Nov 28, 2021

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I teared-up in the second quarter. Right there in the pressbox. I hoped that nobody noticed, and turned towards the wall to wipe the tears away, but yep, totally had tears in my eyes. I will now attempt to tell you why.

First off, the music is a big part of this. The next 750 words might be about music, so for those of you not wanting to read about Mahler 3, I'd suggest you just skip to the plus signs below. But if you do that, you're gonna miss some good stuff. At least I think it's gonna be good stuff. Man, I really hope I can write this in a way that people say "that's the good stuff".

(I don't know why I'm on this music kick of late, by the way. Monday night: Taylor Swift. Tonight: Gustav Mahler. Wednesday: Ko?n. Not really.)

As many probably know, I listen to classical music in the pressbox. Well, 80% of the time I do. Sometimes I need to concentrate on other things, and sometimes I want to hear the announcements from the officials or whatever, but listening to my Pressbox Playlist really helps keep me calm during games. I've curated this list over the last 6-7 years, sometimes adding, sometimes removing.

Today, the shuffle included The Marriage Of Figaro (it's the only Mozart on the entire playlist), some Enigma Variations IX: Nimrod (that's the actual name) by Elgar, and most importantly the sixth movement of Mahler's 3rd. Nothing pairs with football like Mahler.

I've told you this before, of course. I even made a video about it. Remember this? You probably wanted to forget:

The background there: I once told my Aunt Jill about how classical music goes well with football, and I told her how I had thought about making a highlight video with a music pairing behind it, and she made me promise that I would do it someday. After Michigan State in 2019, I did.

I'm getting distracted. I need to tell you about Mahler's 3rd and then I need to tell you about the moment in the game today where I cried and then I need to address the awakening.

The best way to describe why Mahler's music speaks to me like a perfectly executed play-action pass is to let him describe his work to you. Gustav Mahler wrote his 3rd symphony in 1895. While composing it, he wrote the following to a friend:

Just imagine a work of such magnitude that it actually mirrors the whole world--one is, so to speak, only an instrument, played on by the universe…My symphony will be something the like of which the world has never yet heard!…In it the whole of nature finds a voice.

I'm very much drawn to that concept - "the whole of nature finds a voice". He's not writing music. He's trying to hold up a mirror. And, in the sixth movement, he's trying to lead that journey to a triumphant conclusion. The title for the sixth and final movement: What Love Tells Me.

So that's what I'm listening to today late in the second quarter. I'll just tell you the exact moment and then play you the exact music from that moment.

Chase Brown scores to make it 21-0. On the third play of ensuing Northwestern drive, Quan Martin picks off Ryan Hilinski. And then on the very next play after that, Isaiah Williams runs it in from 21 yards out to make it 28-0. Game over. Less than 20 minutes in.

I look down and I see Brandon Peters celebrating. Six years - three at Michigan, three at Illinois - of ups and downs, starting and then getting benched, throwing the winning TD and then throwing the losing interception, and now this celebration. It seemed different. He knew the game was already over. I knew the game was already over.

And in my ears at the time was this. No, you don't have to listen to the whole thing. Just listen to a minute of it. Start at 24:30 and listen to the buildup. At exactly 25:12, Isaiah Williams scores, Brandon Peters celebrates with abandon, and tears hit my eyes.

Why tears? Not because my team was beating Northwestern 28-0 and that makes me happy after six years of losing to them. Not because Illinois was headed to a 4-5 record in the Big Ten and the potential slingshot that comes with it. I had tears in my eyes watching the players celebrating the moment (with Gustav interpreting "what love tells him" through music). The little extra sauce that Brandon Peters put on the flip, combined with Isaiah's incredible run, combined with the celebration, choked me up.

Here's the sauce I'm talking about. It's the little "ope" just before he pitched it to IW:

I was just so incredibly happy for these kids. And for Brandon Peters to end his career like that. And for Isaiah to have his awakening game. After years of frustration for this senior class (which included Covid taking so much of their college experience away) it ends with a 47-7 win over Northwestern at home on Senior Day that was over by early in the second quarter.

(I say 47-7 because I don't think he got in. So I think I'll just list this game as 47-7 for the rest of time.)

Yes, I'm happy. My team won. The arrow appears to be pointed up. Of course that adds to the joy.

But the song + the celebration put tears in my eyes. Jake Hansen there on Senior Day (and on the field for the final play!). Mike Epstein there on Senior Day (and on the field for the final play!). Brandon Peters having perhaps his best game in his final game. It's currently 1:41 as I'm writing this, and I hope every one of those guys is still awake and celebrating.

They absolutely deserve this moment.

+ Speaking of Awakening, here's two things I tweeted about Isaiah Williams during the game (about a half hour apart after two different WOW plays):

He's had a very nice first season at WR (47 catches for 525 yards and 4 touchdowns), but this game really did feel like the moment we started to see the future NFL wide receiver. So excited to see what's next.

+ This season ends at 5-7, which is the Illini football record that haunts me, but it doesn't really feel like any of the other 5-win seasons. Let's just go through a list of them:

  • 1995 we finish 5-5-1. We had a chance for a sixth win and a bowl game but we tied Wisconsin in the finale 3-3. Combine that with the drubbing we received at Ohio State a few weeks prior and it didn't really feel like the program was headed anywhere. (And it wasn't - the 18-game losing streak started the next season.)
  • 2000 was a season that fell apart very quickly. We're 3-0 and ranked 17th when Michigan comes to town for That Game. We lost and then went on to finish tied for last in the Big Ten at 5-7 (2-6).
  • 2002 was the weirdest year ever. Lose to San Jose State but beat Wisconsin (at Wisconsin). Lose to Southern Mississippi but also take #2 Ohio State to overtime. Just a see-saw year that got a lot worse in 2003.
  • 2008 was a terrible disappointment after the Rose Bowl in 2007. Got to 5-4 but then the loss to Western Michigan in Detroit (how?) followed by losses to Ohio State and Northwestern sent us home for bowl season.
  • 2015 was also a disaster. Started 4-1 with that win over Nebraska (G-Mo TD catch with less than 30 seconds left). But then a 1-6 finish didn't give anyone a good feeling about 2016.

2021? 5-7 with four Big Ten wins. A team certainly playing its best football at the end of the year. Two really rough games (at Virginia, home for Wisconsin), two comfortable wins (Charlotte and Northwestern), and eight very competitive games where we went 3-5. A legit defense, a legit strength of schedule, and lots of hope for the future. Completely different from any other 5-7 Illini season.

+ Fairly incredible Yards Per Play numbers today:

Northwestern: 3.3
Illinois: 7.4

And that's with the majority of the second half being garbage time "just try to run as much clock as possible" football. At halftime, if I'm remembering this correctly, it was something like 9.4 to 3.1. That's just complete domination. When is the last time we went into the offseason with a "complete domination" game?

Actually, I need to look that up. This combines with my "5-win seasons" thing above. I know we've won our finale during big seasons (like the 2007 Northwestern game), but I'm seriously struggling with the last time we won a closer in convincing fashion.

And that's not just a Northwestern thing. There were many years in there were our last game wasn't Northwestern. In 2011 we closed the regular season at Minnesota (with one of the worst Illini losses in history). In 2010 we closed the regular season with a loss at Fresno State. In 2009, also a Fresno State loss.

OK now I'm wondering when we actually won our season finale. Haven't beaten Northwestern since 2014 so that's where we can start: won our finale in 2014. But we lost the final game in 2013 and 2012, and I just covered the losses in 2011, 2010, and 2009. 2008 - yet another loss. But in 2007 Juice ran over that linebacker on the goal line and we beat Northwestern handily. Before that, though, uh, I guess we beat Northwestern in the finale in 2002, right? But I remember that game being very close.

So, uh, yeah. We won our finales in 2014, 2007, and 2002 (plus 2001). Every other year this decade, we lost our season finale (mostly Northwestern, but also Fresno State twice and Minnesota once). Wow. Yes, a complete domination game to finish the season is very, very rare around Champaign.

+ I think I know how to end this post. Big Ten record in the first year for the last five Illini head coaches:

Ron Turner - 0-8
Ron Zook - 0-8
Tim Beckman - 0-8
Lovie Smith - 2-7
Bret Bielema - 4-5

Really impressive. Really pumped for next season.

Might start on the preview tomorrow.


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