CHAMPAIGN, Ill.—There’s losing. And then there’s losing.
Just ask Northwestern and Illinois.
What Northwestern did, getting doinked by Illinois State 9-7 on a last-second field goal that bounced in off the left upright, is a devastating blow.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]
Never mind that the Redbirds are an outstanding welter-weight program that played for the FCS championship in 2014 and reached the quarter-finals last year.
When supposedly heavyweight Big Ten teams lose to teams in the division formerly known as I-AA (and don’t you wish we could go back to that handle?), they lose more than a game. They lose stature, and bear a stigma that lingers and lingers. As in Michigan’s 2007 loss to Appalachian State, which remains indelible in people’s memories.
Pile the Illinois State loss on top of Northwestern’s wrenching 22-21 opening loss to Western Michigan, and the Wildcats seem headed for a humbling autumn.
ILLINI SWOON UNDERSTANDABLE
And then there is Illinois, which lost 48-23 to North Carolina.
The Illini made a ridiculous number of mistakes—13 penalties for 99 yards, and six fumbles, although they recovered five. And those were the most quantifiable errors.
And yet, I thought they took a tentative step forward on the field, and got a huge vote of support from their fan base, as I noted in the Chicago Sun-Times. This is a rebuild. Lovie Smith is an excellent choice to make some things happen. But not in Game 2.
Playing in front of 60,670, their first nonconference sellout since 1987, the Illini put on a show for a while. They led 7-0 when Ke’Shawn Vaughn took the third play from scrimmage 65 yards for a touchdown. They led 14-7 when they answered the response of the Tar Heels—who are very solid, especially on offense.
And for all their problems, the Illini were in a one-possession game, 31-23, early in the fourth quarter.
Coach Lovie Smith and the players were understandably glum. And so were many fans.
Maybe I have the bar set too low. But in Smith’s second game, I thought Illinois did about as much as it was going to do realistically on the field. Barring a miracle, it wasn’t going to win. With a shaky roster that lacks depth and needs more playmakers, if Illinois could hang around into the fourth quarter, that would be par for the course.
It did that. It created excitement for a bit. And if the ending was weak, the fact that 60,000 people showed up—for an Illinois game—was a step forward.
The pre-game tailgate atmosphere was impressive. It looked like a real Big Ten game.
The real test for Illinois comes this week, when Western Michigan tries to complete its Land of Lincoln Big Ten sweep.
For that outcome, there are no excuses. And that will not be an easy game. Just ask Pat Fitzgerald.
But Lovie Smith, who commands a Yoda-like presence in Central Illinois thanks to his Chicago Bears success and his under-stated calm, now faces a different challenge.
The adoring fans turned out for North Carolina. The realistic ones knew that game was highly unlikely to end up well.
To keep their faith, Illinois needs to buck the Broncos. And after a Big Ten-opening trip to Nebraska, the Illini need to take care of business against Purdue and Rutgers.
No tap-dancing changes that. If the Illini can get to 4-3, Lovie’s forward progress will be measurable.
From there, four ranked teams (Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa) look like tall orders.
But with Northwestern on its heels and Minnesota coming to Champaign for homecoming, there is a route to six wins and a modest bowl.
That would be an excellent first year for Lovie Smith. And as disappointing as the North Carolina game seems to some, I came away from that game thinking Illinois did what it was going to do—and showed signs it can win its winners if it plays well.
THREE OF A KIND
Michigan blocked Central Florida’s first three kicks—two punts and a field goal.
In Week 1, Minnesota had three players ejected for targeting.
Can’t wait to see what threesome will pop up in Week 3.
JIM & URBAN
Their rivalry doesn’t have the same ring as Bo and Woody. But Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer really like to pour it on.
Michigan and Ohio State have won their first two games by a combined 239-30. That’s an average of 59.7 to 7.5, a margin of 52 points a game.
Maybe they need to do this to impress the playoff voters. Unlikely. Maybe they’re just that good, right on down the depth chart. Possible. Maybe their opponents are that over-matched. Also possible. Maybe they’re trying to one-up each other. Um-hmm.
I’m not really sure.
I’m just wondering if they’re going to keep doing this until they finally settle their differences in the Horseshoe on Nov. 26.
BIG TEN POWER RANKINGS,
THE JUGGERNAUTS. . .
1, Michigan: After thrashing Central Florida, has outscored first two cupcakes 114-17. Colorado next.
1a. Ohio State: Big trip to Oklahoma after thumping first two `opponents’ 125-13.
THE THREATS. . .
3, Wisconsin: It was only Akron, but a 54-10 takedown suggests Badgers could shake their plodding offensive image.
4, Iowa: Celebrated Kirk Ferentz’ new lifetime contract with 42-3 rout of Iowa State.
5, Michigan State: Coming off bye, rested Spartans will start defining their season at Notre Dame and vs. Wisconsin the next two weeks.
MIDDLE MANAGEMENT. . .
6, Nebraska: Took care of Wyoming. Can make statement this week vs. Oregon. One way or another.
7, Minnesota: After Colorado State this week, trip to Penn State will be good indicator.
8, Penn State: Close but no cigar vs. Pitt will keep Franklin’s seat warm.
THE TRADITIONAL NON-POWERS. . .
9, Indiana: Wake Forest, coming off upset of Duke, a good measuring stick, and a key to IU's bowl hopes.
10, Illinois: Illini earned another big crowd for Western Michigan. Need to deliver this time.
11, Maryland: Chance to get to 3-0 in trip to Central Florida.
12, Purdue: 38-20 loss to Cincinnati not what doctor ordered for limping coach Hazell.
13, Northwestern: After disastrous 0-2 start, need to get it right vs. Duke.
14, Rutgers: Feel-good first win for Chris Ash vs. Howard. Another shot vs. New Mexico before Big Ten reality sets in.[/membership]