"Paddack starting today. Because why would it be easy."
That's a text I sent at 9:05 a.m. Saturday after seeing the news that Luke Altmyer wouldn't dress against Indiana.
After Illinois beat Minnesota last week, the path to six wins and a bowl -- an accomplishment that's become paramount to our sustained success, in my eyes -- became clear, if not simple. Indiana and Northwestern are two of the few programs in the Big Ten that the Illini are, on paper at least, clearly better than, and both of them were coming to Champaign this month. That was the path.
And then Altmyer was ruled out, and my mind started to go to the places Illini fans' minds go -- of course this would happen to us. If we lost Saturday and finished 5-7 or 4-8, nobody would care that the team played the final month without its starting quarterback. All they would see was the record, and the fact that, sure, 2022 was fun, but this is the same old Illinois program.
John Paddock -- I misspelled his name in the text, perhaps with my baseball brain thinking of Chris Paddack -- had come in and led the team down the field against Minnesota, of course. There was reason to believe he could be passable in a spot start. I didn't want to extrapolate one miraculous drive over the course of 60 minutes, though. There was a reason Bret Bielema and company anointed Altmyer as the starter.
(As it turns out, extrapolating that performance against the Gophers would have been closer to the Indiana result than whatever "passable" outcome I was expecting. One thing is certain -- I'll never misspell his name again.)
Even as Paddock continued to lead scoring drive after scoring drive Saturday, I could never relax. The announcers kept talking about how the game was do-or-die for the Hoosiers' postseason hopes, but I knew that if we didn't win, our bowl hopes were on life support as well. I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop, for Paddock to throw a bad interception or make a decision that reminded everyone why he was the backup.
And he never did. Last week, Braedyn Locke threw for 243 yards in Wisconsin's loss to the Hoosiers. In their season opener against Ohio State, Kyle McCord had 239 passing yards. J.J. McCarthy, Taulia Tagovailoa, Drew Allar, Jack Plummer -- some of those guys had good days against the Indiana secondary, but none of them did what Paddock did Saturday.
He made it look, well, easy.
-There is, unfortunately, a reason Paddock needed every one of those 507 yards.
I don't really understand the defensive identity at this point. I know this isn't last year's defense and that there will be a natural step backward when you lose three early-round draft picks, but the answer is getting torched for 451 yards and 30 first downs by redshirt freshman Brendan Sorsby and an offense missing two of its top receivers?
It just seems hard to believe. I don't know what the answer is -- there are much smarter people in the Henry Dale & Betty Smith Football Performance Center tasked with figuring that out -- but Donaven McCulley being open on every play is a concern moving forward, to say the least.
-Reggie Love. My goodness.
-The offense covered up a lot of bad in this game, special teams included.
It ended up not mattering, but can you imagine if the game had hinged on Caleb Griffin missing that extra point in the first quarter? There's nothing to be done about that from a coaching standpoint, as with all-everything receiver Isaiah Williams muffing a punt, but the special teams unit would have been among the goats if Illinois had lost. Those two mistakes were an eight-point difference in the score, and although he clearly got some help from his blockers, that long Jaylin Lucas kickoff return was troubling as well.
On the bright side, it may not be long before the Illini get their first kickoff return touchdown since 2013. Kenari Wilcher has juice, and even if his return Saturday was called back due to a (kind of questionable?) holding call on Tip Reiman, it feels like it's just a matter of time before he breaks one.
-Speaking of juice, it was good to see Ashton Hollins impact the game. I've been critical of Casey Washington and, to an extent, Pat Bryant -- both of whom shut me up with their performances Saturday, including Washington getting his first career touchdown -- with the belief that Hollins and Wilcher and Malik Elzy could be the present as much as they are the future, and Hollins reeling in three catches for 46 yards was heartening to see.
-Way to catch it, Mac Resetich. You'll never have an easier one.
-Props to the fans.
From 2017 until last season, the average attendance at Memorial Stadium was below 40,000 people per game. With the eight-win season in 2022, that number jumped 22 percent to 43,048. It was the second-highest average attendance in the last decade.
With the way this season has gone, it would be understandable -- if unideal -- for attendance to dip again. And while the Northwestern game attendance is always low due to the holidays and the weather and the quality of play on the field, if the season ended today, Illinois would average over 50,000 fans per game for the first time since 2010. After Saturday, average attendance is 50,929 for the six home games played thus far.
That's awesome. Like I said, that number likely won't hold due to the historically sparse attendance for the late November battle over Lincoln's hat, but even if zero fans attend the finale, the 43,653 average attendance would be higher than last year's mark. There's a good chance this season's home attendance is the highest since the 2011 season.
Kudos to you guys.
-Even with the Indiana win under their belt to get to 5-5 on the season, it won't be easy -- there's that word again -- to get to six or even seven wins before December.
It's the way the final two games shape up that's interesting, too. In August, I'd have said winning at Kinnick Stadium would be one of the tallest orders for the Illini this season, and that beating a Pat Fitzgerald-less Northwestern in Champaign would be one of the, uh, shortest. Since then, though, Iowa has lost its starting quarterback and two of its best receiving options, rendering its offense virtually anemic. Northwestern, meanwhile, is playing competitive football and just went into Camp Randall and dispatched Wisconsin to get to 5-5 themselves.
I still think Northwestern is the easier matchup of the two -- as evidenced by Iowa opening -6 at Circa -- but I now give Illinois a chance to lose that game to a hungry Wildcats squad. More importantly, I also give Illinois a chance to take a two-game winning streak into Iowa City and keep their Big Ten West hopes alive with a win.
We'll see Saturday.