Mike Thomas is in his element. In the gathering dusk, in a quiet, modern, modestly nice University space not open to the hoi polloi, Mr. Thomas, the newly hired Athletic Director is gladhanding an expensively but modestly dressed attractive 50ish woman, sharing a story about the last time he had an opportunity to drive down Florida’s A1A highway. They’re chatting, exchanging pleasantries, saying a lot without really saying anything.
Nothing out of the ordinary: this is part of the job of an AD. Mr. Thomas, shortish, tan and trim and looking vaguely like Daniel Craig’s older brother, does his best to hold her attention, but the woman’s eyes subtly and noticeably shift out the window to her left, even as she holds the conversation with Mr. Thomas. Most days, this would not be anything of note. Just normal avoidance of eye contact in forced social situations.
But this isn’t a fundraiser for the DIA. It’s Saturday night, in the press box at Memorial Stadium, 15 minutes to Illinois’ matchup with Arizona State. And the 50ish woman isn’t an alum, a donor, or even the wife of an alum or a potential donor. She’s the official representative of the Gator Bowl. And she’s looking out the window to see how full the stands are.
This is a good matchup for her to gauge the main question: How well do the fans show up for an important game against a non-conference opponent, and one without much history to boot? Or maybe she’s just wondering whether the fans are the type to be put off by the fact that the naming rights to the Gator Bowl have been bought by TaxSlayer.com? “Ron Zook returns to Florida” is a good story line, but will Illinois fans travel to Jacksonville for it?
So what did the Gator Bowl representative see? Fifteen minutes to gametime, and even to kickoff, the stands could have been a lot fuller. The student section was loud on the opening drive, and the energy was high throughout the game, but there were noticeably sparse sections of the upper deck throughout. Those who came performed admirably, likely lubricated by the hours of pregaming afforded by the 6:00 p.m. start time. On the first play from scrimmage, Trulon Henry’s tackle, exploding into the backfield for a loss of five, brought those in attendance to a roar.
Does crowd (involvement, size) matter? Yes. Yes it does matter. We’ll get back to that in a bit.
You almost certainly already know the outcome: Illinois beat Arizona State on Saturday night, 17-14 in an exciting game under the lights.
A quick recap on the impact of this W: Illinois is now at 3-0, for the first time in a decade (yes, since 2001). If they win next week against Western Michigan (as expected — though that’s bitten them against the Broncos before….) they will have started a year on four straight wins for the first time since 1951. That seems to be the magic trick for Illinois as an institution: they were National Champions that year.
As for the nuts and bolts, Illinois looked good. I use that word purposefully here: they did not look great, but they looked good. Scheelhaase’s passes were often slightly-but-noticeably off mark, and some of his decisions on throws into coverage were questionable. Ron Zook reported after the game that Scheelhaase had a sore throwing shoulder which occurred during the game, but stressed it was nothing serious. Jason Ford looked occasionally all too familiarly aggravating, trying to do too much dancing in the backfield. But Ford hit his stride late in the game with extremely strong north-south running when Illinois needed to burn the clock in the fourth quarter. Standing near some of the hits that he put on would-be tacklers was enough to make me nauseous as the defenders stood up and wobbled around. Make no mistakes, this was a brutal game in the trenches.
Illinois surprised with their performances in some previous areas of doubt. True-freshman punter Justin DuVernois finally looked poised and ready for big time athletics, most notably when he executed an excellent one-step kick from the back of Illinois’ end zone.
The biggest answer likely came from the defense. The question was whether the defense was good enough to keep Illinois in the game against explosively fast, deep-threat offenses. Linebacker Jonathan Brown is my personal choice for overall player of the game. Mr. Brown painted the stats sheets with his number, including a single series at the beginning of the third quarter where he was involved in two sacks, one additional tackle for a loss, one tackle for a 1 yard gain on a run, and caught a tipped pass for an interception to end the drive. I hope everyone in Mr. Brown’s family has the Big Ten Network: he was all over the field.
But the relationship of this win to the season is ultimately intertwined to the relationship of the crowd to the team. Illinois answered a lot of bigger questions than the ones above. The questions for the season included whether this was a team that could win against top-level teams, or whether they would fold in anything tougher than a guarantee game.
This was something that the players repeated over and over after the game: we answered the doubters. Jonathan Brown especially hit this point repeatedly, and it did not come across as the usual press room palaver. He seemed to take it to (his very fiery) heart that, as a linebacker corps, many ranked Illinois dead last in the Big Ten this year, and predictions for the defense overall were not much better. Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning knows what these students can do, and he knows they can do even better than Saturday’s performance. At times in his post-game interview, you would have thought that Illinois had lost, Koenning was so focused on what the defense left on the field and how they can be better. This is a defense that is driven to be among the best in the conference, not just serviceable enough to keep the offense in the game.
The crowd matters to the players: they all said the crowd was great and helped tremendously with the energy of the game. And it matters to the Bowl representatives, whose goal is to pick a team that will give them the best, most exciting, and most ticket-selling matchup possible.
The questions for the fans was: should I come out to the game, or is this going to be another Illinois team that, despite showing some possibility for greatness (last year’s win over Penn State) will ultimately be a disappointment (Minnesota, Fresno State).
These questions have been answered. This is a fun team to watch, and this is going to be a fun season. Illinois has its sights on a bigger bowl than the Gator. It’s going to need the fans to do that, both for the on-field play and to demonstrate to the Bowl reps that this team, and this team’s fans, deserve a bigger spotlight. There is no reason Memorial Stadium shouldn’t have been full, except for a wait and see approach from the fans.
The wait is over. You’ve seen. This team is for real. Get to the game.
Photos by T McDade