As everyone knows by now, the Fighting Illini fell to the Washington Huskies Saturday at Soldier Field by a count of 34-24. At this point, there’s no shame in that game as the Huskies are a team that appears to have the potential to finish no worse than 3rd in the PAC-12 North behind Oregon and Stanford. Hanging with a PAC-12 potential power is one thing, but the Illini clearly have some work to do during their bye week.
The Illini are getting the chance to regroup following Saturday’s loss sitting at 2-1 on the season with a strong chance of finishing the non-conference portion of their schedule 3-1 when they hook up with a weak Miami (OH) squad on September 28th at Memorial Stadium.
Without further ado, here are three things we learned in the loss to Washington.
1. The Illini Offense MUST cash in when they have the opportunity.
If Illinois wants to be successful in games such as these against teams that are ultra talented who choose to employ a hurry up offense, it is imperative to hang points on the board when they have the chance. The Huskies were getting plays off within a 12 second window on nearly every drive in the first 2 quarters, but they were also committing penalties and turning the ball over which gave Illinois a window to take an early 2 score lead.
On the first drive of the game Steve Hull dropped a sure touchdown pass at the 5 that would given the Illini an early 7-0 lead pending the extra point. The first quarter ended with Illinois once again on the march, but after play resumed in the 2nd quarter the Illini once again failed to register points when Taylor Zalewski missed a 41 yard field goal. If you’re keeping track at home, that’s a 10-0 lead that should have happened within roughly the first quarter plus of action.
Washington finally answered these missed opportunities with a TD drive of their own, but Illinois came right back on the next drive and had the ball on the Washington 22.
On 2nd down, Scheelhaase let a pass fly to the back of the end zone that was too tall for Steve Hull, but came in very catchable for Spencer Harris, who subsequently watched it carom off his fingertips and fall to the Soldier Field turf.
Had he hauled it in, Illinois would have had a 17-7 lead with 8:39 left to play in the 2nd quarter. I know, “woulda, shoulda”, but the facts are the facts. Instead, the Illini settle for a Zalewski 40 yard FG, and a 7-3 deficit.
After a little back and forth during the rest of the quarter that included yet another Washington fumble giving the Illini offense great field position, the Huskies finally tacked on a FG to round out the scoring in the first half, and the Illini hit the locker room down 10-3.
The point in reliving all of this is simple. If the offense made the plays they should have made, the complexion of this game takes a completely different tone.
A 17-10 lead at the half certainly looks much better than a 10-3 deficit. In games where the opposition is going to run a ton of plays in a short amount of time, and most likely score a lot of points as the defense wears down, it is crucial that the offense does their job when they have the chance.