Vashoune Russell is a hunter. He loves cold weather.
He and his fancy camera were on hand for a morning football game that some people might want to forget. But let’s say you’re reading this page in 2024, have no idea who won, and merely want to know where Hardy Nackerson’s son Hardy Nickerson played college ball.
This page could misinform you on many levels.
You’ll also be looking for more info on 2021 Pro-Bowl QB Wes Lunt. And here it is.
Joe Spencer is a good guy, a person who cares. He works hard on behalf of himself and others. He’s a leader, the kind of guy you’d want to emulate, even if you’re twice his age.
On a beautiful autumn afternoon, in a great college town thronging with excitable undergrads & a Homecoming swarm of excitable overgrads; Joe Spencer might have had the day of his life.
Unfortunately for Joe, his current definition of happiness is determined by the final score of a sporting contest. Sun shining on fall foliage won’t do it. The smell of grilling bratwurst won’t do it. Ten-thousand co-eds in yoga pants won’t do it.
Joe didn’t walk around the Wisconsin campus just before the game, because he was busy getting ready for the game.
He didn’t see a happily inebriated posse of dudes on a balcony attempting to play catch with every passerby. He didn’t see the bearded passerby who played along despite not previously having touched a football, throwing like a girl, speaking English as a second language.
Joe didn’t get to see the American kid who came along to show the bearded kid how to throw a football, or the support post that hilariously blocked the American kid’s own toss. (Eventually, the drunks on the balcony did get their ball back.)
Joe didn’t walk down State Street. He joined none of the small, medium, large or GIGANTIC celebrations of On, Wisconsin! or Hooray For Our Side or even We Don’t Give a Shit About Sports But Oh My God Do We Like Beer gatherings which, no matter how hard they may have tried, failed to conceal themselves to anyone in their respective vicinities. Madison swarmed around a football game in a way which Champaign may have done in my lifetime. I wan’t old enough to see it.
It’s the third of those groups, the ones who didn’t necessarily care about football, that I especially admired. I’m not a nihilist in general, and I’m trying super-duper hard to not be a nihilist about Illini sports in particular, despite the temptation.
But when I see Joe Spencer crying after spending three and three-quarters years trying to make you happy; I’m reminded that sports is a great way to make great people feel like worthless people.
If you’re not invested in the outcome of a zero-sum game, you’re more likely to feel good about the time you spend on an unarguably wonderful afternoon.
Joe Spencer couldn’t control his tears. He apologized because he was unable to respond to post-game questions. He apologized.
I get it. Joe’s smart enough to recognize the business aspect of college football. He knows that responding to an incessant wave of boring questions feeds a media monster that, as far as you’ve been told, is crucial to keeping the general public interested in sportsing.
It’s not Joe’s fault that every single Badger is faster, taller and stronger than his Illini counterpart.* But because major college sports doesn’t award participation ribbons, Joe spent Saturday night contemplating a bleak future (no bowl).
To his great credit, Joe took a moment to compose himself, and then came back to satisfy his media obligations, unembarrassed to reveal his raw emotions to the outside world.
Like any number of student-athletes from days gone by, Joe will recognize, at some point, that his life is not over. He’ll probably even recognize that he’s young, smart, motivated, kind … even inspirational.
Vashoune Russell captured pictures of the game. This first one shows Justin Hardee charging toward the field, while Jeff George approaches the gridiron with a steely determination. Joe Spencer’s expression is less visible, and therefore less telling, but probably somewhere in-between.
*It’s Ron Guenther’s fault**
**Allowing Lou Tepper to fire Greg Landry was the death blow from which the program never recovered, despite blips in 2001 and 2007.
Yeah, Illini football got walloped by a basketball school. Let it pass. Saturday was magical.
A lot of the attendees had never before seen a full Memorial Stadium. They weren’t alive when Mike White and John Mackovic’s teams were forced to build temporary bleachers to accommodate 76,000+ fans.
No Illinois undergrad was alive the last time a packed Tailgreat (look it up) celebrated perfect weather buttressed by unfettered optimism for the program’s future. The 80s Belonged to the Illini (look it up).
You might even blame excitement for the team’s mistake-prone performance. They were just that hyped up. Thirteen penalties and six fumbles might, if we’re lucky, stand as all-time records for the Lovie Administration.
Scroll down a bit and you’ll find Vashoune Russell’s pictures from the evening. This one captures Center Joe Spencer’s once in a lifetime 9 yard rush. It would have been the play of the game except that Gabe Megginson severely twisted his ankle just as Spencer was scooping the ball from the turf.
But let’s stick to happy thoughts.
It wasn’t just a vibrant atmosphere among long-suffering tailgaters. The north end zone was packed with unofficial visitors, potential football recruits who’ve taken note of the NFL pedigree now running the Champaign show.
Garrick McGee continued to look like a 1940s leading man as he introduced priority target student-athletes to one-another. It’s the mustache, but it’s also the demeanor.
At the northeast corner of Zuppke Field, John Groce entertained FOUR Official Visitors and their families. Yes, three of these Visitors have already verballed to Illinois. But that doesn’t answer the question: Has any D-1 basketball program ever hosted FOUR Official Visitors on the same weekend?
Maybe this is the year John Groce turns things around. Even Jalen Coleman-Lands looked pumped as the team convened in the north end zone, and he’d had hand surgery just a day earlier.
So, yeah. Larry Fedora’s Flash In The Pan put a hurt on your orange for the second time in as many seasons.
Next year, he’ll be coaching somewhere else. UNC will be on probation. Lovie et al will have signed the most widely discussed recruiting class since Dwight Beverly (look it up).
T.J. Logan eludes Illini Chris James (Vashoune Russell)
The game is won or lost in the line. We know that. It’s what your Pop Warner coach taught you. It’s no less true today.
This year’s Illini team will go as far as its O-Line can carry it. How far is that?
Ke-‘Shawn Vaughn couldn’t find his way up the middle on Illinois’ first drive against Murray State. Starting Center and captain Joe Spencer was out with an injury, and guard Nick Allegretti moved into the position. True freshman Darta Lee filled Allegretti’s vacated RG spot. The majority of first drive snaps were running plays, but the big yards came on passes to Malik Turner in the flat. Vaughn’s biggest run on the drive, a ten yard gain, went outside of right tackle.
That Illinois waited ’til third down for Wes Lunt‘s first pass is thoroughly unremarkable among old school football fans. That Vaughn managed only 4 yards on the first two downs is remarkable. Murray State was 3-8 last year against a schedule that featured two total FBS teams (Northern Illinois, Western Michigan).
A moment later the Illini offense got another shot at moving the ball, when Racer QB KD Humphries threw the ball directly to Illini DB Taylor Barton.
This time, Illinois skipped the run altogether. Lunt found Turner again, firing his longest career pass, 40 yards in the air and 68 overall. The pass hit a sprinting Turner in the fingertips. Somehow, Malik reeled the ball in. He claimed afterward that he’s not especially fast, and isn’t equipped with especially long fingers.
The offense then waited on the sideline while Murray State waffled through a two-punt drive (owing to one of Dawuane Smoot’s three penalties) before Darius Mosely made a nice punt return (22 yards) which could have gone for six if he’d stepped left behind his blocker rather than right.
Illinois’ third drive yielded two first downs via one 13-yard Vaughn scamper, two short rushing gains and a third down pass conversion, but Illinois punted on its third series of downs.
The fourth drive was worse. An incomplete pass on first down, Vaughn gaining two on second, Lunt sacked on third. At this point, the O-Line wasn’t clearing room, and wasn’t protecting the passer. For what it’s worth, Jordan Fagan had taken over for Lee at RG.
More terrible Murray State offense (and a 22-yard punt) next handed Illinois the ball at the Racer 39. Vaughn immediately lost two yards. His next rush gained one. But his third rush of the series might have gone for 99 had he not started it at the Racer 2. On this occasion, the offensive line created a hole you could drive a (insert cliché here).
Whether Fagan was more effective than Lee (once he found his footing) will probably be determined by the time Illinois’ first team O trots out against North Carolina on Saturday. By the end of the second quarter, the line had cleared the way for two rushing touchdowns (Vaughn, Kendrick Foster), but both were run toward the left guard. Foster’s 56-yard scamper was the third play (and third down) of a drive that began with a 9-yard completion and an incomplete toss to Vaughn on 2nd-and-1.
Whether the Illini O-Line had figured things out by this point, or whether the Racers were bored with getting beat in the flat, and spread their resources toward the sidelines; it seemed clear that the passing game opened opportunities for the running game, rather than the other way around.
Lovie Smith, in his postgame remarks , rejected a theory that the O-Line needed some snaps to find a working chemistry. He observed the first unit comprised the same individuals that practiced together all week. Depending on your interpretation, this response could be comforting or alarming. But keep in mind, Lovie does not part with information or insight if he can avoid it. He’s not necessarily going to tell you what he really thinks.
Run-first failed. Take away Foster’s two 56-yard scampers, and Illinois achieved 175 yards on 38 carries. Its #1 tailback averaged 2.9/carry for 55 yards against an awful FCS team.
Will everything come together, now that Illinois’ first offensive unit has had a chance to work out the kinks against an unfamiliar opponent? Will Joe Spencer’s return solidify the line? We’ll probably know by 7:15 pm on Saturday. If Ke’Shawn Vaughn has fewer than 10 yards rushing by that time, you may be in for a long season.