Nov. 20, 2010
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By Skip Myslenski
NUsports.com Special Contributor
This one was by Edgar Allen Poe out of Arthur Conan Doyle with a side trip down the darkest alleys of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone. This one defied logic, spit in the eye of sanity, laughed at the mere mention of normalcy or rationality or any hint of the expected. This one, quite simply, was nuts.
That, of course, was only appropriate considering the Wrigley Field setting and the one-way traffic and the darkness that crept in late Saturday afternoon as the 'Cats and Illinois waged their War of the Weird. The Illini, by its first quarter's end, had already run up 224 rushing yards. Those were 17 more than their per-game average.
But midway through that first quarter and up 14, their offensive coordinator Paul Petrino looked to prove he was the smartest man in the stadium and called for a bit of unneeded-and-unnecessary trickeration. This pass by wide receiver Eddie McGee, who is also their backup quarterback, was superbly delivered to 'Cat safety Brian Peters, who returned it 59 yards for a touchdown.
That pulled his team off life support, but then, on Illinois' very first play after the kickoff, its running back Mikel Leshoure popped one 70 yards down to the 'Cat three. Three plays later it was back up 14 and there it stayed until 1:12 remained in the quarter. But now 'Cat running back Mike Trumpy, offered a gaping hole thanks to a seal block by center Ben Burkett, outdid Leshoure and raced 80 yards for a touchdown. His previous long run this season, which was also the longest for any of his team's running backs, was 19 yards.
Those were the kind of unusual sightings made at this improbable event and, by the time it closed in Illinois' 21-point win, it had produced snapshots so strange they could have come from a photo album of the Addam's Family. There was Leshoure finishing with runs of 30, 32, 39, 62 and 70 yards and ending his day with a school-record 330 on 33 carries. "I thought he ran well and we tackled very poorly," 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald would later say. "We had guys in position to make plays and we just didn't tackle him. That epidemic popped up a couple weeks ago (at Penn State) for some reason and we had a tough time again tonight. So we have to make up our mind on what kind of defense we want to be."
"The offensive line did a great job. The receivers did a great job blocking down the field," offered Illini coach Ron Zook. "But Mikel has got a lot of God-given ability and he used it today."
Did he know how many yards Leshoure actually gained? 'Cat defensive end Vince Brown was later asked.
"Three-hundred-and-thirty," he was told.
"Certainly that's embarrassing," he said softly.
"I think guys were trying to do more than they should, especially after we got down. Instead of doing what we were taught, we were trying to do too much."
There were the Illini winning even though their quarterback, Nathan Scheelhaase, completed just six passes (in 13 attempts) for a paltry 40 yards. There was 'Cat quarterback Evan Watkins, starting in place of the injured Dan Persa, doing little better while completing 10 passes (in 20 attempts) for 135 yards. "Well, I think it's too early to make an assessment on his performance," Fitzgerald said of him. "But. . .I think there's going to be some things he'd like to have back. Unfortunately, in football, that's not going to happen. He'll be better next week. He'll be better a couple months from now. I'm proud of the way he prepared. I'll look at the tape and have a better response on Monday."
"You definitely have to give credit to Illinois. They out-executed us," Watkins himself would say. "But there were a lot of plays out there I wish I had back."
And what did he learn in this initial start of his college career?
"It was the first time I actually experienced seeing things in front of me at that speed, at this level," he said. "Understanding the timing of the routes, that's the thing we'll work on this week."
There were the Illini running off 84 offensive plays. That total was 17.6 more than their per-game season average. There were the 'Cats running off just 48 offensive plays. This total was a whopping 27.4 fewer than their per-game season average. There were the Illini controlling the ball for 41 minutes and 16 seconds. That was nine minutes and 46 seconds longer than their per-game season average. There were the 'Cats controlling the ball for just 18 minutes and 44 seconds. This was 12 minutes and 37 seconds less than their per-game season average.
There was Watkins fumbling the ball away on the third play of the 'Cats first possession. There was running back Adonis Smith fumbling the ball away on the sixth play of their second possession. There was Watkins throwing an interception on the third play of their third possession. There was the Trumpy run on their fourth possession and that, along with the Peters' interception, is why they ended the first quarter down only seven despite those offensive woes.
There were those woes in black type at this game's end. The 'Cats had 12 first downs. This was 11.2 below their season average. The 'Cats had 135 passing yards. This was 130.3 below their season average. The 'Cats had 318 yards of total offense. This was 92.7 below their season average. There were, despite all of that and most improbably, the 'Cats tied with the Illini at 24 late in the second quarter and down by only three when halftime finally arrived.
But, Fitzgerald would later say, "We just couldn't get anything going in the second half. We made some adjustments and called some plays we thought would be successful and we didn't execute them. Then, defensively, we had some chances to get off the field and we didn't do that. That's a recipe for disaster."
The 'Cats certainly didn't make plays on their first possession of the second half. They instead went three-and-out. Nor did the 'Cats make stops on the first Illinois possession. The Illini instead drove 61 yards in 14 plays and ate up 6:45 on the way to the touchdown that put them up 10. There would now be no answers for the 'Cats and that number grew to 17 early in the fourth quarter and then, after a Stefan Demos field goal, to the final 21 when Illinois tacked on a meaningless score with 36 seconds remaining.
"The atmosphere was incredible. It looked like it would be fun as a fan," Fitzgerald would finally say when asked about his Wrigley experience. "Not a great outcome as a Wildcat fan. But we thought it would be a Chicagoland bowl game and that's kind of what it looked like. Unfortunately, we ended up on the short end of it."
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