Fighting Illini: 5-0
By now, you know what happened – Illinois erased an 18-point third quarter deficit against in-state rival Northwestern courtesy of career days from Nathan Scheelhaase and A.J. Jenkins, and provided Memorial Stadium with a thrilling ending courtesy of Jason Ford.
For all three of you who follow me on Twitter, I’m sorry for declaring the game over when Persa connected with Ebert to push the lead to 28-10, but come on, did anyone actually think the Illini could come back and win that game? It was so memorable that fightingillini.com already looped the footage with some sweet Remember the Titans music. At the end of the video, you actually feel like we just won the national championship.
A few things I’ve been thinking about this week…
Win-loss records are interesting in that they’re not necessarily an indication of how good you are, but, at the end of the season, your record is literally all that matters. Should Illinois be 5-0? Probably not. But they are. In sports, the most talented team, even the team that plays the best, doesn’t always win. I remember listening to a Jim Hendry interview a few years back, and he talked about how he felt the Cubs had assembled the most talented team in 2004, but they didn’t even make the playoffs, but in 2003, they didn’t have the best players, but came within five outs of the World Series. Illinois doesn’t have the greatest roster, but they have some really good players, and they’ve shown some resiliency. Getting W’s is all that matters.
Moving forward, Zook needs to make sure their record doesn’t affect them. If Illinois had started 2-3, what would he say to the players? Something like, “Hey, those games are behind us. We can’t do anything other than learn from them. Those losses were tough, but we can’t let them affect us. Forget them. All that matters is what’s ahead.” I really think the Illini, sitting at an immaculate 5-0, need to hear the same advice. “Listen, we’re 5-0, and that’s great, it’s been fun. But being 5-0 doesn’t mean anything. Those games are over, so let’s put them behind us. All that matters is what’s ahead.”
When will teams decide to lock down A.J. Jenkins? I was up in the press box for the Northwestern game, which gave me a great view of the coverages. I’m amazed – or to use Fitzgerald’s wording, “shocked” – at how the Wildcats could let Jenkins catch 12 balls for 265 yards, especially given the fact that Illinois needed to go to the air to get back into the game. I combed through the numbers from the first five games of the season – Scheelhaase has targeted Jenkins on 48% of his pass attempts. So here’s an advanced scouting report for future Illini opponents: Scheelhaase really likes throwing to Jenkins. I’m interested to see what happens when a good defensive team decides they won’t let the Scheelhaase-to-Jenkins combo beat them….Spencer Harris was a solid target last Saturday (6 catches, 63 yards, 2 pt conversion, nice TD catch that was brought back), so maybe he’ll emerge as a nice complement.
Some interesting numbers from the Northwestern game, all of which are normally solid indications of a loss: tallied 82 rushing yards, lost two fumbles, threw a red zone interception, gave up TDs on all four Northwestern trips inside red zone, fell behind 18 points with seven minutes left in the third quarter. But the Illini found a way to pull it out.
It was so strange/cool to see Illinois on the front page of Yahoo! Sports Monday morning. Displaying a picture of an exuberant Tim Kynard and Houston Bates, the caption read: “Illinois is 5-0 for the first time since 1951 after Saturday’s big rally – with a good shot at making a Jan. 1 bowl.” Weird.
The Illini take on Indiana in a few hours for their first road test of the season. I hope next week I get to write about how 6-0 doesn’t matter.