Smile Politely

Kicked in the cornhole

I’m a sucker for crop-themed mascots. I come by this natural, as I graduated from Mattoon High School, home of the Green Wave. That’s right, my high school teams were named after the movement of corn by wind. Intimidating, I know. So there’s a part of me that understands the obsession of Nebraska with their beloved Cornhuskers football team. With that much support, victories of the type that was notched against the Illini Saturday have an air of inevitability. If corn is with us, who can be against us?

Though few predicted a win outright, Illinois was expected to be competitive against Nebraska on Saturday. They weren’t. Some individual performances were excellent, but it takes a supporting cast to keep in a game and Illinois did not get enough help around the stars.

Illinois lost by 20 points, but it honestly felt worse. It is worth noting that Nebraska handled Illinois easily without their number one quarterback. The Cornhuskers’ offensive line was so dominant that it didn’t really matter, and Ameer Abdullah ran for 225 yards against an Illini defense that struggled all afternoon.  Jonathan Brown was exceptional, recording 13 tackles, five of them solo and  four for negative yardage. He is making a strong case for following Whitney Mercilus into a high paying Sunday job hitting people. Josh Ferguson ran very well, and did an excellent job catching out of the backfield, but there wasn’t enough offensive production elsewhere to ever really get into the game.

Illinois has (another) week off before hosting Wisconsin for a night game on October 19th. Honestly, I’m not so sure that an extra week is what Illinois needs. Granted, more time to prepare can be a blessing, but more time to ruminate on where Illinois football stands in the Big Ten landscape is not what many people want right now.

Make no mistake, the Big Ten is a stratified conference. The Purple Cats up in Evanston sought to show they deserved to be in the conversation for the best of the Big Ten. Ohio State is in a whole other league, and mid-level teams like Northwestern claim victory by merely hanging in there, or carrying a late lead. Illinois saw the same on Saturday: it’s hard to imagine that, even if Illinois put their best game on the field, they would have mounted a serious challenge to Nebraska. What Illinois failed to do, though, was to ever make it close enough to show they could challenge a team like Nebraska, which is nowhere near the premiere program of the Big Ten.

In a way, Nebraska football represents a brand of college football that is dying. The common wisdom is that nowhere does football fandom run as deep as in the SEC. Common wisdom isn’t so common. As the Wall Street Journal has noted even Alabama can’t reliably fill their student section. You’ve got to give it to Nebraska: those football fans are dedicated. Selling out a stadium of that size is an impressive feat. The last time Nebraska failed to sell out for a football game, JFK was president. Every single game since 1962 has been sold out. 

Illinois doesn’t have the culture of college football that the state of Nebraska cherishes so much. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, but that’s the reality of it. Sure, Illinois has some very dedicated fans, but Nebraska seems to have an entire state of them, so much so that it doesn’t seem all that surprising when someone grows out their mustache to complement their corn-cob bandolier, giving their Pancho Villa themed gameday attire just the right touch. That is fandom, kids.

It is shaping up to be a long few weeks coming up. Penn State (who lost badly to Indiana on Saturday) looks to be the next team that would not be a huge upset for Illinois under the present state of affairs. There is really not all that much to feel good about at the present moment for the Illini. 

But you’ve got a couple weeks, so now’s the time to start growing that mustache and learning how to sew. I don’t even really care that it has nothing to do with our team: there is something inherently awesome about a corn cob bandolier. There may not be much to cheer for on the field in the upcoming weeks. It’s time to start making our own fun. Maybe it’s time to fully let go of the Chief Illiniwek era and take a page from Nebraska’s book, becoming the University of Illinois Indian Corn.

Imagine the costume possibilities. 

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