By Nathan Tucker
Football continued unabated in the pandemic this past week, well at least for those who could play it. Another week of college football where many of the nation’s best teams could not take the field, with some teams already cancelling games over the Thanksgiving weekend.
One team that made the most of their opportunity to play this weekend: the Illinois Fighting Illini, beating Nebraska 41-23 on the road. The 41 points is the most they’ve scored in a Big Ten victory in more than ten years.
The Illini were totally dominant. Brandon Peters reclaimed the starting QB job and showed why he’s Lovie Smith’s first choice to lead the Illinois offense. Peters was 18-25 for 205 yards and a touchdown, and did just about everything that was asked of him within the offensive scheme.
Illini tailback Mike Epstein exploded for nearly ten yards per carry on a Nebraska defense that struggled mightily to keep the Illini off the field. As a whole, the win against Nebraska might be the most convincing Big Ten victory in Lovie Smith’s tenure in Champaign.
The boys in blue and orange are hitting their stride right when they need to, before a matchup with the #3 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes, who solidified their place atop the Big Ten with a win in a thriller against an Indiana team that’s been turning heads all season.
QB Michael Penix Jr kept Indiana in the game down the stretch at the Horseshoe in Columbus. Ohio State’s defense answered the call in the final minute, however, stopping Penix and the Hoosier offense just short of what would have been a legendary victory.
No slouch himself, Ohio State QB and potential Heisman award candidate Justin Fields had 378 total yards on the day. He scored a TD on the ground and added two more through the air. Fields did throw three interceptions, a rare rough day for him in that respect.
That’s where Illinois will look to close the skill gap between these teams. Illinois is now one of the best teams in all of football at forcing turnovers, and ballhawking corner Will Hobbs will be hoping to latch onto an errant Justin Fields pass.
Despite that impressive offensive performance against Nebraska, it should be remembered that Nebraska is a much weaker team than they’ve been in past successful seasons, and that Ohio State is a different animal. The Illini will have to play the game they played against Nebraska, but even more efficiently to even stand a chance.
Hard to tell a team that totally dominated a week prior to tighten up their play to win, but the highest levels of the sport require finding that extra gear, that next level. As an Illinois fan writing this, I don’t think Illinois is quite there yet.
In the professional ranks, not a whole lot changed from last week. The undefeated Steelers had an off week before their big Turkey day game. Sure the schedule will say they in fact played a football game (that they won 27-3) against the Jacksonville Jaguars, but did anyone there actually try that hard? Probably not.
The Steelers “off week” comes before a Thanksgiving clash against the Baltimore Ravens, who are coming off a loss to the Titans in overtime on Sunday. Unsurprisingly, Derrick Henry being a workhorse yet again played the deciding factor, and the big back scored the game-winning touchdown in OT.
As of this Tuesday writing, that game is still planned to go on as scheduled, even with multiple Ravens testing positive for COVID-19.
A phenomenon that’s played out repeatedly in past weeks of the NFL season happened again this week, as the NFL yet again announced that no player tested positive on football Sunday, but players on multiple teams were revealed to have tested positive on Monday.
Fans are starting to wonder if the league is just conveniently shuffling test results around to make sure no more cancellations happen, and with good reason.
More COVID cancellations would put the league in a scheduling crunch over the next month or so. The incentive is there for the NFL to slightly fudge the numbers on when guys are, in fact, infected with a virus that has drastically changed most people in the world’s daily lives.
I still occasionally struggle to grasp that many stadiums around the country are still happily welcoming thousands of fans to football games right now amidst a global pandemic, but hey, never underestimate the greed of someone trying to sell tickets.
I wish this NFL weekend had some more surprises and fun but most games were about what you’d expect, no crazy upsets. The best game of the week, from a neutral fan’s perspective, had to be Thursday’s battle for the NFC west between Seattle and Arizona.
Seattle’s defense that has looked awful at times this year stepped up against Kyler Murray, holding him to a season-low 15 yards of rushing. With Murray’s run game neutralized, the Seahawks found it easier to crack the more one-dimensional Arizona attack.
Russell Wilson came back with a strong outing after a bad game against the Bills. He didn’t throw a pick or lose a fumble for the first time in over a month, back to when it looked like he was a lock for NFL MVP.
If Wilson finds that form again, and the Seahawks defense can force teams to play out of their comfort zones, the rest of the NFC should be on high alert.