Today is Halloween, the Day of the Dead and a time for spooky stories.
Gather around and let me tell you about something truly haunted: the Illinois Fighting Illini passing game.
It was a cold, dark January when Nathan Scheelhaase turned in for the night. He’d met his new coach Tim Beckman and was excited to lead a re-tool of an Illinois team that had lost its last 6 games of the regular season before winning the Kraft Fight Hunger bowl, and he hoped for more offensive direction than he’d gotten before. A ghostly voice that sounded like it was mailing it in repeated in his head throughout the night: “Stare down AJ Jenkins and if he’s not open tuck it and run.”
“Damn you, Petrino!” said Nathan as he sat bolt upright in his bed. No matter, he thought, there would be a new coordinator and Illinois can move on.
What he didn’t know was that Matt Campbell, haunted partially by Beckman’s oafishness but mostly by the ghost of a bulldozer buried beneath Memorial Stadium, refused to set foot in Champaign. Thus, Beckman would look to the spirits to advise him...and what they provided was passing game coordinator Billy Gonzalez.
The words sent a bizarre sensation down Nathan’s spine. It felt like a chill, but moved faster than a bolt of lightning. “Passing game coordinator?” said Nathan to nobody in particular. “Does...does our coach truly intend for him to call the plays on 3rd down like he says?”
Arizona State 45, Illinois 10.
Injured and tormented throughout the season, Scheelhaase felt relief when coaches Beatty and Gonzalez were fired for a cohesive offensive staff led by former Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit. A friendly, unassuming older man, he had a humble demeanor and a quick-read passing offense designed to confuse defenses with a myriad of different packages. The offense surged, and the Illini were in line for a bowl game if not for two otherworldly occurrences.
Near halftime of the Penn State game, the Illini had driven inside the PSU 5 yard line. With the clock running, Nate scrambled to the line to call a play. But words would not come. No matter how he tried, he could not produce a sound. The clock ran down as sweat poured down the back of his neck. Finally, he simply executed the play as called and it fell short of the end zone with no time left. Haunted by something he could not define, the senior signal caller has simply failed to adjust the play. But it would get more bizarre in the finale against Northwestern. Driving with the lead, Nate rolled to his right and threw the ball away, out of bounds...only to see a gray bulldozer drive onto the field and deflect the ball into the arms of a Wildcat linebacker.
“Did anyone see that?!?!” asked Nate, incredulously.
“...You missed the sideline and threw it to a linebacker,” said backup Reilly O’Toole.
“...Yeah. All I saw was the ball leave your hand and travel to him,” said redshirting quarterback Wes Lunt.
“But...but the bulldozer!” cried Nate, delirious.
“Hey, don’t feel bad! If you add a touchdown to our score, we’re in the lead!” said Coach Beckman, missing the point.
Nathan Scheelhaase would graduate with the wish that Bill Cubit would continue to push the program...and he would get his wish in due time. Scheelhaase had not been the quarterback Cubit needed. Too mobile. Not in his image. Cubit’s plan was not to run the most effective offense; he just needed Beckman to think this was the plan. What he required was to populate the depth chart with a collection of undersized MAC-type quarterbacks that didn’t have great physical skills but could work through a progression quickly. If this could be done, he could achieve his master plan: to summon his mentor, the dreaded Ted Furlong, to lead a generation of MAC coaches that would bulldoze the Big Ten once and for all!
To this end, prize recruit Aaron Bailey was kept in the doghouse and recruiting was re-oriented around this type of quarterback. Beckman, oblivious to literally everything, continued onward and Lunt became the starting quarterback. Purdue came to town and Lunt dropped back to pass only to spot a gray bulldozer rushing towards him from the sideline. Even more frozen than usual, he helplessly fell to the turf with a broken leg. When he spoke with the team doctors and Lunt himself, Beckman said “I don’t believe it.”
“Neither do I,” said the head of the medical staff, “but he’s clearly a little shaken up beyond the broken leg, so maybe he thinks he saw something.”
“Oh no, the bulldozer part I believe,” replied an indignant Beckman, “but I’ve been in football long enough to know that legs don’t break. The will to play, maybe, but not a leg. Wes, I’m very disappointed in you.”
A bright spot for the passing game appeared in the form of freshman Mike Dudek in 2014. The spirits took notice and he missed the next two seasons with ACL tears. Cubit had a real argument for benching Lunt in favor of Chayce Crouch, the prototypical quarterback needed to run his system; however, there were not enough Bill Cubit quarterbacks to perform the summoning yet. Beckman’s stupidity finally got him removed, giving Cubit the reins to the program. Bailey was free to transfer, and several more Cubit quarterbacks joined the fold.
The interim administration that hired Cubit could not have known about his evil plan, but Josh Whitman did and replaced him with Lovie Smith. “Curse you, Josh Whitman! You’ll fall to the MAC once more, and I’ll haunt your passing game forever!” screamed Cubit as he was led out by security.
Jimmy Fitzgerald and Eli Peters deduced that they were being used as part of Cubit’s scheme and left Illinois, but Crouch was urged by Lovie to stay. Not a superstitious man, Lovie figured Crouch would be the starter for 2017 by virtue of his experience. However, the spirits continued to grow restless. Cubit’s promise was fulfilled as Western Michigan annihilated the Illini in a game too horrifying for this story, and by the end of October, quarterbacks Lunt and Crouch, along with receivers Dudek, Malik Turner, Desmond Cain and Justin Hardee, were all injured. Former walk-on Jeff George, Jr. became the starting quarterback as he was the last man left on the depth chart.
“Hello?” said George, as the field grew dark and endless. “Is anybody there? Is there any pass protection? Blue 80, Blue 80 set HUT!”
But there was no pass protection. Only a ravenous pass rush. He ran right and threw off his back foot, desperate to get the ball away. However, seconds later, it returned to him as the defender who intercepted it trucked him on his way to the end zone.
September 2nd, 2017. The woeful Ball State Cardinals come to town. Eager to prove he doesn’t believe in ghosts, Garrick McGee dials up the pass and Crouch hits Dudek for an early touchdown. “See?” said Smith. “Told you our passing game wasn’t haunted.”
That would be the last touchdown pass of Crouch’s career to date, as he played so poorly he was switched to tight end, never again to quarterback.
The Illini pulled out a win to break one of Cubit’s curses and defeat a MAC team once again, but with Jeff George and extremely raw freshman Cam Thomas as their only remaining quarterbacks, the passing game continued to suffer. By October, McGee no longer shared Smith’s belief that restless spirits of bulldozers and coaches had no influence on the program, as voices yelled over each other in his head during the Minnesota game telling him which quarterback to use on which play. As Thomas was picked off on a fourth quarter drive, McGee could hear only ghostly laughs through his headset, but when he looked around at the staff and up to the press box, nobody was speaking.
Paranoia gripped the team and Smith tried to stabilize them. “Everyone relax, now look, we’re making mistakes because we’re young and still learning. I’ll give you all the room you need to grow as long as I still feel you can help us win the game. But we’re still the same team we were in camp, we still have the same approach and we still wear orange and blue.”
But when they went to their locker rooms, their uniforms were gray.
McGee continued to be tormented by voices, and the haunting culminated in the most horrifying thing I had ever seen: