Rock fans of the Schoolhouse variety already know it. Football fans of the Scheelhaase variety should know it. Three is a magic number.
Illinois won its homecoming matchup with the Northwestern Purple Cats, 38 to 35. But there’s more story there than just the win-loss tally. To quote the inimitable Kai Ryssdal of American Public Media’s “Marketplace” — Let’s do the numbers.
Everyone is talking about 5. Specifically how Illinois is 5–0 for the first time since the early 50’s. The excitement is understandable.
There is also lots of talk about 2–2, specifically how Nathan Scheelhaase (No. 2) put on a 2nd half passing clinic. His phenomenal display resulted in a stomach churning, oh-my-God-we-fumbled-the-ball-while-trying-to-burn-clock-and-gave-up-a-TD-but-wait-holy-$#!^-we-came-from-behind-AGAIN win. In the process, the 2–2 clinic dropped Northwestern to 2–2. No. 2 threw for 391 yards, a career high single game passing total for Scheelhaase. Not just in college, apparently: in post-game interviews, Scheelhaase claimed to have never tossed that many yards in high school.
Perhaps even more impressive a number: 8. That is the jersey worn by wide receiver A.J. Jenkins. He had 12 catches for a staggering 268 yards. That shatters the single game receiving record for the school by over 60 yards. Oddly, this is an example where the jaw-droopping numbers understate the grandeur of the accomplishment somewhat. Many of Jenkins’ yards came right when Illinois needed them most, when the Orange and Blue got down 18 points in the 3d quarter. Jenkins had the hot hand, and was the obvious preferred target of Scheelhaase, perhaps even more so than normally. As such, he was drawing plenty of coverage attention. But he managed to get open. How? Maybe Northwestern’s defensive backs are slower than the other teams Illinois has matched up with this year, but I don’t think so. Before the game Illinois’ offensive coordinator Paul Petrino told No. 2 that Jenkins had some extra bounce in his step. (Scheelhaase reported that his retort to Petrino was “Me too!”). Jenkins seemed to find an extra gear of speed over previous performances this year, and was frequently getting open everywhere, regardless of coverage. But if his speed looked one gear faster, his route running looked several steps advanced, machine-like in its precision.
Five, two-two, eight: all great numbers. But three is the magic number.
In Illinois’ last three games, they recorded three wins, each by exactly three points. There are important stories in the small numbers that get buried beneath the flashy ones. And for Illinois, that story lies in the 3s.
While Scheelhaase and Jenkins combining for 50 yards of offense and a score to open the 4th quarter will make the highlight reels, another Illinois player went 49 yards for a score and will not receive the same attention. Because he did it with his foot.
Derek Dimke, the Illinois placekicker has been the source of those magic 3s for the Illini.
Illinois is a team that has shown flashes of incredible brilliance, but has also shown that it can put itself into close games, regardless of whether the opponents are very good (Arizona State, Northwestern) or not-so-good opponents (Western Michigan).
Illinois won each of those games by a scant trey, and in each, Dimke supplied at least three points on field goals. In the game against Western Michigan, Dimke hit three three-pointers. A nine point effort in a game Illinois barely escaped from.
Do not overlook Dimke’s reliability on PATs. Dimke’s point-after-touchdown streak stands at a stunning 75 in a row. You can stop searching your memory for the last time he missed a PAT: he never has in the Orange and Blue.
Dimke had 6 points against the Purple Cats (3 PATs and one 3 point field goal), placing him just a few more boots away from overtaking the 9th place all-time points-scorer in school history. Ninth doesn’t sound that sexy. But the person currently holding that spot is The Galloping Ghost, Red Grange. (Why that sobriquet stuck is beyond me: his other nickname, The Wheaton Iceman, is much, much better). Those little points add up.
Three games. Three wins. Three points each. An overlooked player that’s a three-point machine. And he’s easy to spot out there. He wears the 1-3.
As the Good Book says: “Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven…. [D]o not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Matthew 6:1-4.
So relish those big numbers, but don’t overlook the unheralded deeds. There’s magic in those little numbers.
Photos by T. McDade