Prime time came to the University of Illinois campus Saturday night, but the Fighting Illini weren't quite ready to handle it.
Prime time came to the University of Illinois campus Saturday night, but the Fighting Illini weren't quite ready to handle it. Actually, they were ready for it to start. But they weren't prepared to finish. If ever the time were ripe for Illinois to beat Michigan - something the Illini haven't done on their home football turf since 1983 - this was it. The Illinois program is on the upswing, with more victories this season than it put in the books the previous two seasons combined. One more win, and the Illini are bowl eligible for the first time since 2001. And Michigan ain't your daddy's Michigan at the moment. The Wolverines ain't even your big brother's Michigan, though they have recovered admirably from being dumped by Appy State and Oregon to open the season. Even better for Illini fans, Michigan had to play Saturday night without running back Mike Hart, an automatic 100-yard man who injured an ankle last week. But things didn't work out, mostly because Illinois couldn't come up with big plays when it had to. Unless you count the big defensive boo-boos the Illini made that gave Michigan the second chances it needed to win this game, 27-17. In the first quarter, there was a pass-interference penalty by Dere Hicks on third down that kept a Michigan drive alive long enough to get on the scoreboard with a field goal at 1:21. In the second quarter, Joe Morgan was flagged for roughing Michigan punter Zoltan Mesko on fourth-and-27. The Wolverines turned that gaffe into their second touchdown, taking a 17-14 lead with 45 seconds left in the first half. And in the fourth quarter, after Illinois had tied the game at 17, well, things came unraveled. First, Vontae Davis got called for a facemask violation while throwing down Michigan receiver Greg Mathews on a third-and-15 play. Two plays later, Kevin Mitchell committed a personal foul that enabled Michigan to cross into Illini territory. And then, just when Illinois had finally forced the Wolverines to punt, Kyle Hudson called for a fair catch – and fumbled the ball on the Illini 16-yard line. Michigan used the reprieve to score a touchdown and suck the last bit of breeze out of the Illini sails. It was a tough end to an otherwise nice day. Saturday was one of those days for which football was invented. If we'd had anything approximating a frost this fall, we'd have called this Indian Summer - even without the dearly departed Chief Illiniwek prancing through the band at halftime. Absent a good chill yet, we'll simply pronounce it a heck of a nice day. The day ended warm and breezy, with the sun falling from a sky on which nary a wisp of cloud encroached. Then came the cool of the night, with Zuppke Field aglow beneath the blaze of stadium lights. Into this arena did 57,078 souls flock to be entertained - and to ascertain whether the Illini, last weekend's egg-hatching exercise in Iowa City aside, deserve to be taken seriously. Fifty-five thousand of them, not counting Michiganders and giving or taking a few odd hundred who didn't get the memo, were decked out in orange. They jammed themselves into Memorial Stadium, because that's the only way to do it on a football Saturday now. With half the west stands undergoing renovation, there's no elbow room in the rest of the joint. And when people get there, the talk is no longer about heading over to the Ubben to catch the basketball team in a pickup run with new recruits. The buzz isn't about spotting the next hopeful Illini hoop star in the crowd. And no more yawning! Regardless of the outcome, the days you could mosey-in and mosey-out of Illini football games are over. Don't get there late. You might miss Vontae Davis taking the opening kickoff 53 yards down the middle of the field. Or you risk not seeing Juice Williams' deft play-action fake to Rashard Mendenhall and 26-yard strike to Jacob Willis at the goal line. Those plays happened in Saturday, before the game was a minute old. Don't leave early, either. Until the final five minutes, this one had all the makings of a cardiac arrest. In the not-too-distant future, prime time will arrive on the U of I campus, and the Illini footballers will be ready to finish what they start. But not yet. Kirk Wessler is Peoria Journal Star executive sports editor/columnist. Write to him a 1 News Plaza, Peoria, IL 61643, call (309) 686-3216 or e-mail email@example.com.