Illini lucky to have escaped against Middle Tennessee State

By Peter Bailey-Wells

Memorial Stadium was loud on Saturday night when Taylor Zalewski’s go-ahead 51-yard field goal sailed through the uprights to put Illinois up 27-25.

The Illinois sideline was a jumble of orange and blue excitement, like a bunch of puppies who had just been told it’s dinner time. The whole place was rocking, as much as a partially full stadium can rock.

At that point, Middle Tennessee could have been Ohio State, Northwestern or Nebraska, the team the Illini begin Big Ten play with next Saturday. For people walking by the stadium, there would have been no way to know the Illini were surviving a scare from a Conference-USA team. It was just a mass of humanity celebrating a close win.

But that might not be enough this season. Maybe I was oversold on the Illini. Maybe I was undersold on Middle Tennessee State. But that win was not a good one.

That being said, head coach Bill Cubit avoided a signature loss. After the game, he said he doesn’t care if wins are ugly or pretty — a win’s a win.

For the purpose of the Illini’s record, a win certainly is a win. But for the purpose of this season’s prospects, Saturday’s victory was a warning sign for what may be to come.

Cubit didn’t make any excuses in his postgame remarks. He was visibly pissed off at various points during Saturday’s matchup, barking at Lunt and his receivers more than once. But honesty and frankness aren’t going to win Cubit the head coaching job on a permanent basis. He needs to win, and win big, if he’s going to stick around.

Last week, I wrote that — in a vacuum — Illinois’ 48-14 loss to North Carolina was horrendous, but in the long run, the Big Ten play matters more. Saturday’s game is the same way. In a vacuum, it was a gross win. But in the long run, Cubit has survived nonconference play 3-1 and if he wins three games in Big Ten play and wins a bowl game, the Blue Raiders’ near-upset will be a distant memory.

History tells us that Illinois can struggle after starting the season 3-1. Last season, it was the Purdue loss. In 2013, it was going 1-7 in Big Ten play.

Clayton Fejedelem dropped an interception on Middle Tennessee State’s final drive and said after the game that he would have blamed himself for the loss. Fortunately for Fejedelem — who played well Saturday, contributing — Cody Clark missed the kick and the Illini safety escaped without any blame.

That’s how all of the Illini should feel following Saturday. They avoided a banana peel — albeit one that gave Alabama a bit of trouble — and might just be able to put this one behind them.

A win is a win, but that one was not one the Illini will want to repeat.

Peter is a junior in Media.
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@pbaileywells