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Endless Winter: Illinois Fighting Illini Football 2017 Season In Review

Entirely too many words on Illini football.

NCAA Football: Indiana at Illinois
we’ve all been there man
Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

It’s the most oppressive time of the year.

The Midwestern winter is not kind or hospitable, and to an extent it’s incompatible with human needs. Countless resources are expended by municipalities to fight the effects of winter by clearing and salting the roads, but little can be done about the constant grey malaise that lingers in the air. Once Daylight Savings Time is enacted, anyone with a typical work schedule no longer gets to see the sun on their own time. The foliage is dead and the birds are mostly silent. Although January always seems to be the worst for this effect, the days have actually been getting longer since December 22nd. However, it’s hard to keep this in mind when every day is another frigid grey slog, and it hardly seems to matter until it’s already been trending in the right direction for months.

Of course, the difference between Illinois Fighting Illini football and the seasonal weather is that the latter is guaranteed to stop being oppressively terrible.

In Year 2 of the Lovie Smith era, Illinois scored 15.4 points per game despite no shutouts and allowed 31.5 per game. They played more true freshmen than any program in the country and never found a quarterback that could move the ball effectively. The linebackers struggled to contain the rushing attacks of the Big Ten, the offensive line did poorly in both pass protection and run blocking, and mistakes were abundant. They defeated a hapless Ball State and a confused Western Kentucky before being exposed by South Florida and losing all nine conference games, never putting up more than 24 points in a contest. There’s really nothing more to say, but that’s never stopped me from writing much more than is necessary.

If the ongoing decline of large herbivores continues across the world, their extinction will create what scientists call “empty landscapes.” The entire ecosystem is affected, because without these animals, the largest predators have no prey, and the ripple effect continues until forests once teeming with life become deserted collections of trees whose only sound is the wind rustling the branches. I couldn’t help but think of extinction as I sat with the smallest October crowd ever recorded at Memorial Stadium watching in relative silence as Rutgers pounded the overmatched Illini for yard after yard after yard. After surrendering two early touchdowns, Illinois went to the air with Jeff George, Jr putting up over 300 yards in a performance just as admirable as the last-ditch effort to save the Northern White Rhino from extinction. It was also just as effective. Just as I can’t imagine herds of bison millions strong covering the landscape that’s now dotted with endless farms and the occasional Wal-Mart, the current students couldn’t envision a time when Memorial Stadium sold out for nearly 2 whole seasons in the wake of a Rose Bowl berth.

None of this is Lovie Smith’s fault. He’s a coach with a record of success that is truly giving a good-faith effort in Champaign. He put together a staff as best he could with the connections he had and has tried his best given the situation in which he was placed. It’s not his fault that he took over in March, missing a whole recruiting class, or that the roster Beckman and Cubit constructed lacked the athleticism to compete in the Big Ten AND graduated an inordinate amount of players in 2016. However, with the scenario he had to deal with, there was no margin for error and any mistake might spell disaster for his dreams of a thriving Illinois program under his guidance.

Many of my generation grew up sharing a general outline for life that we inherited from our parents. I suppose it’s not fair for me to speak for anyone else, since I know that my demographic is not 100% made up of average kids from middle-class suburbs. Those that can identify with that description, however, can also identify with the general guidelines: go to school, work a summer job to buy a car, go to college, work to pay for tuition, meet a spouse, have a beautiful wedding with all your extended family, start a career, save up for a year or so, buy a house, start a family, take good care of your lawn, buy a hedge trimmer to make sure your bushes are well-kept, learn to identify good craftsmanship with your kitchenware, plan out your Christmas lights so you don’t plug all the extension cords into the same outlet, don’t let your kids grow up to like Notre Dame.

With tons of advantages on my side, I embarked on this journey. I couldn’t find summer jobs every year and took an extra year to graduate due to a nervous breakdown, but I ended up finding a career. Now I’m nearly six years out of school...and still in significant debt. Sure, I was less responsible than I should have been while I was learning to live on my own, but I’ve been trying my hardest to do all the right things with my future and my math indicates that I will some day save up enough for a down payment.

However, that time seems so incredibly distant that the game barely feels worth playing sometimes. Thanks to the wonders of modern society, Facebook is always telling me when someone I know just got back from spending three weeks in southern Europe with their spouse and three kids, but they have to check on their lake house next weekend and make sure everything’s still working fine. Meanwhile, I’m out here trying to figure out how to make two consecutive weeks worth of food that’s good for me that I don’t hate. Of course, my situation could be much worse, and despite what anecdotal evidence suggests to me, I’m not alone in running hopelessly behind schedule, but sometimes it makes me want to just take my meager savings and buy a keg to drink while I loaf and watch football all weekend.

Illinois football is no escape from this, however. Despite last year’s freshmen displaying tangible upside and a second consecutive top-50 class coming in 2018, the offense is still a gigantic question mark. Lovie thought he was doing the best he could by hiring Garrick McGee initially, as the two had an existing relationship. After producing the 125th and 127th best offense in his two years, McGee was let go. Smith saw the results and did the prudent thing: the playcalling was poor and no game-changing quarterback had signed on. However, his initial miscalculation in hiring McGee may prove quite costly, as the quarterback depth chart doesn’t look any better and they’re starting over schematically while riding a 10-game losing streak.

Playing so many freshmen this year was also the right thing to do, as it was clear to the coaching staff that the future of this program has a much better chance to succeed than the optimized present. Nevertheless, this decision resulted in an offensive line with four freshmen playing like an offensive line with four freshmen; mistakes, missed assignments and poor execution. This was always going to be a long, hard struggle, as evidenced by the fact that I can’t yet give up on this regime despite the 5-19 record. They’re re-stocking the program with athletes, and once an offensive coordinator is hired, things will build through this year to culminate in a competitive program in 2019.

There is, of course, also the chance that it falls apart and leaves Illini fans miserable and disappointed yet again.

I had a unique experience this year. Two weeks after the Rutgers game, I returned to Champaign for Homecoming. Our opponent was the #5 Wisconsin Badgers. Back in the day, I could get friends to come to the games with me because it was a somewhat exciting and popular event. Understandably, things have changed. In the week leading up to this game, friends from college convinced me not to go to this game. I ended up spending the early afternoon at several breweries, keeping an eye on the dreary 24-10 contest I’d abandoned. I suddenly felt like a rube for going to the games when any of my friends were in Champaign, giving up over four hours of my weekend for no payoff whatsoever.

I learned an important lesson that day. One that any sufficiently experienced Illini fan should learn. Invest love into your family, and they will return it. Invest love into your friends, and they will repay you with the same. The same applies to your dog, and to a much much lesser extent it can apply to your career. Sports fandom?

Sports will never love you back.

Look at that, everyone thought Illinois would win a conference game. We all bought into the hype and drank that orange Kool-Aid. I mean, it had been five years since we went winless in conference play, you had to know we were due.

Just because things can’t get too much worse, doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to improve.