…Catch it, and feel good! Who here remembers that marketing slogan from the 80s and the Mike White era? I know Illini fans of a certain age couldn’t forget it if they tried. After all, that period gave us the infamous logo we all continue to pine for, it gave us Illini Beer, it gave us NFL-caliber quarterbacks and a fearsome passing attack, and most improbably a good football team. Yes, Illinois was a winning program that went to a string of bowl games – and that was before there were a hundred bowls.
Fast-forward to the present, and fans are more sanguine about the various weight-gains and lineup connotations of the basketball team. Any buzz around the football team is subdued, reserved. After all, we were all told the Orange & Blue would be good last year, with returning talent, etc., etc. Yeah… 3-9. Underachieving yet again. As a matter of record, if you take out the overachieving seasons of 2001 and 2007, the aughts have been the worst decade of Illini football since the 1930s.
So maybe we just need to adopt a simple goal: achieve something. Yes, do something other than disappoint. Of course expectations differ greatly, but for Beemsville achieving something would mean about 5-7 and steady improvement as the season progresses. Getting to .500 or above and a bowl game would have to count as exceeding expectations.
The venerable one provides seeds of optimism, and he makes some good points. After all, nearly everyone on defense is back. Yeah, says I, but that defense really sucked last year and key tackle Josh Brent lost his eligibility and ended up being picked up in the supplemental draft by Dallas. But Football Fever! says, we have a new coordinator who brings a new more aggressive approach and hopefully some tactical acumen, and we still have good athletes at key positions. On offense, says I, we have freshmen as our #1 and #2 quarterbacks, and touchstones Juice Williams and Rejus Benn and the criminally underused Michael Hoo-man are gone. Plus we’re instituting a new offense. Illini Fever says, yeah, but Juice and his tunnel vision are gone, Scheelhaase has moxie and accuracy, and we return one of the better big running backs in the conference in Mikel Leshoure. Plus we have Paul Petrino and his new huddle-up feed-the-studs offense!
So it doesn’t look as bleak as the end of the Ron Turner years – there’s still talent on the field, and AD Ronnie Guenther did all he could short of sacking the Zooker to bring about change in the program. Petrino and Vic Koenning are two of the most expensive coordinators in the country – they have two years to help Zook right the ship, and they’re both highly regarded. Unlike Zook’s initial staff, which always left me wondering (especially after watching The Journey on Big 10 Network) if they had a smart guy in the whole crew. But if you look at the schedule, it’s hard to get to the winning record, even though Wisconsin and Iowa (the two programs we should be able to emulate) aren’t there this year.
Mizzou? They’re down supposedly, but we can’ seem to beat them. You think NIU and SIU won’t be fired up to play the Illini? Then you have three in a row against Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan State, which could derail the entire season. The Big 10 is a tougher conference than ESPN would have you believe, and I just don’t see a single pencil-it-in W there. Not the way we’ve played the last couple of years. Then we close it out with the Northwestern game at Wrigley and a pit-trap of a trip to Fresno State.
But I hold out hope. I’m a fan and I’ll be there for at least three games and otherwise watching on the tube. I will get excited if we pull off an upset or start to look better than adverstised. Just achieve something, Illini Football. We’d all like a bit of the old fever.