Heat Checks and Hail Marys - Beginning of the 2nd Quarter and Make Donations Not Angry Xs

Mike Cagley, Co-Host Sports Spectacular & Big Sports Radio

September 19, 2023

Bret Bielema courtesy Steve Snider, IlliniGuys

The overall mood of Illini fans seems to be better on Tuesday than it was after the game on Saturday. This is not unexpected but also not a given that opinions would soften a bit. It was a disappointing loss, but given the five turnovers committed by the Illini, it wouldn’t have been hard to see this game become a rather one-sided loss in the collective hands of past Illini coaching staffs. A 56-7 score wouldn’t have been out of the realm of possibility.

Now, the Illini will have to deal with an FAU team that is 1-2 and is coming off a 48-14 loss to Clemson. The Owls committed 4 turnovers to Clemson’s 1. The Owls held Clemson to 367 yards of offense as they demonstrated (like did the Illini) that turnovers kill.

When facing the Illini, the Owls will also be without starting QB Casey Thompson who suffered an ACL injury during the Clemson game and will be out the rest of the season. Sadly, for Illini fans, their backup quarterback Daniel Richardson has career totals of 43 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions. I don't care what level a quarterback plays at, a 43 to 14 TD to INT ratio is scary good.

Like every game on the schedule, the Illini have to play well, or they will lose the game.

Hail Mary #1 – The 1st Quarter is Over - 3 More to Go

If one divides up the Illini schedule into four quarters, one can see the four quarters of the Illini football season. It appears the hardest quarter may be over:

  • 1st Quarter – Toledo, at Kansas, #7 Penn State
  • 2nd Quarter – FAU, at Purdue, Nebraska
  • 3rd Quarter – at Maryland, Wisconsin, at Minnesota
  • 4th Quarter – Indiana, at #24 Iowa, Northwestern

The Illini went 1-2 in their “first quarter” of the season. Ironically, fast starts haven’t happened in any individual Illini game and the first quarter of the season has mirrored the slow starts of each game.

There are reasons for optimism, the Illini:

  • have five more home games to play (versus four on the road)
  • face only one more team that is currently ranked, Iowa at #24
  • do not have to contain another dual-threat QB in the mold of Finn (Toledo) or Daniels (Kansas)

There is a pathway to a bowl appearance, but with poor play, the Illini could find themselves on the outside of the bowl game festivities. If the Illini play well, they could win as many as nine games this season. The defense appears to be back on track, but the offense has to get better, and Luke Altmyer cannot get injured.

Hail Mary #2 – Current Coaches and Team Aren’t Accountable for Past Illini Fails

Impatient fans are now the norm in all sports, all levels – junior high, high school, travel, collegiate, and professional sports. It appears fans forget that on any given day of competition 50% of the teams lose a game. Few fans will “accept” losses or moral victories as was typical in the past. Programs are meant to be turned around immediately and judgments are made so soon that it is impossible to really understand the long-term effects of a coach. What may look successful in year one could be totally different in year three – if the coach in question has even stuck around that long.

Deion Sanders is having a fantastic first three games, but let’s see what happens as the season progresses and his team plays six more ranked teams. He did overturn the Colorado roster, but despite the many new rostered players, at three games in, he’s ruining it for folks who say an overhaul takes time. Will it last? We shall see, but more data seems like an important point to consider when assessing success or failure.

Illini fans were frustrated by the 30-13 loss to #7 Penn State. Grumblings of “here we go, again” were heard both in the form of fans leaving the game early and from angry Tweets (maybe I should say angry Xs) on the X platform (formerly known as Twitter).

Illini fans are easily spooked. I believe that to be legitimate, mainly because the team has had 8 winning seasons since John Mackovic left in 1991. As a comparison, James Franklin was complaining because Penn State has only had their first Big Ten conference game scheduled as a home game for 9 of the last 32 years, they've been in the Big Ten. Think how upset he’d be if those were winning seasons – and it would still be more than the Illini had over the same time.

My point is that Bret Bielema, his staff, and the current Illini players only have culpability (if that’s the right word) for the 8-5 season last year. That was the best Illini football season since 2007. Yes, they finished on a 1-4 stretch including the bowl game, but they aren’t to blame for the mental devastation the Illini football fan base has been subjected to over the last three decades.

I think it’s fine for the Illini fan base to have a case of Illini football PTSD. It’s real, make no mistake. It’s generally caused by the Illini having hired a subpar head coach. For the first time since John Mackovic, the Illini have a coach that can do both things at once – coach and recruit. Let’s give him a chance to push through the tough times and see what production his team delivers on the field.

There is no guarantee of the Illini going to a bowl game this year. Only a team that actively improves from game to game can achieve that goal. Whether the Illini accomplish this goal or the Illini do not have nothing to do with the failures of past Illini football teams. Admittedly, it does add another layer to Illini football fan scar tissue, but it's not Bielema's fault that the scar tissue is already a foot thick.

The frustration of Illini football fans mirrors what Brad Underwood faced with Illini basketball fans who were frustrated with the end of the Weber regime and the whole Gross era. Underwood had to drag the team, kicking and screaming through the fire of the Big Ten to learn how to win the big games. Brad and Ayo were successful as they pushed the Illini up to the point where they are nationally relevant again. Illini basketball fans can stop worrying about Illini irrelevance which wasn't the case prior to Underwood's arrival.

The next hurdle for the basketball team is to win in the NCAA tournament to make sure the current team isn’t held to account for the failures of past Illini teams in the NCAA tourney (boy there are a lot of bad moments to overcome, there). Thankfully, the basketball program has considerably less years to contend with when it comes to fan frustration.

Illini fans need to let Bielema make the Illini relevant again on the national scene. Last year was an important year. This year is key as well. The schedule has been a bear early on but the rest of the season while challenging is probably “easier” just based on uber-mobile dual threat quarterbacks not playing for the teams left on the schedule.

This staff is famous for developing players. This is exactly what the team needs as the year progresses. Players need to improve their skills, make fewer mistakes, and figure out how to meet the expectations of winning at the Big Ten level. This is a strength of the staff. Time will tell if they are able to make the strides necessary to take the Illini to the second bowl in two years.

Whatever happens, the miscues and failures of the past will have nothing to do with the results. The results are influenced by players and coaches figuring out how to get the most out of the team’s abilities. In this case, the Illini football fan PTSD may fuel some fan anger, but like many emotions, it’s misplaced when pointed at the current team.

The time is now for the players to elevate their games, go on a winning streak and hope that influences fans to purchase game tickets instead of blowing up on X (formerly known as Twitter). Even better would be for Illini football fans to donate to the Illini NIL organization http://www.ICONforIllini.com.

As usual, only time will tell which direction this season will go, but donations will help future seasons go even better. And it's less frustrating than banging out those angry Xs (Tweets) on a computer keyboard.



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