Last night, the University of Illinois football team lost by 10 points—17 if we're being honest with ourselves—yet still proved decisively that Illinois has a better football program than they did one year ago today.
But there's no such thing as a "quality loss" or a "moral victory" for us anymore, says the Illinois fan. We're "big time" now, and it's win or lose!
Au contraire. While the object of the game is to win, the development of a program cannot be limited strictly to raw wins and losses. As a team and a program, Illinois is far better for the long term than they were at this point last season.
But our defense looked atrocious! The line couldn't get any pressure, the linebackers looked slow and lost, and Mizzou carved up our secondary!
Let's start with the basics. Last night, against an offense with two Heisman trophy candidates and an NFL-ready tight end, Illinois had major shifting on their defensive line and new starters at all three linebacker spots, both safety spots, and nickel back.
Anyone who expected that incredibly inexperienced defense to keep pace with Missouri's passing attack needs to have his or her brain cleansed of orange sludge. Frankly, keeping Chase Daniel at a completion rate of 57 percent should be considered a victory for the Illinois secondary.
The failures of the defense last night were entirely due to Missouri's offensive successes. Missouri effectively forced Illinois' linebackers to drop into coverage. The shotgun and NFL-level release time of Chase Daniel often prevented the front four from putting pressure in Missouri's backfield.
But the tackling! Illinois couldn't tackle anyone. That's football 101.
In its last two games, the Illini defense has had to prepare and face USC and Missouri. No defensive unit has had their hands more full, save maybe that of Hawaii (who have played Georgia and Florida). Neither of these teams should be the benchmark of football fundamentals. Great teams across any sport have a tendency to make the fundamentals of their opponents look weak.
In many cases last night, the issue of missed tackles came down to position, which is a function of inexperience, which can be expected when the field has seven or eight new starters, no matter how athletic.
Okay, but what about the offensive line? They were horrible!
First, Missouri's defense is severely underrated. Second, we had to replace the two greatest raw talents on our offensive line with unproven players. The results in the first half were not surprising.
What did surprise was that the Illini offensive line made adjustments at halftime and became significantly better in the second half, showing that our line can get satisfactory results against a top-flight opponent, even while subbing unheralded recruits for senior departures Martin O'Donnell and Akim Millington.
Improvement as a program.
It's with that scope that Illinois fans, coaches, and players need to look at the rest of the season. Illinois still has not reached the apex of football programs, and in no way is the program set up to expect nine-win seasons every year.
Last year's memorable squad was a legitimate seven-win team that got a few lucky breaks. This year, a reasonable expectation would have placed the Illini at seven to eight wins considering the personnel losses and schedule.
Yet many fans have convinced themselves there is no such thing as a "quality loss" anymore, no matter how good the opponent or how inexperienced the Illini.
Such fans need to take a hard look at Illinois' schedule.
Besides the Missouri game, Illinois still has to travel to Penn State and Wisconsin while also playing Ohio State at home. That's three games in which Illinois will likely be an underdog. These games, furthermore, have tremendous potential to be "quality losses."
A 7-5 or 8-4 campaign with a number of "quality losses" would still show improvement for the Illinois program compared to last year, even though last year Illinois posted a 9-3 record and earned a trip to Pasadena.
In fact, on Saturday night Illinois showed numerous signs of program improvement that often come with "quality losses."
First, Illinois established a deep passing game for the first time since Kurt Kittner left campus. Juice Williams has molded himself into a serious passing threat, and the Illinois wide receivers are vastly improved as a unit from years past.
Furthermore, they actually involved tight end Michael Hoomanawanui in the passing game, which will force opposing defenses to adjust.
As a fan, Juice and the Illini receivers far exceeded my expectations, and running back Daniel Dufrene met his.
While the defense did not exactly pass its toughest test of the season, many young players like Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey gained valuable experience against an incredibly skilled opponent.
The overall team effort against Missouri was infinitely better than the Rose Bowl game against USC at almost every spot. While I never would have called that game a "quality loss," against Missouri the Illini added dimensions and made valuable steps forward as a program.
While many fans opine that they would rather open the season against a cupcake and notch a 50-7 victory, opening against a top 10 team serves as a fantastic barometer.
Last night, Illinois proved that 2007 was no fluke. They showed they are a half-step behind a top-caliber team, which is all anyone could reasonably expect, but they took it further by adding an entirely new vertical passing dimension to the offense.
To those who look only to wins and losses, last night served as an appetizer of what Illinois can sensibly expect to see in at least three more games this season (two if they're lucky). College football is all about scheduling, and Illinois' is not pretty this year.
Illinois is not yet above "moral victories" or "quality losing." Last night they confirmed marked improvement as an overall football program. Illinois players and fans cannot let the temporal pains get in the way of the grand picture, and that grand picture dictates that under the right circumstances a 7-5 Champs Sports Bowl appearance shows an improvement over a 9-3 Rose Bowl bid.
It's a shame that too many bandwagon fans focus on the "here and now"—and too many sports publications exist to exaggerate the worth of unproven commodities—rather than seeing the long-term health.
For Illinois, last night's game was nothing more than an affirmation that they're headed in the right direction—a victory everywhere except the scoreboard.