Column: A jealousy

By Dan Berrigan

Going without Illinois football this weekend was the worst thing that could have happened to me.

In its place were some of the best football games played this season, and it made me green with envy because we won’t have a competitive team for at least two more years.

The afternoon kicked off with No. 12 Penn State versus Michigan – a see-saw game which culminated in a 39-point fourth quarter and ended when Mario Manningham caught a 10-yard touchdown pass with no time left.

The catch not only gave Michigan the 27-25 win and the momentum to turn their season around, it crushed Penn State’s dreams of an undefeated season, which were still alive just 53 seconds earlier when they took the lead.

The heart-wrenching Nittany Lion’s loss was but a prelude for the coup-de-gras – the war between No. 9 Notre Dame and No. 1 USC.

The Fighting Irish fans had stormed the field, celebrating what they thought was a 31-28 upset of USC.

They didn’t realize that the Irish still had to stop the Trojans one last time. A 27-game winning streak hung on just a single play.

The Irish couldn’t hold them and the rest is history.

I couldn’t help but wonder, how come Illinois can’t seem to put together a consistent winning program?

Recently the Illini have made themselves comfortable in the Big Ten basement. Even this season, which was built up as a Ron Zook led turn-around, has gotten off to a crawl with the Illini at a dismal 0-3 in the conference.

The problem is defense, and the lack of it.

The Illini have recorded just six sacks, given up 36 points and 228 rushing yards per game, and are second to last in turnover margin (-6).

Apparently the best defensive weapon the Illini have in their run-stopping arsenal is dehydration. Iowa running back Albert Young needed an I.V. after tallying 104 yards on the ground.

Isn’t this the school that produced linebackers Dick Butkus and Kevin Hardy, defensive end Simeon Rice and defensive back Eugene Wilson?

To start winning again, the Illini need to go back to their roots and throw away the Ron Turner mantra of, “offense, offense, offense,” and embrace the fact that defense wins championships.

A mediocre defense and bad offense make for a better team than the bad defense and mediocre offense that the Illini have.

The two best teams in the Big Ten are No. 14 Ohio State (2-1, 4-2) and Penn State (3-1, 6-1). The Nittany Lions rank fifth in total offense in the Big Ten while Ohio State is dead last.

But the defensive side of the ball is where these two teams shine, ranking first and second in total defense.

Saturday’s Buckeye win over the high-powered Michigan State offense 35-24 proved once again that defense trumps offense.

A good defense allows a bad team to make mistakes and still recover, and if it’s one thing the Illini have mastered, it’s making mistakes.

Sure, Illinois made it to a Sugar Bowl in 2001 with a high-powered offense, but they were taken out of the game quickly after getting lit up for 27 points in the first half. The last time Illinois had a team defense give up less than 20 points per game was 1995.

It’s no coincidence that in the late-’80s to mid-’90s Illinois was a decent football team and went to six bowls in eight years.

When Illinois finally connects the dots, they’ll turn it around; until then, I’ll keep being jealous.

Dan Berrigan is a senior in Engineering. He can be reached at [email protected]