I imagine there’s a fair amount of disappointment in Illini Nation in the wake of that lightning-delayed, penalty-riddled, mistake-filled 47-23 loss to South Florida.
But honestly, it was unlikely to go well for Illinois. And I was more unimpressed, actually, with the Bulls, who are talented but showed a lot of rough edges for a top-25 team.
A quick look at the Bulls’ schedule says they’re going to hang around for a good long while.
On the other hand, any look at Illinois’ schedule says, ``Hold on tight. Gonna be a rough ride.’’
That said, I love what sharp Champaign broadcaster/scribe Jeremy Werner pointed out: 10 of Illinois’ 22 starters were true freshmen. And an 11th was a juco transfer.
In other word: Patience.
Time will tell what kind of results Lovie Smith will reap. I’m a bit skeptical, partly because I’m impressed with what’s going on at so many of the other Big Ten programs that Illinois is in true competition with. Purdue, Indiana and Minnesota all are off to encouraging starts, and they’re ahead of Illinois at this point. So is Maryland.
Don’t even ponder the perennial powers at this point.
This trip to Tampa got me thinking about the most difficult, oddest, most over-matched road losses I witnessed in 20-some years on the Illini beat.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]
The most important point: You have to start somewhere.
I saw a lot of bad football in Ron Turner’s first two seasons, which featured 3 wins and 19 losses. Ditto for Ron Zook’s first two seasons, which slogged through 4 wins and 19 losses.
Lovie Smith, who’s 5-10 with nine games to go, is ahead in the race of 2-year-olds.
By the third season, though, Turner had Illinois 8-4, including a blowout win in the Micronpc.com Bowl. And in his fifth season, the Illini were Big Ten champions, and played in the Sugar Bowl. (The Rose Bowl was hosting the national championship game.)
Zook went even faster, taking Illinois to an improbable Rose Bowl in his third season.
Why Turner and Zook were unable to sustain their New Year’s excellence is a story for another day.
Today’s topic, given that Illinois just showed how far it has to go before an ESPN audience that was probably shaking its head if it didn’t change the channel, is the weirdest Illini losses I've witnessed.
In that regard, this trip to Tampa, which is not in South Florida in my mind, was pretty normal stuff.
Geographically, there was a 23-20 loss at Southern Miss early in 2002 in a driving rainstorm. It wasn’t a hurricane, but I wondered what Illinois was doing in Hattiesburg in hurricane season as I peeled my fingers off the steering wheel.
There was also a 20-13 loss at Washington State in 1998. Did you ever try to get to Pullman? Don’t. It’s easier to get to Jakarta.
And there was a 25-23 loss at Fresno State in December of 2010. That was a Friday night, too. Pretty lubricated crowd there. And they’re right in your face, in a Christians-vs.-Lions sort of way.
Emotionally, though, nothing will ever compare with Illinois’ last road game under Lou Tepper in 1996. With the Gophers driving, Tepper ordered his defense to allow Minnesota to score, in hopes of preserving enough time for Illinois to respond with a game-winning field goal.
That didn’t happen. Minnesota won 23-21, and I still can see the anguished faces of those proud defensive players.
Tepper was an honorable man in many ways. It was tough to see him go out that way.
Put all of that in the grim Metrodome—and ugh!
For sheer zany weirdness, though, I liked the end of Turner’s first trip to Ohio State in 1997, when Illinois was nearing the end of an 0-11 campaign.
With the Illini down 41-0 in Ohio State’s last home game, Buckeyes coach John Cooper put in Steve Gehlert, a senior walk-on, for one play as a reward for coming to practice and working for years with no real hope of playing in a game.
The problem was, the Buckeyes botched the handoff. An Illinois DB, Trevor Starghill, picked up the fumble and ran 38 yards for a touchdown on the final play of the game. That meant Ohio State, a 39 -1/2-point underdog, had won 41-6.
But the remnants of a crowd of 92,008 fans—the gamblers—loudly booed the poor walk-on kid because they’d lost their bets, even though the Buckeyes had won by five touchdowns.
For Starghill, it was a small victory: ``They were booing us. Good. I like hearing that.’’
Moral of the story. . . You have to start somewhere.
And by the way, many of Illinois’ freshmen showed real promise at South Florida. I wouldn’t put Lovie’s Illinois on the three-year breakout track of Turner and Zook. It’s more like four years, given the bare cupboard he inherited from He Who Shall Not Be Named and Smith's March hiring.
Meanwhile, everyone in Illini Nation should buckle up.[/membership]