Heat Checks and Hail Marys - Big Road Game Coming Up

Mike Cagley Co-Host Sports Spectacular and Big Sports Radio

September 5, 2023

As the dust settles on the first week of the college football season, Illini fans have one massive reason to be optimistic in the prospects for the 2023 football season. The Illini are 1-0 after an opening game where the Illini defense didn’t perform up to the levels expected by players, fans, and coaches. The "W" is all that matters and Illinois owns it.

It isn’t hard to go back to last year to find games that the Illini were within reach of a victory but were unable to execute down the stretch. On Saturday night, the Illini offensive line wasn’t as consistent as expected and the Illini defensive line underperformed as well. Unlike Indiana last season, the Illini were able to come out with a victory.

Next up is Kansas. The last time Illinois played at Kansas was 1892 in a 26-4 Illini loss. These two teams don't play often. Their last meeting was 47-7 Kansas win at Illinois in 1968. The Illini lead the series 3-2 after shutting out Kansas in 1916, 17, and 29.

It has also been a long time since the Illini have beaten a non-conference power team on the road - but when they do, good things happen for the Illini. This will be another stern test for the Illini, but a win would be a cause for optimism when you look at the success the Illini experienced in the last two seasons that they beat a non-conference power team on the road:

  • 2007 - a 41-20 win over Syracuse – the Illini ended up in the Rose Bowl against USC
  • 2001 - a 44-17 win over California – the Illini won the Big Ten championship and played in the Sugar Bowl against LSU

Let’s see if the Illini can pull off a victory. Optimistic Illini fans can then block their schedules for a New Year’s Day bowl (fingers crossed).

Heat Check #1 – Luke Altmyer Looked Fabulous

Luke Altmyer courtesy Steve Snider, IlliniGuys

During the game, Luke Altmyer impressed, it was that simple. As a longtime Illini fan, my memory goes back to the stellar Illini quarterbacks of the 1980s. Dave Wilson, Tony Eason, Jack Trudeau, and Jeff George were huge reasons that the Illini had 8 winning seasons in a ten-year span (1981-91). Each of those quarterbacks named had a strong arm, hit their receivers in stride and hit receivers in the hands. With talented quarterbacks attracting talented wide receivers, it was common to see both Illini quarterbacks and receivers being ranked amongst the best in the country at their positions.

Altmyer was accurate on Saturday night. Receivers were able to catch most of their receptions in stride. Even on Altmyer’s one poor read which resulted in an interception, the defender had the ball thrown right to him.

The young quarterback even took a throw out of Jeff George’s playbook and simply threw a ball out of bounds when no one was open. No turnover, no penalty, nor a high-risk completion attempt, just throw the ball out of bounds and get a new down. An underrated play by a smart quarterback.

We all carry our own biases. As a huge fan of the 80s Illini, I held my breath whenever Altmyer carried the ball. When he got up with a slight limp after taking two sacks in a row, I reverted to never wanting Illini QBs to take a hit. Fortunately, Altmyer is more durable than my state of mind. Still, I’d rather not put my state of mind to the test too often.

Heat Check #2 – Scheduling Football Isn’t Easy

When scheduling teams for future games, not every team is an Oklahoma or Alabama, where you know if they’re on your schedule, your team had better be ready to play. And that still might not be enough to secure a victory.

One might think scheduling Kansas and Toledo would be a “safe” move to provide a good shot at two wins on a team’s schedule. If that was the plan (and I’m not saying it was), the hiring of Lance Liepold has upset that “strategy” as the road game in Lawrence, Kansas represents a major obstacle for the Illini to overcome to get the win.

Last year, in coach Lance Leipold’s 2nd season, Kansas finished 6-6 and played in the Liberty Bowl. This bowl appearance broke a 13-year dry spell for the Jayhawks. Since Mark Mangino took his team to the Insight Bowl to conclude the 2008 season, the Jayhawks have seen four straight coaches fail to make a bowl appearance prior Leipold’s arrival.

Last year, Kansas won their first three home games against Tennessee Tech, Duke and Iowa State as they sprinted out to a 5-0 record. The Jayhawks hit a rough spell losing six of their last seven games. This cold snap included home games with a loss to TCU, a victory over Oklahoma State, and a loss to Texas.

Kansas ended up 4-2 at home and 6-7 overall. The Illini must be ready to play in front of a hostile Big 12 crowd at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium on Friday night. Kansas will be ready to defend their home field.

Heat Check #3 – The 40th Anniversary Celebration of the 1983 Fighting Illini Big Ten Championship Team Fell Flat

The 1983 Fighting Illini football team stands alone in the Big Ten record books. They are the only team that has ever gone 9-0 in conference play and to have defeated every team in the conference in a single season. Younger fans may not realize that in the “old days” the Big Ten actually had ten teams. In three seasons (1982-84), the Big Ten played 9 conference games allowing the teams to play a true round robin schedule. The Illini were the only team from this short era to win all nine games. With the Big Ten expanding well beyond its original ten teams, this feat will never happen again. Even Big Ten behemoths Michigan and Ohio State cannot equal this feat.

When looking back at Illini football over the last 50 years, it has been a rough half century for Illini football and the program’s fans. The 80s and early 90s were the best era along with these standout years: 2001, 2007, and 2022. There isn’t much to choose from when looking at top shelf accomplishments for the program. This relative lack of tradition is part of the hill that Bret Bielema must climb while rebuilding the Illini football program.

I have no experience in designing a halftime performance and do not claim any expertise in this area, but it would've been desirable to carve out more time to honor the 1983 team. This 1983 Illinois team stands above, not only their Illinois football peers, but the team stands on a higher level of accomplishment that includes only the best of the Big Ten champions.

Based on the accomplishments of this team it would've been more enjoyable to see:

  • The team standing at the 50-yard line so that the entire stadium could easily view them.
  • More time taken to honor the team – not just two or three minutes. If that means telling Toledo that we will pass on their band’s performance, so be it. This 1983 team was too important in Illini history to have what felt like an abbreviated ceremony.
  • Have them stand in alphabetical order to facilitate naming each player individually over the stadium’s audio system and identifying them by name on the video screen at the same time so each player could get on camera.

I realize that television drives many decisions, but as time rolls ever forward, this may be one of the last times we ever get the chance to see this collection of unique athletes who treated Illini fans to possibly the most magical Illini sports season. The 1983 season still stands out 40 years later for its excellence and the team holds one of the few records that will never be broken. The team earned more time and more individual recognition. The fans would've enjoyed seeing the individual faces of the players and putting the faces with the names that captured the nation's imagination back in 1983.

There is an opportunity to review the 40th anniversary celebration to determine what might be improved to make the 50th anniversary even more special.

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