What would a successful fourth quarter look like for Illinois football?


Austin Yattoni

Illinois linebacker Hardy Nickerson (10) tackles Michigan State wide receiver Felton Davis III (18) during the game against Michigan State at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, November 5. The Illini won 31-27.

By Kevin McCarthy, Illini columnist


Sports have always been a way for Americans to escape real life, even if just for a moment. In the midst of turmoil, heartache and day-to-day frustrations, we can flip on the television or head out to the ball park and sit back, crack a beer and enjoy.

Sports bring us together. They unite us. It’s difficult to describe — and I won’t try to — but, if you’re reading this, I think you know what I mean.

This is a sports page. So, for a moment, I hope you can enjoy reading about sports.

The sun rose this morning, and assuming it also does in a few days, Illinois will play a football game Saturday. Head coach Lovie Smith talks about the football season in quarters. With three games left in their 12-game schedule, the Illini will enter the “fourth quarter” of their season on Saturday.

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The first three quarters have resulted in many emotions for Illini fans: tremendous excitement to start, followed by understandable disappointment and the eventual acceptance of mediocrity. More than anything, these first three quarters have reminded us that the Lovie-project is a work in progress.

Patience is a virtue. Illini fans have certainly learned that.

Illinois would need to win each of its last three games in order to reach a bowl game. With about a snowball’s chance in hell of beating the Badgers on their home turf Saturday, any hope of a bowl game will likely fade away at Camp Randall this weekend.

So, since a bowl bid is extremely unlikely, what would a successful “fourth quarter” look like for the Illini? Let’s examine.

Progression from Jeff George Jr.

The injuries to Chayce Crouch and Wes Lunt might have been blessings in disguise for the Illini’s future. As a result, we’ve gotten to see what the gunslinging George has to offer.

Many still believe he will always live in the shadow of his father’s spotlight. That may be true, but still the redshirt freshman has given Illini fans reason to cheer these last few weeks.

There is no doubt in my mind that George has the “it” factor that people talk about — whatever that is.

This guy loves to play football, is ultra-competitive and is a total gamer. I asked offensive coordinator Garrick McGee if he’ll try to “reign” his young quarterback in a bit. He didn’t even hesitate before answering, “no.”

He loves the fire that the young man plays with.

I do too.

Not to mention, in a tight game in front of a packed house against Michigan State, George played honorably. Cool as a cucumber, he led the Illini to victory under pressure.

There are still legitimate questions about his accuracy and decision-making, evidenced by a 42.3 completion percentage. If he maintains the ball security he showed against Michigan State and improves on his accuracy and decision-making, that would be huge for Illinois.

Let’s see if he can continue to progress in these last few games. He needs to. Especially considering that it’s starting to look like No. 3 could be leading the Illini next season.

Continued development from the young defense

Underclassmen like Tré Watson, Patrick Nelson, Stanley Green, Julian Jones, and a host of others are making an unexpected impact on the defensive side of the football.

For Illini fans, this should be very encouraging. Next year, this defense will lose some of its most important members. Hardy Nickerson, the team’s middle linebacker and on-field anchor will be gone, and edge rushers Dawuane Smoot and Carroll Phillips, both of whom are NFL talents, will move on to playing Sundays.

It’s important that these young players continue to develop while playing beside their more experienced teammates, and while it’s impossible to quantify what would be a “success” for the defense, I think it would be encouraging for Illini fans to see them grow.

One more win

Maybe it doesn’t matter. What’s the difference between a three-win season and a four-win season?

Actually, I think it’s very important. Lovie and Co. seemed completely different with the media Monday than they’ve been all year. Their spirits were lifted, and their energy was evident. They were happy to be playing football and wearing orange and blue.

If Illinois could upset Northwestern in the final week of the year, and keep the ‘Cats out of a bowl game, that would be quite the silver lining.

And only then will we know who Chicago’s Big Ten Team really is.

Kevin is a junior in Media.
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