CHAMPAIGN — For some Illinois fans, the last few years of Illini football have been a journey through the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
But nothing hammered that home — with authority — quite like Saturday’s 42-3 loss to Michigan State, when the Illini went through the gauntlet of emotions late in a sequence of unfortunate mishaps late in the first half and early in the second half.
It was a sequence that encapsulated the combination of false hope, negative momentum and just plain bad luck that has plagued the snakebitten Illini.
It started with Michigan State facing 3rd-and-25 on the Illini 29-yard line with the clock ticking away the final seconds of the first half. The Spartans were ahead 7-3 driving into a stiff wind with no timeouts.
After two Illini sacks had put the Spartans in that position, Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook scrambled out of the pocket and heaved a desperation pass toward the end zone. Illinois cornerbacks Eaton Spence and Jaylen Dunlap both got their hands on the ball before Spartans receiver Bennie Fowler cradled it in the end zone with 9 seconds remaining to send a shuddering “Oh,” through Memorial Stadium.
Illinois coach Tim Beckman called a timeout, seemingly pleading for a review of the play that had nary a challengeable element to it — denial. Linebacker Mason Monheim, on the field for the improbable touchdown, committed a needless personal foul penalty on the extra point — anger. But the Illini, were only down 11 at the time and for the most part had played solid football. Surely, they could still win if only a few breaks would go their way — bargaining.
But the Spartans came out in the second half, converted three first downs on a 75-yard touchdown drive following the break, driving home that they were indeed the superior team — depression. And then the Spartans kept rolling with Illinois offense and defense both displaying a level of apathy matched by the 45,895 fans who began marching out halfway through the third quarter — reluctant acceptance.
After a first half filled with hope, the Spartans routed the Illini 28-0 in the second half. Cook finished with 3 touchdown passes and 208 yards while Jeremy Langford had an effective day on the ground with 104 yards.
Nathan Scheelhaase finished with only 103 yards passing while the Illini as a whole rushed for just 25 yards. There was nothing to celebrate and few, if any, positives to take away.