Smile Politely

Excited to be disappointed

Saturday night, the Illini football team took on the Washington Huskies in a heavily-branded sporting event that the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics was selling as the “Chicago Homecoming.” Illinois lost by a touchdown and a field goal, the final score 34-24. Homecoming losses are not all that new to the Illini nation. 

Though Illinois never led, they did inspire some hope in rallying back from a three touchdown deficit to make it a one-possession game with over nine minutes left to play. For Illinois to stay in the game and compete for so long, and indeed to inspire hope of a comeback, even tough the hope would eventually be dashed, was pretty much a victory for me. 

Entering the game as a ten point underdog and exiting the game a ten point loser, Illinois exactly met expectations. I, and I think many others, had a lingering sense of dread that the expectations that had built up over the past week were unrealistic, that one game against Cincinnati had been a false glimmer of hope, that Illinois might, after it all, be a disappointment. 
I was disappointed after Saturday’s game. But the good kind of disappointment—the disappointment that comes from losing a game that actually was winnable. As opposed to the previously-expected kind of disappointment, the kind of disappointment that accompanies “off years” and “rebuilding programs” and a whole sea of games to look out at not expect to compete.
Because Illinois gave me reason to believe that we could win against a team like Washington, a team that clearly demonstrated that they deserved to be nationally ranked, I was disappointed, and excited to be disappointed. 
There were areas where Washington clearly had the better team. Their quarterback pressure was consistent throughout the game, and Nathan Scheelhaase struggled to connect under the near constant rush. It was difficult to tell how much was a result of a lack of protection and how much was just an off day, but the precision passing that had been present through the first two games was wholly absent and sorely missed.
Washington clearly had the upper hand in the run game as well, as their small power backs consistently broke tackles and made yardage at will. Tackling was an all around sore spot for the Illini, sometimes bafflingly so. The secondary made a number of mistakes and Washington, as would be expected with a team of their caliber, capitalized by hitting wide open receivers for very large gains. This has been a consistent problem and whether it can be fixed remains to be seen. 
And yet, Illinois stayed in the game. Washington did them some favors with some turnovers and drive-extending penalties, but much credit has to go to Illinois. 
For the first time in a long, long drought, Illinois is a team that has consistently made offensive halftime adjustments that are both creative and effective. Seeing an opportunity for advantage, Offensive Coordinator Bill Cubit came out for the second half and made quick gains with quarterback options. As someone who has endured season after season of an Illinois offensive approach under multiple coordinators that can best be described as “stick with what isn’t working,” this is a much needed respite. 
Welcome, too is the refusal to play safe, the insistence on bold moves that, thus far, has payed off in both excitement and yardage. The prime example was the confidence to repeat a bold play call from the Cincinnati game: showing power run on 3rd and 1 only to release a tight end downfield and go for the huge gain. 
Illinois is off next weekend, and then will finish the non-conference schedule against Miami of Ohio the following Saturday. Two weeks is a long time to stew on a disappointing win. I’m pretty excited to be so disappointed. 
Photos courtesy of Travis McDade.

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