By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) What a difference a week makes.
Seven days ago in this space I was lamenting the lackluster quality of the Fighting Illini’s 42-34 Week 1 football victory over Southern Illinois – and worrying about what it portended for rest of the season.
Today, however, I’m still somewhat in awe about the Illini’s lustrous 45-17 Week 2 football victory over Cincinnati – and wondering about what it portends for the rest of the season.
What a difference an offensive coordinator makes, too.
With the Illini an unexpected 2-0 and Tim Beckman, Bill Cubit & Co. actually feeling buoyed for once, rather than buried, here are a few thoughts on the team as they prepare to face Washington at Soldier Field this Saturday.
Shock to the system
To call Saturday’s rout of the Bearcats a stunner would be an understatement of, well, stunning proportions.
Illinois staggered into the game after pulling an escape-artist act against the Salukis. Cincinnati rolled in after romping over Big Ten member Purdue by five touchdowns. And then the Illini completely flipped the script.
Trying to put the victory in perspective over the weekend, I decided that it may have been the program’s most out-of-the-blue win since the Illini shocked No. 9 Michigan 35-29 in Ann Arbor nearly 14 years ago on Oct. 23, 1999. Illinois’ upset of No. 1 Ohio State in 2007 was also highly unexpected, but we at least knew that Illini team – which had already beaten No. 5 Wisconsin and No. 21 Penn State – was dangerous.
Back in 1999, I was working as a sports writer for the Ottawa (Ill.) Daily Times and covered the Illinois-Michigan game at the Big House. At the time, Ron Turner’s 3-3 Illini were caught up in an ugly three-game losing streak that included a 27-10 loss at home vs. Michigan State, a 34-31 overtime loss at Indiana and just the week before a 37-7 shellacking at home against Minnesota.
Midway through his third season, Turner’s record at Illinois was a meager 6-23, and I recall talking with Champaign News-Gazette football beat writer Bob Asmussen before the game in Ann Arbor about how Turner’s Illini career might not last much longer if things didn’t turn around quickly.
No one expected that to happen against a Wolverines team favored by 24½ points. But after Illinois fell behind 27-7 midway through the third quarter, things did turn around – quickly – as Rocky Harvey and Kurt Kittner rallied the Illini for the jaw-dropping win.
Illinois lost 27-7 the following week to No. 2 Penn State, but proceeded to rattle off commanding victories against Iowa, Ohio State and Northwestern to finish the regular season before crushing Virginia 63-21 in the MicronPC.com Bowl to cap a fantastic – and fantastically unexpected – 8-4 season.
Can something similar happen this year? Well …
A Husky test
The Cincinnati victory was a blast, without a doubt. But one still has to wonder if it wasn’t also something of a mirage. After all, the Bearcats entered the game hot off its 42-7 annihilation of Purdue and getting votes in the national polls. They looked like a good team.
But after seeing what Illinois did to Cincy and also how Purdue barely beat an Indiana State team (20-14 final) that had been destroyed 73-35 by Indiana (which then lost 41-25 to Navy), well, who really knows what’s going on.
Illinois very well may be far better than expected. But it’s also entirely possible that Cincinnati is really bad and that Purdue is unimaginably worse.
What should be a true litmus test for Illinois will come this Saturday when the Illini travel to Chicago to face the No. 19 Washington Huskies at Soldier Field. In their 2013 season opener two weeks ago, Washington stomped perennial power Boise State 38-6 eight months after finishing the 2012 season with a 28-26 loss to the same Broncos in the MAACO Bowl.
The Huskies return 17 starters from that 7-6 squad. Boasting that big win over Boise State, its national ranking and an extra week to prepare for the Soldier Field game, Washington presents more than just an opponent for the Illini.
They offer a yardstick too.
It’ll be very interesting to see exactly how well the Illini measure up.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.