By Paul Schmidt
No one expected the Illini to win, let’s be perfectly honest.
But, as 18.5-point underdogs, most expected the Illini to get run right out of Nippert Stadium by the number-5 ranked Cincinnati Bearcats.
And while the final score, 49-36, certainly indicates problems, there a couple of things that come out of the game that really reflected well on the Illini.
First of all, the offense finally looked potent, and did so against a team that still has national title hopes and dreams.
This isn’t a groundbreaking occurrence. The biggest knock against the Bearcats this season is that their defense isn’t exactly national-title-caliber. The flip side to that argument is obviously that when you do any one thing as well as the Bearcats do on offense, how good does the defense have to be?
That being said, Cincinnati still was only allowing 20 points per game — a tally the Illini blew by in scoring 36. Obviously the Illini production raises all sorts of questions about where this was all season, but for now, quite simply, revel in the production.
Juice Williams was inaccurate all game long, but still threw for 288 yards with a 60 percent completion percentage, plus 3 TDs. He also rushed for 67 more yards, and crossed the 10,000 yard mark for total offense in his career (becoming just the 6th player in Big Ten history to reach that mark).
Clearly it’s not a great Cincinnati defense, but the Illinois offense was good enough to keep them in the game.
The second thing is that the Illini never quit in a game that meant nothing to their season.
This is probably the more impressive thing, because after taking a 7-0 lead in the first quarter, the Bearcats ran off 28 unanswered points to take control of the game.
The Illini, however, were undaunted, and kept the game right around the two score mark for the rest of the game.
It bodes well for the team and for Ron Zook’s job that they were able to stay focused and invested in the result of the game. Zook’s problem this entire season has been with keeping the team focused and motivated — today, whatever he did and said to his team worked. I’m a firm believer in giving credit when credit is due.
And yes, it certainly is an issue that the Illini spent the whole season looking disinterested in football in general, and only now, now that they are eliminated from any Bowl contention, do the seem interested in playing for their pride and for the programs’.
But you have to take your victories as they come. At least the Illini looked like they cared.