Commentary

Squandered chances

State's 3 FBS schools can't convert golden opportunities

Originally Published: September 28, 2009
By Scott Powers | ESPNChicago.com

Within a few hours of each other on Saturday, Illinois, Northwestern and Northern Illinois all took the field in what had the makings of a promising afternoon for the state's Football Bowl Subdivision teams.

For the Illini, there was question whether they were going to win at Ohio State even on their best day, but Saturday was an opportunity to see progress. Illinois had looked shaky in its first two games, and a positive performance anywhere on the field against an elite team like the Buckeyes would give hope for the rest of the year.

For Northwestern, Saturday's game was about bouncing back from a narrow loss to a Syracuse team it probably should have beaten, but also showing it was going to be a threat in the Big Ten again this season. If the Wildcats want to be a contender in the conference, they need to win at home against above-average teams like Minnesota.

For Northern Illinois, Saturday's game presented an opportunity to put together another quality win and to start to develop a bowl résumé. The Huskies barely lost at Wisconsin and knocked off Purdue on the road. If they beat a solid Idaho team that hung around with Washington, people would begin to notice.

Heading into the weekend, there was optimism that all three teams could achieve what they needed. But within a few hours on Saturday, all that optimism evaporated.

On national television, Ohio State crushed the Illini 30-0 and dominated them in every possible way. Illinois' offense was nonexistent. Juice Williams' passes were regularly off the mark. The protection continually collapsed. Running backs found no holes. Star wide receiver Arrelious Benn caught one pass for 8 yards. On the other side of the ball, early on the defense looked sharper than it had against Missouri and held Ohio State to just 13 first-half points, but ultimately the Buckeyes wore it down and rushed for first down after first down.

Northwestern's loss took longer to develop. Just as it happened to the Wildcats the week before against Syracuse, they lost Saturday's game to Minnesota due to fourth quarter play. Syracuse came back from a 34-27 deficit and scored 10 points in the final seven minutes for the win. And on Saturday, Minnesota rallied from a 24-21 deficit and scored 14 points in the final nine minutes for the win.

Finally for Northern Illinois, it was another heartbreaker. As the Huskies had against Wisconsin, they fell too far behind with Idaho. Northern Illinois fought back after being down 34-16, but still lost 34-31.

With all three defeats, it now puts the trio in a tougher spot moving forward.

Illinois' season is hanging by a thread. The Illini have nine games remaining with the final one being in December, but all that might mean is they will have a longer period of suffering. Ahead for Illinois are No. 15 Penn State and Michigan State, two probable losses. It also still has to play on the road at No. 10 Cincinnati, Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue. While Indiana, Purdue and Minnesota are beatable, it'll be much harder to do at their places. The other remaining home games include No. 22 Michigan, Northwestern and Fresno State. Unless the Illini turn things around quickly on both sides of the ball, the season could end up worse than last year's 5-7 record.

Northwestern is in slightly better shape with two wins already, a winless Miami of Ohio coming up and home games against Indiana and Wisconsin. Still, if the Wildcats want to finish within the top five teams in the Big Ten again, they'll need to knock off Michigan State, Iowa or Penn State. Northwestern's defense needs to step up, especially late in games, for that to happen.

Northern Illinois has the one schedule that gets easier from here on out. That said, the Huskies aren't the clear favorite to win the Mid-American Conference. Western Michigan and Central Michigan are right there as well, and one or two of them could be bound for a bowl. The key for Northern Illinois is becoming more consistent throughout a game. Either it has been great early or great late in its four games.

For all three teams, it was an opportunity squandered. They each had a chance to move forward and didn't. There were certainly plenty of negatives to take from the three losses, but the main positive is that none of their seasons are over.

"There's a lot of football left to play," Williams said on Monday. "That's what we're looking forward to."

There are at least a couple of more meaningful Saturdays ahead for all three. Whether there are more than that is up to them.

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at spowers@espnchicago.com.

Scott Powers is a general reporter for ESPNChicago.com. He is an award-winning journalist and has been reporting on preps, colleges and pros for publications throughout the Midwest since 1997.