Sometimes everything in life seems saturated with meaning. Little things, obvious though it may be that they ultimately have no devastatingly lasting import, turn the mind to lasting consequences, legacies. It can become crippling to think how long into the future the ripples from each stone trouble the water.
It’s been a long, long two weeks. Illinois’ heartbreaking, razor-thin loss to Penn State took place in a whole other month. As the tuning-fork ring of the goalposts struck just so faded, Joe Paterno was continually lauded for becoming the winningest coach in the history of major-division college football.
Let us pause to consider how much has transpired since the Illini last took a snap.
Perhaps Illinois fans can take some heart in the fact that Illinois seems to be the team to beat for legendary coaches on the way out. Though no one knew it at the time, Joe Paterno won his final college football game coaching against the Illini. Oddly, this puts him in the same category as Bear Bryant, the Alabama coach so renowned that dowdy ladies still dress in houndstooth homage. Bryant’s final victory as a coach came in the Liberty Bowl against the Illini in 1982. He retired, and dropped dead just a month after that game. The chapeau choice of a man who hasn’t taken corporeal form on this earth for nearly three decades continues to influence how people get dressed several Saturdays a year.
In considering that fact, it is hard not to think of the long memories attached to college sports. Every statistic is held up against the yardstick of every game ever played, scoured for the most this, the third longest that. Every win, every loss, every coach hired and fired, written down to be brought up in some arcane tidbit years later.
Though later annotated and at incredible speed, every week writes history.
The landscape of the upcoming game seemed much different viewed from the history of late October. After the loss to Penn State, Michigan was ranked 13th, and many were predicting that the Illini would be unable to reverse directions after a 3 game losing streak.
Then Michigan lost to Iowa, looking eminently beatable throughout an exciting game. A bizarre set of downs as time slipped away showed that Michigan’s offense can stumble badly when they don’t have any field to spread.
Illinois’ offensive coordinator Paul Petrino has said that the Illini are going to get more aggressive with the play calling this week and look for the big gain. Illini fans will be closely watching whether A.J. Jenkins and Nathan Scheelhaase can return to early season form, or whether Darius Millines can make a big contribution in his second game back from a foot injury. If Scheelhaase stumbles, backup QB Reilly O’Toole could be brought in to heave the ball on long downfield catches. Whether the complete lack of defense present in last year’s video-game like offensive explosion will be repeated is unclear but unlikely. Just from a statistics standpoint, it’s unlikely that any of us will ever see another 130+ point game again.
If Illinois can contain Denard Robinson and force him to throw, this is a winnable game for the Illini. The odds of that happening look pretty good, as Illinois’ run defense is quite solid. I’m expecting a big game from Jonathan Brown, a young man who has shown incredible ability to respond to doubters, and there’s been a lot of time since Penn State for the players to hit the message boards and read the chorus of people predicting a 6-6 season.
This weekend will determine a lot about the remainder of the Big Ten, and who plays where, in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game and beyond. Michigan State has a relatively easy run of the rest of their slate (at Iowa, v. Indiana, at Northwestern), and seems a near-lock to win the Legends Division.
The Leaders Division, where the Illini dwell, is very much an open question. But all you really need to know at this point is that the best possible result for the Illini ends with a 5-3 conference record tie against Penn State. In determining the division winner, the winner of the head-to-head matchup goes to the title game. We all know who that is.
So Illinois will fight for pride and bowl positioning, and have the opportunity to make quite a stir in the next three weeks. But no Big Ten Championship.
If you close your eyes and listen carefully, you can still hear the echo of the sound of a football hitting a goal post. That’s the thing with echoes. They are never fully gone.