Smile Politely

A people, wandering in the desert

Saturday was a rough day, not just for Illinois but for most of the Big Ten. Illinois went to Tempe, Arizona, to play a late nighter in front of all insomniacs who have cable (which, honestly, is all insomniacs). Illinois’ drubbing at the cloven hooves of the Arizona State Sun Devils was broadcast nationwide on ESPN, but anyone other than the fans of the teams playing likely switched over to Knife Show (vastly underrated for entertainment potential) well before halftime.

I’ll do my best to avoid poking the bruises too much, and move on as soon as I can to the larger Big Ten landscape.

Illinois lost 45–14 in a game that was never close, as Nathan Scheelhaase missed the game with a left ankle injury incurred against Western Michigan. Under the direction of Reilly O’Toole, and then Miles Osei, and then back to Reilly O’Toole, Illinois offense looked to truly embody the Good Book’s tale of a people wandering in the desert, directionless. Signs of the lack of experience at quarterback were plentiful: “And woe, there were many penalties for the false start and the delay of game, and the ball was given to the untested leaders, and the leaders gave the ball to the foes of the people. And the people wept, and gnashed their teeth and rended their officially licensed jerseys.” 

Okay, it wasn’t biblically bad. Josh Ferguson showed some real skill carrying the ball, going quite far to assuage my personal fears that he’s just a cut-and-move runner, and consistently breaking tackles and driving for extra yards after initial contact.

But it was bad. The typically bright spot for Illinois, defense, just did not have it. Arizona State put up 323 yards in the first half, and it never got better.  Heat acclimation may have been a major issue. ASU looked polished running their hurry offense, and Illinois’ defensive players were frequently missing assignments. ASU’s rookie quarterback looked incredibly talented, if only because so often his receivers were not within shouting distance of an Illinois defensive back.

Saturday was a rough day for a significant portion of the Big Ten teams. The conference went .500, but only got wins against the cupcakes and lost pretty much every significant game. Penn State started the day with a loss against Virginia, though nobody was all that surprised as that program remains in free fall. But it never really looked up. Purdue lost at Notre Dame, though there’s really not much shame in that.

And on and on it went. Iowa lost to Iowa State. Nebraska was dropped from the poll after losing to the UCLA Bruins, whom Illinois vanquished in last year’s bowl, as the perpetually defensive-centered Cornhuskers gave up 653 yards. Wisconsin also begins the week freshly unranked after losing badly to Oregon State after putting up 207 yards of total offense, and coming within moments of being shut out entirely. You can rest assured that Tim Beckman and staff will have their faces pressed to the video monitors studying that one before Illinois visits Wisconsin in a few weeks, as Oregon State figured out how to keep Badger runner Montee Ball out of the end zone, the first team to do so in 21 games (reminder: the college season is only about 13 games, so that’s a pretty stunning streak to snap).

Northwestern barely came from behind to beat Vanderbilt, making them the lone Big Ten team to win against a major conference opponent. The remainder of the victories were not a lot to crow about, while many are crowing about Denard Robinson’s “statement” coming off Michigan’s dismantlement at the hands of Alabama. True, Robinson put up fantastic numbers, crossing the 200 yard mark both in the air and on the ground. However, Michigan won by less than a touchdown against Air Force, a team that was so noticeably undersized against Michigan that highlights would have one believe that Michigan was scrimmaging a high school squad. Michigan State is the lone team that has actually looked, through two weeks, like a legitimately good team on two consecutive Saturdays. There’s no two ways about it: Spartans defense is fearsome. The remaining wins came against New Hampshire (for the Golden Gophers), Massachusetts (for Indiana), and University of Central Florida (for the Buckeyes).

There was some misery to be shared. Louisiana Monroe got paid a half of a million dollars to be a cupcake win for Arkansas, and ended up beating them. Arkansas had been ranked eighth in the nation prior to the game, but was dropped entirely from the AP poll following the loss, setting a record for the most awkward fall of a pig in memory.

But for the most part, Big Ten’s conference-wide embarrassment became the story line, and the scribes are already writing about how the Big Ten is nationally weak, a story line so tired and tiring that I can’t muster a cliché. With a lack of any real non-conference statement games left to be played, they won’t have the opportunity to show that again until bowl season, as Michigan and Michigan State’s annual matchups with Notre Dame are the last remaining games against out-of-conference ranked teams for the Big Ten.

One Saturday does not a weak conference make, but things sure didn’t look good, and perceptions are shaped awfully fast. Illinois has plenty of time to get ready for the Big Ten schedule with home games against Charleston, Southern, and Louisiana Tech before easing into the games that really count against Penn State. We’ll be previewing the home return later this week, and will be on Smile Politely radio on Friday, September 21 for a more expansive conversation about the season to come.

One last thing: it’s perfectly acceptable to eat the manna after it’s touched the ground, but be sure to brush the sand off of it first. And wear sunscreen, as you never really know how long you may be wandering.

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