Ending to Illini football season fits, against seniors’ wishes

The game that encapsulated the 2013 Illinois football season was the one seen by the fewest people.

The temperature at kickoff was 52 degrees, with the sun out and, fittingly enough, setting. It was a day of honoring, too, with the 10-star Illinois outline helmets back in action, a Red Cross logo affixed in the middle of the logo, and 15 seniors being recognized before the start of the game. Fans failed to honor the team, though, as a season low in attendance and a student section occupied by about 140 brave souls dampened the atmosphere.

The game played out as the season did — with Illinois fighting and losing. It was more of the same on the scoreboard, but there were subtle differences. Illinois defended the run well, allowing just 2.9 yards per carry to Northwestern ball carriers. Illinois hadn’t defended the run that well since Week 1 against Southern Illinois, which managed just 2.5 yards per carry.

Jonathan Brown anchored the defense in his swan song performance to the tune of 17 total tackles. He came one short of what was necessary, however, as a conversion by Northwestern’s Treyvon Green on 3rd-and-6 with just over two minutes left put the game out of reach for Illinois.

It was the same ending, but it had a sharply different feel. When the clock struck zeroes, Brown sauntered off the field straight for the locker room, a tangible morbidity in his stride. Mason Monheim and Jevaris Little attempted to console him as a majority of the players congregated in the middle of the field to shake a hand or two before heading out. Brown was unreachable, inconsolable; he had left everything on the field, and it wasn’t enough. It hadn’t been for the whole season.

“I definitely didn’t do everything I wanted to do. But I helped my team to go in the right direction,” Brown said after the game, his eyes still red and rife with emotion. “I had a lot of personal goals I didn’t meet, but at the end of the day, I did everything I could to help my team win, and that’s probably the thing I’m most proud about.”

Long after Brown reached the locker room, after the whole team had filed in, four Illini remained on the field, taking their time to leave. Nathan Scheelhaase, Steve Hull, Miles Osei and Ryan Lankford exchanged hugs before exiting, bringing it together for the last time on the turf of Zuppke Field. Scheelhaase had lit up the Wildcats defense to the tune of 307 yards and two touchdowns, one to Hull and one to Osei, who was commemorating Lankford by wearing his No. 12 jersey. Osei didn’t have to do that. But he did, and he scored his first touchdown as an Illini wearing that jersey. It was a moment neither player will ever forget.

Scheelhaase was the last player into the locker room for postgame interviews, and he was the one who seemed most content. Of course the game was important, and the loss was painful, but he had a career to reflect on. And the legacy he left — as the owner of the most total yards in Illinois football history — was enough for him to hold his head high.

He, like Brown, left everything out on the field. And it wasn’t enough. But the effort he and his seniors gave was enough for him to go out without lament.

And we should be happy for him. He’s captained a 6-18 team the last two seasons. He threw four touchdowns in all of 2012. Bill Cubit came in as offensive coordinator and saved his legacy. The two embraced in the postgame interview session. Cubit congratulated him, and Scheelhaase credited Cubit. There was happiness.

More than the records, however, the talk of the future brought smiles to the faces of the several Illinois seniors. Even Brown began to smile when asked about his young defensive comrades and where they’re headed. He’s proud of the development of his freshmen from puppies to men.

A familiar air of defeat pervaded the Illinois locker room, as it has in a general sense for the past two seasons, but when there’s literally nothing left to lose, it will make a team change its thinking about what it’s accomplished.

Brown can watch the defense next year and know those are his guys, his little brothers. Scheelhaase can watch the program, as weird as he said it will be for him to be “detached,” and watch the offense develop under Cubit.

There is a more strongly pervasive air of optimism now surrounding Illinois football, and it took a year of giving 100 percent and getting a mere four wins in return to get there.

Brown said the biggest key for the team’s improvement from 2012 was buying in. It was enough to earn the team two more wins. But more important than finishing 4-8 was the sense of direction Illinois football has that it definitely lacked heading into the season.

And that’s not the legacy you dream of leaving. But it could mean a new start for Illinois football, and that idea for Illini fans seemed to be nothing more than a dream a year ago.

Eliot is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @EliotTweet.