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Postmortem 2015: Illinois Fighting Illini

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My whole tenure at Off Tackle Empire has been defined by the question: "Why does this guy have to be our head coach? Can't it be someone else?"

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

On October 3, 2009, a cold mist drizzled out of a gray sky and onto me and a rapidly-dwindling contingent of Illini fans as Penn State drove down Zuppke Field at Memorial Stadium looking to increase a 21-3 fourth quarter lead. Clad in my not-yet-faded Chief Illiniwek T-shirt that I'd worn to every game, I tried to find another partner to complete a pair of hands to clap for the War Chant on 3rd down to encourage our boys to get a stop and give Juice Williams a chance. I couldn't clap myself with my freshly-repaired broken elbow, and none of my friends had bothered to show up to watch Illinois inexplicably spiral into oblivion just two years removed from a Rose Bowl. Nevertheless, I continued to search for one more delusional soul who wasn't willing to go down without a fight.

The Nittany Lions scored again to kick the exodus into high gear. This 28-3 debacle had been 7-3 at the half, but the Illini would go on to gain just 16 yards in the second before the backups came in. It wasn't supposed to be like this. Sure, 2009 would feature a very strong Penn State team, but Illinois Football had ARRIVED two years ago, and this wasn't supposed to happen anymore. In fact, with a talented and experienced team, we were supposed to challenge for the conference title. How could this happen? I took a seat on the wet bleachers in 102 East Main and watched, increasingly alone, as Juice Williams scored two garbage time touchdowns against the Penn State reserves. I became resentful of everything about this game, and eventually my resentment turned towards the fans. Why did it seem like they expected this? Don't they remember that we were big time just two years ago? Where was the energy? How could they just leave at the beginning of the fourth quarter? We were down 18, but we had Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn. Did the rest of the fans know something I didn't?

As it turned out, yes they did. Little did I know what a familiar refrain this truly was. Of course they weren't surprised we'd gone from a BCS bowl to a complete trainwreck in only two years. We had just done that from 2001-2003. Of course Penn State would pull away in the second half. Just 4 years ago, they led 56-3 at the half. Of course we weren't going to come back. We're Illinois football.

Part of me never really left the stadium and to this day continues to search for others who share this irrational faith, who can continue to believe even in the face of overwhelming evidence that we are going to lose. But in Champaign, it's abundantly clear that "believe" rhymes with "naive."

Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of the DIA and the university administration, that little ghost of my faith trapped in Memorial Stadium is inching his way towards deliverance. He's found his way to the top of the East Main Upper Deck, where the only sound is the whipping of the ever-present swirling wind that is a staple of the fall and winter seasons in East Central Illinois. It sure is lonely up there.

Come on buddy. Just jump. Didn't you hear the latest about the football staff? Didn't you hear that the athletic director position, vacant for over 2 months, wasn't even on the latest Board of Trustees agenda? It's always going to be this empty.

Anyway, here's the 2015 Season In Review.

Prologue: Calamity

Coming off an improbable 3rd year in which his Illini fought to win 3 of their last 5 and make a bowl game, Tim Beckman had to prove that his program was built and it had arrived. A 2015 recruiting class ranked 6th in the Big Ten seemed to validate the slow build his numerous detractors had dismissed as fiction. Naturally, he followed this signing day victory by assembling the local media to publicly complain about them. Nevertheless, it seemed that ol' Trip'n'Dip was stumbling towards relevance.

The collapse began as sheer tragedy, as star receiver Mike Dudek tore his ACL in spring ball. An unheralded gem, Dudek was a freshman all-american in 2014 and was, in my mind, the best player Illinois had on offense. The depth chart continued to suffer, as dual-threat QB Aaron Bailey announced an unsurprising transfer, 4-star freshman and early enrollee Dre Brown tore his ACL as well, and several other spring ball injuries occurred. These were tragic yet innocent times, when Illini fans thought that unfortunate injury luck was our most serious problem.

In May, graduated offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic took to Twitter to air his grievances about the way Tim Beckman ran his program. Mixed in with standard "coach is a dick" fare were some truly disturbing accusations that Beckman, either through malicious intent or staggering ignorance, grossly mismanaged injured players and interfered with his medical staff on a regular basis.

Recruiting immediately stopped, as did all discussion of Illinois football by fans. An investigation was launched, leading to Tim Beckman's firing a week before the season. Now, even the few positive things he accomplished at Illinois were horribly tainted. Bill Cubit, best known for defeating the 2008 Illini while at WMU and then getting fired without ever winning a bowl game in 2012, took over, and I began preparing for a nothing-to-lose type of season with the guarantee of a new coach at the end. Athletic director Mike Thomas was not tossed out with Beckman, so it seemed that he was in the driver's seat to make up for hiring Coach Lasagna. He'd hired great coaches at prior jobs, so maybe he could find a new one. 2015 began with a weird excitement; the program would move forward at the end of the year, and any win was gravy.

Part 1: Holding Down The Fort

Two surprisingly dominant wins against Kent State and Western Illinois brought the Illini into a road game at UNC having allowed just 3 points. Wes Lunt was looking much better, and although we didn't have Dudek, our receivers made plenty of plays. A slightly annoying issue with drops manifested itself, but surely playing time would improve this issue.

An admirable defensive performance in the first half wasn't enough to make up for a woeful offensive showing, and the Tarheels pulled away to a blowout in the fourth quarter. I came back to earth pretty quickly, as that was how I'd expected the season to go with an interim head coach. A frustrating duel against Middle Tennessee State, won by virtue of a hooked field goal, compounded the feeling. Good on us for looking good against cupcakes early, but an interim head coach is a symptom of turmoil. Bright spots included defense, which kept us in games despite the suspiciously bad offense. It seemed strange that Bill Cubit's offense could get worse every year of his tenure, but there we were, scoreless against a historically bad Nebraska defense in the third quarter.

The defensive line, however, continued to hold the Huskers in check, assisted by Mike Riley's insistence on throwing the ball. In the fourth quarter, the offense woke up and by the grace of God, a receiver finally held on to the ball in the end zone. Geronimo Allison's game-winning catch moved Illinois to a surprising 4-1 and showed that the team had plenty of fight in them. A close loss on the road to undefeated Iowa despite key offensive injuries and a lack of Josh Ferguson led to a close homecoming game against Wisconsin, with Ke'Shaun Vaughn breaking a touchdown to get the Illini within 4 points in the 3rd quarter.

Part 2: It Unravels

Unfortunately, after that 3rd quarter, things went downhill in a hurry. Bart Houston carved up a tired Illini defense, and the offense couldn't respond. This was becoming a disturbing trend, with the Illini putting up 47 points in 3 conference games.

We lost to Penn State 39-0. The defense played much better than the score would indicate, given the short fields the offense kept giving them. Illinois could manage not a single point on the Nittany Lions. Against a team that has its fanbase divided on its head coach, Illinois turned in a 39-0 shutout. Disgusting.

Solace was found in a 48-14 win at Purdue. This caused a small measure of relief that we weren't Purdue, and fortunately the staff handled winning at Purdue a little better than last time. But it didn't last long, as the Illini wasted a brilliant defensive performance by scoring 3 points on 5 trips inside the 30. It was the earliest I've ever left an Illini game, as a muffed punt inside our own 20 with about 9 minutes to play triggered me to attempt to evacuate my family before the Buckeyes scored again. I was not successful in this endeavor.

By now it was clear that we weren't going to win unless the defense scored points. Setting the offense up at the 1 was not enough to guarantee a score. Bill Cubit pissed away an opportunity to secure win #6 at Minnesota with strange playcalling, aided by Tim Banks' insistence on defensive plays with a huge risk of overrunning the play and allowing long touchdowns. Have fun with that, Penn State.

A microcosm of the season occurred as Illinois made one last push for the go-ahead score. Wes Lunt was sacked on 2nd down in his own territory to bring up 3rd and 21, prompting Cubit to call timeout #2. We emerged from this timeout and ran a screen pass to Josh Ferguson for a gain of 2 yards. Sure, it's 2 yards, but I fail to see how 4th and 19 is any better than 3rd and 21. In fact, it's much worse. If you haven't watched the film yet, you might not want to read on, because there's a massive spoiler: We didn't convert the 4th and 19.

5-6 we were, headed for Chicago to take on a Northwestern team which had somehow won nine games while producing a less effective offense than the Illini. The outcome was important to me, sure, but after that game, win or lose, it wouldn't be long before a new head coach was named. Even though Illinois made the completely inexplicable decision to hold on to AD Mike Thomas until November 9 before firing him, perhaps all this meant was that the boosters he'd rubbed the wrong way were back in the fold now. Plenty of schools have made good coaching hires without a permanent athletic director. Justin Fuente and Tom Herman were probably out of our reach, but I began falling in love with the idea of Dino Babers. Jeff Brohm seemed like a great candidate as well. At one point, Bud Foster was a possibility. Hell, there was a brief window of time where it seemed that Les Miles would be available, and writers jumped at the chance to put Les back in the midwest. For a few hours there, the coup of the century looked possible. I was just hoping they wouldn't blindly hire P.J. Fleck, who seemed likely to be a poor man's Ron Zook.

Part 3: Illinois Pisses In My Face And Tells Me It's Raining

Mid-sentence, I dropped my phone and just collapsed on the floor. My family initially thought I was having a serious medical issue; a few labored "oh GOD NO"s later, I was asked if someone had died. To that, I responded that something kind of had, and that was true, because they'd done it. They really had done it.

Hours before the last game of the season began, Illinois signed Bill Cubit to a 2-year contract as head coach. The infamous "it's not ideal, but for now, I don't think it'll be a dagger in the heart of the program" press conference followed. I was devastated by Illinois football, and the game hadn't even kicked off yet.

The Illini showed how fired-up they were to have Bill Cubit as their coach by allowing 21 points in the first quarter to the worst offense in the Big Ten. For the whole game, only Illinois' first offensive drive produced any points. After that, there was no offense to be found. The defense clamped down in the second quarter, and a third-quarter pick-six by Mason Monheim gave life to the Illini. Another stop and some offense put Illinois in field goal range down 7, but Wes Lunt threw a pick on first down. Another hard-fought game in which the players were not put in position to win by the coaching staff, another loss.

A bowl was not yet out of the question. However, when 21-point underdog Georgia State took a 34-7 lead on Georgia Southern, it was over.

The experience I talked about in my preamble would suggest to you that I've since grown up and learned that Illinois will usually do the thing that most disappoints and frustrates its fans. I thought I had wised up, too. How, then, did I allow myself to be sucked back in, to allow myself to believe that beating Nebraska suggested positive things about the program, to allow myself to daydream about a coach, any coach, other than a middling-at-best MAC retread with a contract that shouts the University's reluctance to support him from the highest mountains?

It appears that I haven't yet had my fill. My disembodied faith remains at the top of the East Main Upper Deck, somehow holding on to the railing to avoid being blown away by that swirling wind our special teams never seem to take into account. Keep digging, Illinois, you've almost got him!

Part 4: With The Benefit Of Hindsight

The most informed judgments you can make on any game or part of a football season are those made with the context of the whole season being played out. So, knowing what I know now, what conclusions can I draw?

Spring Ball Injuries: Beckman's fault. Created an environment where injuries were not a medical misfortune but a sign of weakness and disloyalty.
Beckman's firing: I've already covered this
Illinois 52, Kent State 3: Kent State is pretty bad. Illinois' defense is pretty good. When Illinois was able to out-athlete teams that turned it over a lot, these were the results.
Illinois 44, Western Illinois 0: See above
UNC 48, Illinois 14: Illinois struggles on offense against P5 level teams with a pulse. The overly aggressive defense creates both tackles for loss and big plays given up. UNC, despite being a talented underachiever since the dawn of time, finally decided to put it together this year and field their best team possibly ever, right when our home-and-home with them starts. Watch out for Kansas in 2023.
Illinois 27, MTSU 25: Bill Cubit is not the greatest coach. Our receivers drop passes. Good route-running can pick apart our secondary. Luck is good.
Illinois 14, Nebraska 13: As it turned out, Nebraska had a historically bad year, aided by a historically bad defense. Said defense still held Illinois scoreless through 3 frames. Mike Riley is a highly questionable decision-maker. If you keep giving Illinois the chance to run that short hitch in the end zone, after 3 or 4 tries they WILL convert it.
Iowa 29, Illinois 20: This one still doesn't make sense. This was the only time our offense looked serviceable against a P5 team that wasn't Purdue, and we were missing several key players. Beathard struggles under pressure.
Wisconsin 24, Illinois 13: Illinois struggles on offense. Even a good defense will get tired when the offense keeps going 3-and-out. The grey uniforms still look bizarre.
Penn State 39, Illinois 0: Wes Lunt is totally unable to function under pressure. Depth at QB is non-existent.
Illinois 48, Purdue 14: See Game 1.
Ohio State 28, Illinois 3: Offense is a liability. Special teams have degraded big time. J.T. Barrett got a weenie arm.
Minnesota 32, Illinois 23: Bill Cubit is not a brilliant coach. Illinois is a coherent team and fights for each other. Sometimes, it helps if you call something other than a screen or delayed handoff on 3rd down.
Illinois hires Bill Cubit for two years: Illinois doesn't care about football
Northwestern 24, Illinois 14: Mick McCall did his homework, Tim Banks did not. Illinois fights hard. Bill Cubit cannot make offensive adjustments, as his first drive is often the only successful one of the game. Northwestern is a fraud.

Part 5: Looking Ahead

This is gonna be fun. I'll try and make it brief.

Top recruit Kentrail Moran (the #1 RB in Illinois for 2016) decommitted. It had been rumored for a while, and academics were said to be a major factor, but the upshot is that we now have the 11th best recruiting class in the B1G for 2016. Update: four decommits so far this week. It's Tuesday.

Ryan Cubit received a 396% raise and will earn $400,000 as Illinois' offensive coordinator this year. What exactly he'll be doing I'm not sure, as Bill Cubit still acts as OC and calls all the plays.

28 scholarship seniors will play for Illinois in the fall. Update: never mind, it looks like everyone who can is leaving. However, Bill Cubit was the architect of one of the worst P5 offenses last year. The defense was improved, but with cornerstones such as Ward, Monheim and Fedjelem leaving and half our linebackers transferring (TJ Neal made 109 tackles last year), the defense is sure to be worse. So, here's my early preview of Illinois for 2016, with my prescribed chance of winning:

Murray State: W (99.9%)
North Carolina: L (6%)
Western Michigan: L (45%)
at Nebraska: L (30%)
Purdue: W (78%)
at Rutgers: W (55%)
at Michigan: L (3%)
Minnesota: W (52%)
Michigan State: L (5%)
at Wisconsin: L (18%)
Iowa: L (15%)
at Northwestern: L (40%)

Projection: 4-8
Projected High Points
: Being 1-0 will be awesome. A win over Purdue will allow us to keep a trophy. Minnesota is the best team we seem to have a shot at beating.
Projected Low Points: It's gonna suck when Bill Cubit loses to the guy that replaced him at Western Michigan. Losing to Northwestern always sucks, especially since Illinois will probably derp away a chance to win that game. But nothing will compare to how low it will get if we do indeed go 4-8 and Bill Cubit returns in 2017. A tougher pill to swallow is difficult to conceive, and yet I must bear in mind that it is a possibility. I never thought they'd extend Cubit, and yet they did, so what would stop them from doing it again?
Games I'll Go To: As I am a glutton for punishment, I'll attend at least one of these debacles. At this point, Purdue is looking good. I always like going to homecoming even though I can't stand those grey uniforms, so Minnesota's a possibility. I was going to go to Michigan until it became clear that we are going to be annihilated to the point of it not even being fun. We'll cross that bowl game bridge when we get to it.

Epilogue: Despair

Illinois still doesn't have an athletic director as of January 25, 2016. For the first time in over 40 years, basketball offers no salvation from the horrors of football season. Most tragically, this is the most broken a fanbase could be. I can't imagine how anyone but the players could get excited for Illinois Football 2016. I just want it to be over.

Revel in my misery while you can, OTE, because I don't know how much more of this I can take.