Coming Off A Bye
Quick quiz. How many times in the last 10 years have you, the Illini football fan, said "we had two weeks to prepare and THIS is how we look?" in the first quarter of the first game after the bye? If you said "10 out of 10 times", I hear you, it feels like that, but there have actually been two wins! Rutgers last year (they're, uh, Rutgers) and Minnesota 2014. I want to concentrate on the latter.
Real quick, the game after the bye week, the last 10 seasons:
2009: Lost at Ohio State
2010: Lost to Ohio State at home
2011: Lost at home to Michigan
2012: Lost at home to Indiana
2013: Lost at home to Wisconsin
2014: Beat #25 Minnesota at home!
2015: Lost at home to Wisconsin
2016: Lost at Nebraska
2017: Lost at home to Nebraska
2018: Won at Rutgers!
My thoughts have drifted to 2014 Minnesota this week. My thoughts have been with 2014 this whole season, honestly, so it's only natural. I wrote this post while at training camp, noting how the 2019 training camp felt nearly exactly like the 2014 training camp.
In that post (August 6th) I wrote this:
BUT, it's the same camp. You feel great one minute and awful the next. You can squint and see seven wins and then suddenly you're frightened of three.
I remember a moment in 2014 (and I might have even tweeted it at the time) that I was convinced Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young were going to be this dominant pairing in the backfield. That offensive line was returning four starters (Alex Hill, Michael Heitz, Teddy Karras, and Simon Cvijanovic), and you'd watch these running plays in practice (especially the Josh Ferguson spin move) and be completely convinced that we'd have an incredible run game.
But then you'd watch the passing game and it was all hope. The wide receivers returning from the previous season weren't cutting it (Martize Barr, Kenny Knight, Justin Hardee), so it was going to be up to the newcomers (G-Mo, Dude-K, and Malik Turner) to fill the gap. So you'd be all excited about parts of the passing game (especially with Lunt), but then you'd realize it was pretty much "all the new guys have to gel immediately because we've tossed out everything else". A running game that had been starting to prove itself but a passing game that was "hope all the new guys figure it out".
It feels like that has held true through the first four games.The stats are better, but something is missing. Even the NERDstats are weird. We've somehow jumped from 97th in SP+ (last year) to 55th through week five this year. The defense has improved (from last year's abysmal numbers) 28 spots, and the offense (from last year's middle of the road numbers) 36 spots. That's what we were hoping for (in our attempt to get to six wins), but from the eye test, it's not there. Close win over an awful UConn team, loss at home to Eastern Michigan, loss at home to Nebraska, giving up 674 yards. And if you look at the "regular" stats, a defense giving up 411 yards per game (which would be much worse had we not played three bad offenses in four games) is really bad. None of that says "we've improved enough to get to six wins".
Which... reminds me of 2014. As you may recall, 2014 was this really weird season where we trailed in the fourth quarter of the first 11 games yet won five of them. The first seven games were just not good. 3-4 record and the three wins were all games where we trailed bad teams in the fourth quarter (Youngstown State, Western Kentucky, and Texas State). So 3-4 felt more like 1-6.
Then came the bye week. And after the bye week, a Homecoming game against Minnesota. And during that game, suddenly, everything looked better. I remember it distinctly. Significant improvement had happened during that bye week. Part of that improvement came from Reilly O'Toole taking over at quarterback for an injured Wes Lunt. The little adjustment of O'Toole being able to run the ball opened up the offense. He led two quick scoring drives in the first quarter and suddenly it was 14-0 Illinois.
Now, a lot of Illinois still happened. The defense began to wear down in the third quarter and Minnesota took a 24-21 lead, but then some luck happened - a fumble that was certainly going out of bounds stayed in bounds, bounced directly to V'Angelo Bentley, and he returned it for the winning touchdown. A 6-1, ranked-25th Minnesota team lost their second game of the season to 3-4 (should be 1-6) Illinois.
That wasn't a rebuild that was going anywhere, as we now know. But that bye week was the moment where it turned into something (whatever little something it was - a Heart Of Dallas Bowl something). That Illini team was able two win two more Big Ten games (Penn State and Northwestern) and make it to a Dallas.
That's what I've been thinking about these last two weeks. This needs to be that, right? Bye week, two weeks to prepare, a Minnesota opponent who, while 4-0, has had four consecutive one-score games. Change just a few plays in each game (hey, like 2014 Illinois!) and they're 0-4. We need to see a click this week, right?
At least I hope that's how the coaches are approaching this game. I'm hoping to see a little desperation, honestly. The defense is sitting back and giving up yard after yard between the 20's? Try something else! The offense is stalling? Toss in a trick play! There were plenty of reasons to be patient over the last two (very youthful) years as the rebuilding was taking place, but we're here now, and it's not really working, so somebody try something different.
We, the fanbase, need to feel the energy of a first quarter double-digit lead (like the first quarter of Minnesota 2014). We really need a "where did this team come from?" moment. Down 13-0 at UConn felt like Illinois. Losing to EMU felt like Illinois. Giving up 674 yards to Nebraska felt like Illinois.
Please, someone, anyone - give us a game that doesn't feel like Illinois.