same is true regarding AD, head coach, and quarterback.
It’s an imperfect season. And maybe Saturday’s win will wind up being its peak. But as of now, the brain trust in Champaign looks rock solid.