Can there be a silver lining in a game where you get beat 63-24?
If you’re Illinois, you bet.
Playing a top-10 team like Penn State, the Big Ten’s great white-clad hope to stop the Ohio State juggernaut, the Illini were a 28-point underdog widely expected to get smoked.
The thing is, they were leading the Nittany Lions 24-21 with 10:36 left in the third quarter. Trap game or not—Penn State has Ohio State next week—Illinois was doing a lot of good things.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]
The defense, bolstered by the return of two suspended DBs, was flying around. The offense, which would wind up with 245 rushing yards, was moving the ball. True freshman quarterback M.J. Rivers, making his second start in place of injured grad-transfer A.J. Bush, was showing promise.
Then reality hit. The clock hadn’t quite struck midnight in Illinois’ Cinderella bid on this ridiculously late Friday night start for television. But the Illini, fittingly wearing all orange, turned into pumpkins, surrendering 42 straight points.
“When we came into the game, we thought we had a chance,’’ coach Lovie Smith said. ``We had been practicing well and we saw signs last week of what we can be as a team and for a long period of time tonight.
``It is just disappointing when you finish up that way. You cannot play much worse in the fourth quarter. But the fight we showed . . . There are some things to build on.’’
Coaches often say that. In this case, there was truth to it. And not just because Smith is sporting a gray beard of biblical proportions these days.
The Illini are showing signs that they can play a little bit.
Don’t just take it from me. Here’s how my friend David Jones summed it up at Pennlive.com: ``It goes into the book as a blowout. It was anything but, and the Nittany Lions know it. . . . an Illinois offense playing a backup true-freshman quarterback gave Penn State's defense all it could handle.’’
Illinois is 2-16 in Big Ten since Smith arrived to rebuild a program that was rocked by scandal as well as embarrassing losses.
This was the 12th straight conference loss for Illinois, which hasn’t enjoyed a Big Ten victory since it surprised Michigan State 31-27 on Nov. 5, 2016.
When the Illini travel to Rutgers this Saturday, they will tee it up with a very real opportunity to end that losing streak.
I would not have said that out loud before the 39-point loss to Penn State. That’s what I would call a silver lining.
When Lovie Smith came to Champaign, his charge was to restore respectability and win some games—in that order. Given that the roster is still not deemed ready to compete at the highest levels of Big Ten play, the key word has been ``progress.’’
We saw a fair amount of that in Illinois’ previous game, when it led South Florida 19-7 in the fourth quarter before collapsing and losing 25-19.
I wondered how much of that was a product of South Florida taking a step back after going 21-4 the previous two years.
With this Penn State lead-and-meltdown, I’m less skeptical.
Illinois is showing progress.
The defense came up with a pair of turnovers. The offense showed quickness—it caught Penn State flatfooted at times—and a promising playbook.
Smith and his young roster have had a taste of leading quality opponents. Now the schedule provides some opportunities to actually feel good when the game, you know, is over.
After the Rutgers trip, the Illini play Purdue, which is off to a slow start. They also have a home date with Minnesota, plus trips to Maryland, Nebraska and Northwestern.
None of those games are going to be easy. But a team that can have Penn State on its heels in the third quarter has the ability to be successful against many of its upcoming opponents. What the heck? The Illini also will have shots at Wisconsin and Iowa.
``We just haven’t put two halves together,’’ running back Reggie Corbin told the Decatur Herald & Review’s Joey Wagner after combining with Mike Epstein for 160 yards on 24 carries. ``We always do that. We always put one half together but not the second. You can’t have a PB&J without the jelly. We’ve just got to bring that to the table and we’ve got to finish. We have to finish and start fast. We've got to do both and it will happen.’’[/membership]