Column: Happy, but not satisfied

By Darren Bailey

I got what I asked for Saturday. I challenged the defense, and they delivered. No, they didn’t stop Brian Calhoun. Yes, he gained nearly 200 yards, and yes, he scored five touchdowns. But he didn’t dominate the game. He gained chunks here and touchdowns there, but it never got to the point where the offense didn’t have a chance to keep pace.

The defense came out with a fire inside them, and an apparent mentality that Saturday was a new day, a new chance, a new beginning.

Kevin Mitchell was everywhere, making plays that honestly, he shouldn’t have to at free safety. Brit Miller was a possessed man playing with a tenacity that, for a moment, reminded me of a childhood hero – Dana Howard. Ryan Matha finally punched back. (It’s alright big fella. Everyone knows they always catch the second guy…) Sam Carson actually held the point of attack, shed a block and made a tackle. Heck, Alan Ball got a tackle for loss! Yes, that’s right. An Illini defensive back recorded a TFL.

And what did I say last week? That’d I’d be happy with an inspired effort. An effort to make tackles, stop drives and make it a ball game. I got that, and I’m happy.

I’m also happy with the offense. There was an inopportune interception and a rash of unacceptable penalties, but there were sustained drives and points on the board.

And the fans. Way to be. There was no mass exodus after 27-10. The stands were full, the crowd was loud, and I think it was obvious that the players fed off of it.

Yeah, I’m happy with Saturday’s game – but I’m far from satisfied.

Illinois should have been victorious. There should have been a “W” in the win column. I should be writing about this win being a springboard for a four-game winning streak and a bowl game.

But I’m not.

Instead, I’m considering what needs to be addressed next for Illinois to get over that hump. And the big thing is execution.

When you’re driving down the field just before half with the score 20-10, you have to put points on the board. Especially when Illinois has momentum and the ball on the Wisconsin 43 yard line. A field goal makes it a one score game. A touchdown brings the deficit within a field goal. I like the aggressiveness of throwing deep for the touchdown, but the play either has to be made or the ball has to be thrown out of bounds. An interception is unacceptable. It kills both the drive and momentum. Execution.

Earlier in the drive, however, upperclassmen have to know to get out of bounds to stop the clock. I love fighting for yards, but if a first down isn’t attainable, the ball carrier has to get out of bounds. Execution.

Missed field goals, dropped passes and blocked punts. Execution.

And then there are those unfortunate penalties. To paraphrase Coach Zook, “How ’bout those calls?”

Food for thought:

I take the column back to the first Illinois drive in the fourth quarter. Following a flurry of short passes and successful rushes, the Illini have the ball, first and goal on the Wisconsin 10 yard line. Pierre Thomas rushes up the middle for eight yards. Oh, boy. Second and goal on the two? Illinois is going to cut the lead to 10 with over 10 minutes left.

Whistle.

On a goal line dive play, James Ryan gets charged with holding. Now, for football novices, generally what happens on a goal line run is that all of the offensive linemen and all of the defensive linemen explode out of their stances and push each other as much as they can. Plays generally last all of two seconds, and the line of scrimmage resembles an absolute quagmire. Yet somehow, a Big Ten official standing in the back of the end zone sees a hold?

Now, it’s very possible that this hold happened. In fact, holding probably happens somewhere on every play. But why throw the flag at that point? Why call that potential foul, but not others committed by Wisconsin, the Big Ten’s third-best holding team (behind only Iowa and Minnesota)?

Is it possible that the Big Ten would like to see two of its member schools playing in BCS bowls? Is it also possible that Wisconsin is one of those potential BCS teams with an 8-1 record? Again, just food for thought for when you watch college football next weekend.

But I digress.

Regardless of the validity of penalties, the Illini should have won that football game. Passes should have been more accurate. Hands should have been softer. Kicks should have been made – both through the uprights and to the other team. Blocks should have been completed, arm tackles should have been wrapped up and the scoreboard should have read differently.

The Illini did what I asked last week, and I’m happy. Now if they can do it again, and more, maybe I’ll be satisfied.

Two punts and a kick:

Punt: I think I jinxed Northwestern, as the Cats lost to Michigan at home, then Monday dropped out of the top 25, along with, surprisingly, a Tennessee program which finds itself unranked for the first time in three years.

Punt: So much for Georgia’s argument to be in the BCS championship game. First, down goes quarterback DJ Shockley, then the whole Bulldog squad in a disappointing loss to underachieving Florida.

Kick: Southern Illinois, the nation’s No. 10 team in 1-AA football upset No. 1-ranked Western Kentucky, 31-20. Go Salukis! What, what?

Darren Bailey is a junior in LAS. He can be reached at [email protected]