Smile Politely

Grid and Bear It: Illini Fall to Minnesota on Homecoming

Special Teams from Special Class

We got beat by a varmint. Saturday at Memorial Stadium, Goldy the Gopher plotted a 27–20 victory over our brave Illini.

Rose Bowling Illini TE Tim Brewster (‘84) wants Ron Zook’s job. To make his case, he brought his current team, a disciplined group of pestering rodents from the north, and ruined his own Homecoming.

Michael Cklamovski’s opening kickoff landed out of bounds. This seemed a familiar concept to me. I was a crappy kicker in an earlier life. Moments later, Matt Eller hooked his first field goal attempt, from 45 yards. This, too, felt like home.

The Illinois offense suffered sacks, dropped passes, and poor field position. But overall, it ran pretty smoothly. Illinois made 25 first downs to Minnesota’s 16, and outgained the Gophers in total yards 550–312.

The Gophers won because Illinois, failing to absorb the most fundamental principles of the game: they committed stupid turnovers, and failed on special teams. It wasn’t just the kicking failures. They dropped the ball, literally, a lot. They got faked out of their jocks on a crucial early fake punt.

The offensive line gave Juice Williams a ton of time on his drop back passes. Williams achieved 503 yards of total offense. The fact that some runs got stuffed is not indicative of failed blocking up front, but the frenetic improvisation that makes Juice Williams so hard to defend. Late in the third quarter, on fourth and one from the Gopher’s one, Daniel Dufrene launched halfway into the endzone. Unfortunately, it was Williams who had the ball.

It was such a beautiful day at Memorial Stadium. Our team felt that to get the best perspective on the sea of orange, it would have to stand with it’s back to the endzone most of the time. The Gophers, curious about the rubber basketball court which lay just beyond the goalposts, continually ran into the endzone for a better look. The field judge and back judge frequently availed themselves of the gentle breeze by lifting both arms directly in the air.

Noting the rising temperatures on the field, my photog and I adjourned to the press box, where we had an intensely good view of the afternoon tragedy as it unfolded.

We had an excellent view of the cleaning of Juice Williams’s clock. Heather winced, watched the replay on the nearby plasma screen, then winced again.

We had a really great view of Arrelious Benn’s fumbled punt return. Cleverly, Benn had foreseen his fumble, and had already ensured Illinois’s possession by employing the seldom used fair catch return trick. It was the second time he’d employed the trick that day, although in both cases, he was probably just shielding his eyes from the sun.

We had a really great perspective of the next fumbled return, too. This time, the hosts were gracious enough to share possession with their guests. And without the benefit of another special teams miscue, Minnesota was able to trip into the north endzone.

We clearly saw the next Michael Cklamovski out-of-bounds kickoff. This time, I winced. Man, do I feel that guy’s pain. The problem with poor performance in kicking is that it makes the next kick even harder. Matt Eller avoided a slump by nailing field goals from 33 and 28 yards, plus a pair of PATs.

It seemed like bad luck being up there in the clouds, so we returned to the field. The Illini faithful seemed assured, until the clock hit 00:00, that Juice would rally his troops. They’ve seen it too many times to doubt it.

It wasn’t until that final Hail Mary landed, not in the arms of an Illini, that the sellout crowd deflated. This must have been particularly galling for the organizers of The World’s Biggest Basketball Practice. Because after the wind left their collective sail, not 60,000 of them stuck around to watch the festivities.

More on that tomorrow.

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