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.
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.
You already know Big Ten Media Days took place Monday and Tuesday in Chicago, and that Illinois was part of the Tuesday grouping. Maybe you’ve read and seen enough of the columns and videos chronicling the event.
I watched the videos I recorded, to remind myself of the most interesting things I learned. For people who like to read about sports at work, and can’t get away with watching videos, here’s a summary.
LOVIE HAS YET TO RAISE HIS VOICE
Wes Lunt didn’t come right out and say it, but he doesn’t expect to hear Lovie Smith yell at anyone, ever. Yelling doesn’t seem like Lovie’s style, so that shouldn’t surprise anyone. We already knew the staff doesn’t employ four-letter words.
On Tuesday, a reporter tried to conjure a situation in which Lovie might lose his cool. Lunt couldn’t fathom such a situation.
ALMOST ALL THE COACHES CAN PRONOUNCE “DAWUANE SMOOT”
If there’s a surefire NFL draft pick on the roster, the experts think it’s Dawaune Smoot, who oesn’t mind when people mispronounce his name. It’s Dah-WAHN. “I don’t know why my father put an E on the end,” he mused.
To this point, Smoot says he’s learned the most from Mike Phair, which makes sense. Phair is his position coach, and a carryover from the Cubit administration. Phair, and every other assistant coach knows how to pronounce Smoot’s name. Love calls him Dwayne. Or maybe it’s Dwyane.
YEAR ONE EXPECTATIONS: THEY DON’T EXIST
In various phrasings, reporters asked Lovie about Y1 goals. He downplayed every time.
Lovie said Illinois has good players at every position, but not much depth. He said he hopes his team will b eat every team it should beat, based on roster quality and experience. If you choose to read between the lines, you might infer that he expects a final record equaling the low expectations of pre-season prognosticators.
He inferred, strongly, that recruiting is going MUCH better in the Chicago area than anyone seems to believe. He said he plans to sign 25 guys in the class of 2017.
PURPOSE OF DEFENSE: YOU’LL BE SHOCKED BY NUMBER 1
Couldn’t resist the clickbait phrasing, but there’s no arrow to click here. Lovie quizzed the media on the purpose of defense, the single goal.
One guy got it right: to score.
So it appears that active hands will be ripping at untucked balls in the coming years. Also, Lovie dislikes the recommendation that NCAA football rid itself of kick-offs, for safety reasons. He noted that Bears fans came to Soldier Field hoping to see Devin Hester return a punt for touchdown. “Fans like seeing Devin Hester run the ball back.”
TURMOIL IN IOWA CITY
Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta positioned himself against a sturdy table as the Hawkeye media pool surrounded him, ready to pounce. Barta’s revenue sports are doing okay, but he’s under scrutiny for firing of administrator Jane Meyer because she’s a lesbian. Monday saw a major development in the case.
Barta reassigned Meyer outside athletics in 2014, noting that her partner, former field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum, was planning to sue Barta over her firing. Griesbaum was fired for Tim Beckmanesque reasons. The athletic department was able to drum up a tale of player abuse.
In Beckman’s case, sufficient evidence allowed the DIA to invoke a termination-for-cause paragraph in Beckman’s contract. The DIA was delighted, naturally, because the underlying motivation for his firing was Beckman’s fecklessness & embarrassing stupidity. Griesbaum led her Hawkeye team for 14 seasons. Incompetence was not an issue in her case.
The funny thing about Barta’s moment with the media was the way it began. As you’ve seen from my videos of Athletic Availabilities, the cameras and microphones crowd around the interviewee, positioning themselves so microphones are near the correct mouth, and cameras point to the desired face. Then there’s a quiet, sometimes awkward period, when everyone wonders who’ll ask the first question.
The guy who spoke first in the Barta interview surveyed the cameras, noted that everyone was in place, and then said something like “okay, go ahead.” Barta responded “hi, how are you?”
I thought that was funny, and humanizing. But Barta’s seen enough of these situations to know that the guy was performing a service on behalf of everyone involved.
LOVIE HAS NO SLOGAN
Illini fans will be delighted to learn that catch-phrase wristbands will not be a part of Lovie’s program. Rather than relying on contrived clichés to motivate his players, Lovie plans to teach them how to play football. They might be tough, and they might be together, but they’re not developing any mantras about it.
When asked about a slogan for the team, Ke’Shawn Vaughn drew a blank.
Lovie figures that, since his hiring in March, he’s spent the majority of his nights in Champaign. Apart from some round-the-state meet-n-greets with boosters and fans, he’s been here. To fans who thought he might take the Blagojevich approach to downstate Illinois (Lovie and MaryAnne maintain a home in Chicago) that’s probably a relief.
Lovie didn’t know that September’s home game versus Western Michigan was originally scheduled for Kalamazoo. He’s glad the site was changed. Would a road game at a MAC team prepare the Illini for road games versus B1G foes? Lovie demurred. He’s glad to play at home.
He doesn’t see a reason to pull up roots for Camp Rantoul either, noting that Champaign’s facilities are world class, so why wouldn’t the team utilize them? The guy who does laundry, he mused, had to drive back to Champaign every night.
WES LUNT, PRO QB
Lovie didn’t flinch when asked about Lunt’s NFL potential. Neither did Lunt.
Lovie asked whether any media had attended the Kickoff Banquet earlier in the day. We all got free box lunches, across the street from the $100/plate affair. So … no.
Lovie told of a raffle in which the winner receives a football. Lovie intimated that ball was heaved to the winner from the dais, that Lunt was the guy who heaved it, and that the recipient sat toward the back of the banquet hall. Lovie suggested the Lunt hit his target in the hands, but not necessarily that the ball was caught. So the dropped pass problem continues for Lunt. But Lovie said that’s not Lunt’s fault.
Wes said he has an idea of his plans for the future, and where he’ll prepare for the NFL Draft. He didn’t give a stock answer like “I’m just thinking about this season.” There’s a refreshing lack of cliché to this team.
Lovie did say that a successful senior season will be the most significant factor in burnishing Lunt’s draft status. It’s hard to argue with that logic. Lunt agreed that his offensive line is the most important ingredient in that success, and added that nothing’s changed in the depth chart, where six (maybe seven) guys are competing for five spots. Lovie is high on (redshirt) sophomore guard Nick Allegretti, and referenced his heavyweight wrestling championship. (Allegretti finished third in state, so Lovie was probably referencing his Illini Classic title, five months later.)
Christian DiLauro and Austin Schmidt are regarded as solid, experienced tackles. At center, Joe Spencer started every game of the last two seasons. Lunt regards them as cemented in the starting spots.
The other guard is Gabe Megginson, arguably Illinois’ highest-rated recruit of the past five years. But along with him and Allegretti, Lunt said Zach Heath and Connor Brennan will be competing for the starting guard spots.
Lovie’s quiet confidence and no-nonsense demeanor is a 180° departure from Beckman’s continual Deer-in-Headlights routine. Where Mr. Lasagna always seemed as if he’d just been stunned by a fastball to the forehead, Lovie exudes the impression that he’s seen it all before, that nothing will surprise him.
It’s the last go-round for Smoot, Lunt, DiLauro, Spencer and Schmidt. Lovie seems unconcerned about getting them to a bowl game. But that’s completely different from saying that he won’t do everything he can to lead them there.
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