Smile Politely

Called to the Matte

I doubt there are many people out there that were all that excited for the game against Miami-Ohio last week.  If you went to the game or tuned in, you were, I hope, pleasantly surprised that the matte helmets (debuted last year against Penn State) made a comeback. They are awesome, and that’s all there is to it. They really should work them in more often. The new standard orange helmets (showcasing the Block I) are much better than the old slanted “Illinois” helmets. But that matte really looks fantastic.

As for the game itself, there wasn’t much to not like. I should heap caution on everyone to not over-evaluate the game from Saturday.  Illinois put up some wonderful numbers, has already eclipsed the total win count from last year, Scheelhaase threw five touchdown passes. All good things. But the Redhawks are nearly last in most major statistical categories among major division football programs, and Illinois, appropriately, treated the game as a scrimmage in many respects.There is no reason to opt for an onsides kick when you are up 15 points in the first half, other than the fact that Illinois hasn’t had an opportunity to try an onsides kick in a game yet. Fans would be well cautioned to look ahead to the Big Ten schedule coming up, and not to spend too much time gloating over the past wins, this one chief among them. So that’s what we’ll do.

Illinois travels to Lincoln, Nebraska to take on the Cornhuskers, undoubtedly the best-named team in the Big Ten. (In case you’re wondering, No. 2 is the Wisconsin Badgers, and last place is the Northwestern Wildcats). Nebraska is a team that is, according to the pollsters, roughly as strong as the Washington team which beat Illinois at Soldier Field. Illinois made that a competitive game, and pretty much did what was expected, keeping it to a respectable two-possession deficit. The oddsmakers have Illinois pretty much exactly as under-favored now as then, at about 10 point underdogs. If Illinois had chances to win against Washington, and they did, they should have a chance to win against a Nebraska team that was beaten badly two weeks again by UCLA.

There’s a lot more on the minds of the Nebraska fans than playing Illinois. Bo Pellini, the Huskers coach, is not having a great couple of weeks. Bo Pellini is known for some rather animated press conferences, which are often equally contentious and hilarious. It turns out he’s even more animated in private. A tape has been released of Pellini, apparently prior to taping a radio interview when the tapes were rolling without his knowledge, in which he blasts the Nebraska fans for not staying in their seats at a game against Ohio State two years ago after Nebraska got down three touchdowns. This isn’t a tape of slightly unflattering comments: there isn’t much ambiguity when your head coach says “F@#$ you, fans. F@#$ all of you. F@#$ ‘em.” The tape was released by an anonymous tipster to the website Deadspin, which has caused even more controversy about the ethics of releasing an unknowingly-recorded conversation to the media anonymously and the motivation for doing so. The fact that it was Deadspin, a site that has acknowledge exchanging $12,000 cash in an envelope for pictures of Brett Favre’s penis has only further stoked the debate. I’ll leave it to you to decide for yourselves who all is in the wrong here.  I’m just telling you what’s going on. The fact that Nebraska has, by the lofty expectations of their fans, underperformed under Pellini is the major undercurrent with all of the above. 

Taking stock of where we are, the idea that Illinois could actually be expected to contend against Nebraska was inconceivable a month ago. The way in which Illinois’ play through the first four games has lifted the hopes of the fans really cannot be overstated. Essentially every Illinois fan that I have talked to is working on looking forward on the schedule and counting to six. Six wins would make Illinois eligible to go to a bowl game, and was the last thing on many people’s minds at the beginning of the season, this writer included. I’ll be honest and say that, my initial pass at the schedule saw the Illini pretty much matching last season’s performance: 2 non-conference wins and yet another O-fer in the Big Ten. 

Don’t get me wrong: nobody has told me they honestly think that Illinois is going to the Rose Bowl. But considering the expectations before the season began, a trip to Detroit for a game sponsored by a low-rent pizza chain would be considered a happy ending to the season. (Don’t get me wrong, I love Detroit, and I love Little Caesar’s $5 Hot ‘n’ Ready pies, or, as they are affectionately known in the Willis household, HnRs).

But a nice confluence of developments has people openly considering such a possibility. The one looming snag in this plan is the locations of the games. Illinois has home games remaining against very strong teams (Wisconsin and Ohio State chief among them) and the games  that seems to be their most likely opportunities to win are road trips: at Penn State, Purdue and Indiana. Purdue has raced to four losses already and is essentially in a tailspin. Penn State and Indiana match up against each other this coming Saturday (12 p.m. on Big Ten Network) so you may be well-suited to keep an eye on that contest during commercial breaks to see if those look like two teams that Illinois can beat.

But if Illinois is going to start a road win party, and starts it Saturday in Lincoln, hope will really soar. It isn’t likely, but it isn’t impossible and for now, that’s enough. That and the matte helmets. Please. Matte helmets. 

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