Heat Checks and Hail Marys - Wisconsin Disaster

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

October 22, 2023

Saturday’s loss to Wisconsin was a heartbreaker that will last a long time in the psyche of Illini fans. Another loss to fit into the Hall of Shame of horrific Illini football losses. To save Illini fans additional scarring, I’m not going to list out other examples. As usual, I have a few thoughts.

Hail Mary #1 – Response to a Frequently Asked Question

Many ask why I tend to point back to the end of the Mackovic era as a “line in the sand” for quoting winning records since 1991 (the end of the season that Mackovic left for Texas). The reasoning for this is twofold:

  1. Mackovic was the last Illini coach to earn a P5 head coaching job after his Illini job. He coached at Texas for six seasons and Arizona for three. Lovie Smith did end up as head coach of the Houston Texans (NFL). Ron Turner was the head coach at Florida International (Conference USA). Tepper was head coach at Edinboro and IUP (Division II teams). Hiring competent coaches has been a real issue for Illini Athletic Directors.
  2. Mackovic and White tenures combined make up the longest and most competitive era of Illini football since the 1920s.

No real logic in planting the comparison flag in 1991 other than what is listed above. I also use a 1967 flag, because of the Slush Fund and it is also the year of my birth. Writer’s prerogative.

Hail Mary #2 – The Newton Disqualification

In my eyes the targeting was the correct call - as the rule is written. He appeared to lower his head slightly and it landed in the head/neck area.

The challenge is based on the relative sizes of the two players, the speed with which Newton made it into the backfield (can you say 1st Round NFL Draft Pick), and the total lack of pocket awareness demonstrated by the quarterback, I am uncertain of what Newton could’ve done differently. There wasn’t much if any time to react.

I do hate the rule, but that is immaterial. I don’t like it because it isn’t uniformly applied as Illini fans remember Nathan Scheelhaase being viciously targeted at Penn State during a play which the infraction wasn’t called. The lack of a flag changed that game as surely as the Newton call changed the game Saturday. Maybe making the call reviewable is the answer - though no one wants more time spent sitting around waiting for a review.

Moral to the story is the same as what basketball coaches tell their players. Don’t make a play in a manner that puts your fate in the hands of a referee’s judgment. Especially, when your team has been a bottom dweller for most of the past 30 years.

Hail Mary #3 – The Defense Should’ve Won Without Newton

Randolph was also out. Newton took himself out of the game. The two biggest difference makers left on the defense were watching from the sidelines not playing on the field. Not good for a team that doesn't have much depth.

This situation shines a spotlight on the one area that has lagged in Illini recruiting - interior defensive line signings. This makes sense when you consider the rarest commodity in football is the massive, mobile, and hostile interior defensive lineman. The SEC has used their success in recruiting this position to fuel many of their national championship teams.

I find it surprising recruits haven’t been willing to attach their futures to the collegiate head coach of JJ Watt. One thought recruits seeing the success the future Hall of Famer had in the NFL after rising from obscurity under Bielema would love to take advantage of Bielema's tutelage. This is a potential sales pitch that needs to be better honed by the Illini staff for future recruiting situations.

If one looks at the recruiting rankings over the last four years and compares Wisconsin to Illinois (admittedly both coaches weren’t here for this whole time – but their rosters are largely based on these classes with pluses or minuses coming from the transfer portal) you see the following:

Year Team

247 National Rank

2022

Wisconsin

44

  Illinois

46

2021 Wisconsin

16

  Illinois

73

2020 Wisconsin

26

  Illinois

87

2019 Wisconsin

28

  Illinois

56

Moral to the story: if you want your defense (or offense, or special teams) to excel minus a few starters, you’d better recruit better from the high school ranks. Illinois isn’t there yet. Not even close.

This is the scary part. The Illini are weak at the interior defensive line. The only way to get better to avoid what we saw in the fourth quarter is to invest smartly and heavily in the transfer portal in this position. Newton and Randolph won't be here next season.

I submit in the 2023-24 offseason; the defensive tackle position is going to be as important as finding a quarterback in the 2022-23 offseason.

If NIL donors would like to avoid duplicating the feeling experienced on Saturday, help support the effort to find a couple of defensive tackles with high potential. Preferably one or two who don’t feel like sitting around at Georgia, Alabama, Ohio State, or a school with an embarrassment of d-line riches.

There is no doubt it will be expensive, but that investment will have a high chance of paying off. Bielema is a pretty good judge of talent.

Hail Mary #4 – The Game was Lost When…

I don’t really believe there is one moment the game was lost. In this game there was a targeting ejection, a key fourth down first down called back due to a phantom holding call (if that holding was called, Newton should’ve drawn about 10 flags earlier in the game), a defensive back was in perfect position to intercept a TD pass but then didn’t react to the ball, wasted time outs in the second half, and the list goes on. It’s never one play.

To me, it comes down to one drive. The drive at the end of the first half didn’t lose the game for the Illini but it set up the possibility for the Illini to lose the game – in the minds of the Wisconsin football team. And the seven points made the win possible when all was said and done.

Instead of going into the locker room down 14-0 to the worst defense in the Big Ten, the Badgers were dominated for 27 minutes and 47 seconds of the first half and only down by 7 points.

Instead of the Badger offense being frustrated and maybe pointing fingers at one another, they felt they had discovered the code as to how to score on the Illini defense.

Instead of an inexperienced quarterback in his first start having little to no success, he gets to go into the half ecstatic from the emotions of a dramatic touchdown drive with a long halftime to revel in the success.

That drive changed the outlook of the entire game. Blitzes didn’t work. Soft coverage was too soft. The possibility of a fourth quarter collapse entered the minds of the Wisconsin Badgers at that moment. It probably entered the Illini minds at the same time. Then it repeated itself. Twice.

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