CHAMPAIGN, Ill.-- As many of our readers know, I wrote a column less than two months ago predicting the result of every game in the Big Ten.
I mulled over possible outcomes, considered matchups, carefully weighed home-field advantages, searched for breakout players, tried to predict momentum swings, and came up with a finished product I was very proud of.
This self-proclaimed masterpiece predicted a 6-0 start and (ultimately) a league co-championship for Ron Zook's Fighting Illini. In my way of thinking, the Illini would rebound from a disappointing 2008 season and return to Rose Bowl-type form, led by Juice Williams, Arrelious Benn, and an explosive offense.
I'm an idiot.
That thought rang through my head as I stood on the Memorial Stadium turf Saturday afternoon and watched Illinois struggle through a 24-14 loss to the visiting Michigan State Spartans that wasn't nearly as close as the respectable final score indicates.
I wasn't watching a Rose Bowl team.
Or a bowl team.
Or an explosive offense.
(So is it too late to edit that predictions article a bit?)
Oh well. Pride goes before a fall, right?
UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: MICHIGAN STATE 24, ILLINOIS 14
Five things I took away from the Spartans' convincing road victory over Zook and company...
1. The Illinois offensive line struggled big-time. While you probably know that Juice Williams (who has more yards of total offense than any player in Illini history) was benched this week...and that his replacement, Eddie McGee, threw for an underwhelming 31 yards in his first career start...and that McGee was relieved in the third quarter by first-stringer turned second-stringer turned first-stringer Juice Williams...
...what you may NOT know is that it didn't really matter who played quarterback for Illinois on this sun-splashed Homecoming afternoon. Face it, Joe Montana could have donned the orange and blue and Michigan State still would have come away with a victory, thanks to the poor play of the Illinois offensive line.
(This is also because Montana's 53 years old and slightly arthritic nowadays, but I digress.)
While it may often be possible for a quarterback to take little things like "a pocket" for granted, the two-headed monster of McGee and Williams had no such luxury against the Spartans' defensive front. Over and over again, the Illinois signalcaller would be forced to prematurely give up on the designed play and simply run for his life instead.
I guess we could call it a non-existent space/time continuum: the Illinois quarterback didn't have SPACE to step up or TIME to let receivers get open, thus yielding a horrid combined completion percentage of 32.1%. Williams was slightly better than McGee (which isn't really saying much, considering McGee only hit on two more passes than I did), but that's mostly because Juice showed a greater escapability, allowing him to every so often elude the Michigan State rushers that continually flooded the backfield.
The Spartans finished the game with six sacks, leading Illinois coach Ron Zook to remark, "I felt like maybe we had some struggles up front."
In related news, we now have a runaway winner for "Coach's Understatement of the Year".
2. Keith Nichol enjoys faking a handoff and rolling to the right. At least, that's what I decided after the Spartans' sophomore quarterback made the exact same play approximately 1,983 times (give or take a thousand) Saturday. With usual starter Kirk Cousins battling an ankle injury, Nichol played nearly the entire game, and the Spartans got a solid, if not spectacular performance from the Oklahoma transfer in their third victory of the season.
Nichol finished 13-25 for 179 yards and dipped into the "play-action rollout" well over and over again to keep the Illini off balance, starting with the opening snap. The Spartans nearly had a touchdown to tight end Brian Linthicum on the game's first play, but Nichol overthrew his target. Not to worry, since Michigan State hit on several long gains with the exact same design as the afternoon wore on.
Overall, I came away from my first time seeing the Spartans in person thinking that MSU receivers do an above-average job of getting open and creating space, while Nichol does a slightly-below-average job of hitting the open man. Tough to complain any time your backup quarterback leads his team to a conference win on the road, so maybe I'm just nitpicking, but I'd still take a 100% Cousins over a 100% Nichol by a mile, as I've said before.
Of course, on this particular day, Cousins wasn't 100%, and Nichol did enough to propel the Spartans to the victory before sustaining a shoulder injury late in the fourth quarter. Cousins only saw the field to take a knee on the last couple plays, and with Nichol day-to-day, it will be interesting to see which quarterback will start this weekend against Northwestern.
(In a completely unrelated random side note, do you ever wonder how much attention players pay to stats? I couldn't help but think how drastically Cousins' per-game passing yardage numbers will dip because he had to come on for Nichol to run out the clock. No pass attempts, no pass yardage, but one more game played to knock down those averages. Maybe I'm the only person who thinks that way...)
3. Anthony Santella might be the Illini's best player. Santella, a junior punter, averaged nearly 45 yards on eight punts against Michigan State. Of course, I'm not sure if he's effective because of natural talent or simply due to the fact he's had so many repetitions kicking after futile Illinois possessions. Santella consistently forced the Spartans' return man to turn around and run backwards before fielding his long booming punts, and he put the cherry on top of a solid outing with a textbook third-quarter punt that bounced inside the 5-yard line and was downed inside the 1.
"I thought Anthony had a real good game," Zook said of his punter in his postgame press conference. And while there weren't many players on his team the coach could say that of with a straight face, it was true in Santella's case.
I wonder if Mr. Santella's ever played quarterback.
4. Rushing yardage was key, surprisingly enough. No player on either team entered Saturday's game averaging more than 43.2 yards per game on the ground, which shocked me when I first encountered that factoid in the pregame notes.
So of course, it makes perfect sense that Michigan State would dominate the game due to its not-so-heralded rushing offense, right? The Spartans rolled up 149 yards on the ground in the first half alone, compared to only 29 for the Illini. Glenn Winston had 14 carries for 69 yards before leaving with what would unfortunately prove to be a season-ending knee injury late in the second quarter, and Larry Caper added 64 yards before intermission for the Green and White.
The Spartans headed to the locker room with a 17-0 halftime lead (that could have been even larger if not for a fumble on the Illinois goal line) and weren't seriously threatened the rest of the way, thanks to their backfield production.
With Winston now sidelined for the remainder of the season, it will be interesting to see if the combination of Caper and Caulton Ray can continue to move the chains for Coach Mark Dantonio the way Caper and Winston did during the first thirty minutes in Champaign.
5. The Illini program needs a culture change. Contrary to popular opinion, a culture change doesn't have to mean installing a new head coach. Look back a few years when Penn State fans were ready to run Paterno out of town...or remember how many times Iowa fans were prepared to send Kirk Ferentz packing for the NFL. Both of those often-discussed potential moves seem a bit silly now.
"It's not a lost cause," Zook said. "This team's not gonna quit. They're going to keep on keeping on. We have to fight through this thing."
Juice Williams echoed his coach's words, saying no one in the Illini locker room would have believed they'd start 1-4, but "it's happening, we've got to deal with it...we have to bounce back."
For Illinois right now, a culture change simply means finding ways to change the little things that separate consistently losing programs from consistently winning ones. When things aren't going your way, problems tend to snowball.
Here's a partial list of the little things that could have meant the difference for Illinois between an important win and yet another disappointing loss:
-Garrett Edwards nearly intercepted Nichol in the first quarter, couldn't quite make the play...and Michigan State scored a touchdown on the very next snap.
-Juice Williams entered the game and nearly hit a wide-open Arrelious Benn down the seam for a certain touchdown on his first play, but Benn couldn't quite get his hands on the ball.
-Speaking of Benn, he hit his head on the turf on the opening kickoff and, in Zook's words, "was having trouble" the rest of the way. That's the kind of thing that only seems to happen when you're 1-4.
-Illinois made a big stop in the fourth quarter, got the ball back, and promptly committed a blatant illegal block that moved the ball back to the 11-yard line, squandering the precious little momentum they had accumulated at that point in their short-lived comeback. Inexcusable penalty.
I guess I can sum up the day by pointing out that the loudest cheer of the game was for Bruce Weber's basketball team when they were recognized between quarters. I was also baffled to see cheerleaders running the school flags in the end zone after a first down instead of a touchdown. Right now, that's the difference between Illinois football and defending champions Ohio State and Penn State, among others.
MAYBE BROADCASTING IS EASIER THAN I THOUGHT
Before we get into this week's quotes, I'm officially setting the over/under for the number of times Brent Musberger can use the term "Herbie" (to refer to partner Kirk Herbstreit) in any given telecast at 73.5 times.
I'm also setting the over/under on how many times Matt Millen can drool over wide receivers in any game at 44.5. (At least he can't draft any more of them.)
And now on to the rest of the craziness...
"Maybe too many cooks in the chicken, or in the kitchen, excuse me." -- Ray Bentley
"You want some chicken?" -- Pam Ward
"I've got chicken on the mind." -- Ray Bentley
"We'll have a live report from Baton Rouge on the status of Florida quarterback Tim Tee-boo." -- Wendi Nix (how can you mispronounce the name of the most famous player in college football?)
"You are smooth...as you should be on the Bud Light Halftime Report." -- John Saunders (this is easily the shameless corporate plug of the day)
"Good kinisthetic sense. Oh yeah, I said it. Good kinisthetic sense." -- Matt Millen
"What does that mean exactly?" -- Sean McDonough
"Body part awareness. That's what that is. And if it didn't, it does now. I just made it up." -- Matt Millen
"You know what we call that in coaching? That'd be a coverage sack. He didn't sack him, but..." --Glen Mason (after a three-yard gain)
In the "mis-named schools" category, reader @keithrgodfrey points out the Purdue/Minnesota announcers mentioning Northwestern's defense when referring to the Boilers or Gophers...while I grew tired of listening to the Indiana radio team referring to Virginia as "West Virginia".
I guess I should say it yet again...
Maybe broadcasting is easier than I thought?
MAYBE COACHING IS EASIER THAN I THOUGHT
When Illinois scored with 3:33 remaining in the third quarter to cut into a 24-0 Michigan State lead, the Illini chose to kick an extra point, closing the margin to 24-7.
And I'm still not sure why.
You see, when Illinois trailed 24-0, they were down three possessions (assuming touchdowns and accompanying two-point conversions).
By not trying a two-point conversion after the initial touchdown, Illinois continued to trail by...you guessed it...three possessions (17 points).
Obviously, Zook's crew didn't play well enough to win the game, but still, when they scored their second touchdown with a minute and a half remaining, they could have conceivably pulled within 24-16 by going the two-point conversion route. Then the Illini would have only needed an onside kick recovery and final touchdown to tie, since they would have trailed by a single possession.
Unless they chose to kick extra points instead.
Final score: Michigan State 24, Illinois 14.
Maybe coaching is easier than I thought
MAYBE OFFICIATING IS EASIER THAN I THOUGHT
Why on earth did the referee in the Northwestern/Miami game consistently refer to the visiting team as "Miami of Ohio" when describing penalties, replays, etc?
I mean, technically, that's how we all know the school from Oxford, Ohio, but how many "Miami"s were really participating in the game at Ryan Field Saturday? Wouldn't a simple "Miami" have sufficed?
What's next? Referees in Columbus saying, "First down, THE Ohio State University"?
Or maybe you'll hear this in Atlanta before too long: "Georgia Institute of Technology is charged with their final timeout."
And make sure you stay away from the Rose Bowl. Games there could start lasting five hours if referees choose to describe the home team as "University of California, Los Angeles."
Keep it simple, please.
Maybe officiating is easier than I thought.
THANK GOODNESS FOR MY DVR
Great hitting in Saturday's games...did you see the hit Northwestern's Jordan Mabin put on Redhawk wide receiver Brayden Coombs? Of course, Miami's Jordan Gafford returned the favor when he blew up Zeke Markshausen later in the contest.
Iowa appears to have mastered the diving catch. Brilliant receptions by Trey Stross and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, on the same drive no less...definitely worth rewinding for.
Meanwhile, at the Horseshoe, the Buckeyes have mastered highlight interceptions. Jermale Hines' one-handed tip to himself was my favorite play of the weekend, and Kurt Coleman tight-rope walked the sideline to perfection as Ohio State demoralized Wisconsin with a pair of pick-sixes.
How did Purdue's Keith Smith get so open on the Boilers' last touchdown against Minnesota? I started wondering if the Gophers were still in a timeout, because I couldn't see another player on the television screen as Smith strolled into the end zone against a busted coverage.
Special kudos to Wisconsin holder Chris Maragos for his field awareness and full-out extension to the pylon as the Badgers scored on a fake field goal. For a defensive player who doesn't run with the ball all too often, Maragos came up with one of the weekend's top moments.
Carrying On About Big Ten Football is a weekly column published on FirstandBigTen.com, a Bleacher Report blog dedicated to Big Ten football.
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