Evaluating Fighting Illini football with Robert (ALionEye)

Loyalty is a concept that is essential in sports fandom. And Robert Rosenthal has been nothing but loyal to the Illinois football program. Growing up, Robert’s father was a fan of the Illini. So naturally, he became one, too. At seven years old, his father spoke of the epic Braggin’ Rights game between Illinois and Missouri in 1980. It would not be long after, that he decided he was going “all in” on the Fighting Illini. After Illinois made the Rose Bowl in 1983, there was no going back. “That run to the Roses, followed by a basketball trip to the Sweet 16 in the spring of 1984, hooked me for life.”

Robert is also an alum of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, attending the university from 1991-1996. After graduation, Robert worked part-time at the News-Gazette in the sports department. He always had the passion for sports writing, but he did not pursue it until 2009. He started his first blog, A Lion Eye, which lasted about four years. Finally, he joined IlliniBoard in 2013 and has been contributing there ever since.

Robert has always been associated with loving football. And there is also a perceived notion that he does not care about basketball. This is a result of his Twitter account bio. He explained the reasoning behind this and why he has never felt like changing it since.

“When I started the blog in 2009, I added a matching Twitter handle (@alioneye). When filling out the Twitter form, it asked for a bio. I just wrote, ‘One of the 17 Illini fans who cares more about football than basketball.’ Because of that, everyone thinks I hate basketball. Eleven years later, I’m so happy that I chose that for my Twitter bio because it has remained true. I still don’t see it as that I’m focused on Illinois football as opposed to Illinois basketball. But that remains the way people see me. 

I still hold onto that portion of my bio. I think it’s because of my football obsession that people don’t think I am a basketball guy. It’s very normal for fans across the country to still be focused on football while, in November, basketball games are starting. But not at Illinois. Every year I hear, who cares about football starting, write about basketball, in November. I don’t see it as abnormal. August, September, October, and November are for football. December is a mixed bag if you’re in a bowl. And January, February, and March are for basketball. 

Fond Memories

Like any sports fan, Robert has made many memories through sports, and he shared his favorite memory from all his years of supporting Illinois football. Robert spoke about the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in 2011. This bowl game played host to the Fighting Illini and the UCLA Bruins. For many, that game marked the end of a strong era of Illinois football under head coach Ron Zook. But his favorite memory has since changed after this past season saying, “The answer now is going to the Michigan State game in November of 2019.”

“I’m there with seven guys. We’re sitting taking abuse and ‘bye bye Illini’ waves when we’re down 28-3. And with Jake Hansen injured, Milo Eifler ejected, plus Sydney Brown and Stanley Green on the sideline in the second quarter, you’re looking at the defense and thinking, ‘There’s no way we win one of these final three games. We’re going to get right to the edge of a bowl again and watch it slip away.’

Then, the comeback happened. And then, the team ran over to celebrate with our little grouping of fans in the corner. I submit there is no greater fan moment than the team coming over to the away corner to celebrate with the fans. Especially, a team and fans of a team that just clinched a bowl after five long years of waiting.”

Evaluating the 2019 Season

Overall, the majority of Illini fans believe last year was the first successful football season in a long time. In fact, it was the program’s first 6-win season since 2014. It felt even more successful because early on, very few fans believed this team could find six wins on their schedule. Robert had updated his bio with the statement, “October 12, 2019 is the day.” This of course was the date that Illinois would play Michigan in Champaign. Robert explained the meaning of the statement.

“I knew that with the mess left behind, Lovie’s task would be difficult. So in March of 2016 I added ‘October 12, 2019’ to my Twitter bio. And then the game arrived… and we lost 42-25. I picked that game simply because Lovie’s first recruiting class would be reaching their junior years, and at that point, he should have enough to make a big push forward. And then 2020 would be the season where he has his first full team and we’re fully back on the map. 

It didn’t really work out that way, both on the ‘October 12, 2019 is the day’ side, and the ‘Lovie’s name will recruit Chicago on its own’ side. The recruiting I expected just hasn’t been there. But, the slow rebuild began to show a payoff the next week against Wisconsin. That win, which started the four-game winning streak, showed that 2020 could still be a launching point.” 

As mentioned, Illinois finally reached a bowl game. This was a great achievement for a program that had been struggling. However, the end of the season was anticlimactic in a sense. After building all their momentum, the Illini fell in their final two games of the season to Northwestern and California, respectively. And it ultimately resulted in another losing season for the Illini football program. This has left many Illini fans questioning whether last season was actually successful.

When grading last season’s performance from Illinois, Robert takes a holistic approach. This is recommended even for the most optimistic Illini fans. There were plenty of disappointments that would have made last year that much more successful. Robert offered his thoughts on this.

“The disappointments are obviously losing to at home to Eastern Michigan and Northwestern. This could have been a big year. An (8-4) year, but those two losses made it just one more (6-6) season. Lovie found a way to balance out on the other side of the ledger by beating Wisconsin and Michigan State. So a bowl was still achieved, but it’s hard to not look back and think about (8-4). 

Michigan State Spartans safety David Dowell (6) reacts as Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters (18) celebrates the winning touchdown with 5 seconds left Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019 at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing. Illinois won, 37-34.
(Photo: Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press)

How would I grade the season? My first thought is the Iowa game. I went to a local Illini club watch party for that game and I remember driving home thinking, ‘We’re where we needed to be.’ A year later after losing 63-0, we stood toe-to-toe, on the road, with Iowa. And that was at the tail end of a four-game winning streak. All we’ve wanted is a competitive program. Driving home after that game, you couldn’t help but feel that we were there.

That then took two hits. Hand Northwestern their first Big Ten win the next week, and then the bowl loss to Cal. But when I think about this season, the Iowa game is what sticks out. We’ve gotten to the where we’re competitive in every Big Ten game. Now, take the next step.” 

Who Performed the Best Last Season?

In a season of a lot more ups than downs, individual performances stood out. Brandon Peters’ extraordinary completion to Josh Imatorbhebhe on 4th and forever, en-route to completing their comeback against Michigan State, is one play that comes to mind. Robert addressed his favorite plays and gave out his MVPs of the season on both sides of the ball.

“On offense, easily Dre Brown. That’s how college football works. Some guy in his fifth year after four knee surgeries has a massive senior season and helps lead you to a bowl. There were two plays of the season. Dre Brown’s run against Wisconsin to set up the McCourt field goal and Josh Imatorbhebhe’s fourth down catch at Michigan State.

Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters (18) hands the ball off to running back Dre Brown (25) during a game against the Wisconsin Badgers at Memorial Stadium.
(Patrick Gorski/USA Today Sports)

On defense, I’d say Dele Harding. Again, a senior who finally has a ‘click’ moment. He was the key to everything on defense. That’s how it worked for Wisconsin or Iowa the last 20 years. Every year, seniors having their best year their last year and then handing it off to the next guy. 

So who might those seniors be next season? On defense, I say it’s Jake Hansen. He was a Butkus Award semifinalist as a junior which meant that he was seen as one of the Top 12 linebackers in college. Now it’s time for him to make the list of finalists in 2020. On offense, I’m going with Brandon Peters. His 4th down dive trying to get a first down in the bowl game still sticks with me. He was really solid in November, right up until the Iowa defender knocked him out of the Northwestern game, and then he was rusty but solid in the bowl game. My hope is that his November performance launches him into to 2020 stardom.” 

Final Thoughts

Over the years, Robert has developed into a trusted source for anything and everything related to the Illinois football program. He had a chance to attend the spring practices and see progress being made first hand. At the core, Robert is just a fan, like so many others. But he is always objective in evaluating the program as a whole. After eons of loyalty to a program, that is hard to do. Looking ahead to next season, the pieces are there for the Fighting Illini to build upon the success they had last season. Whether the program is able to take that next step remains to be seen.

In the future, look out for a second edition of Evaluating Illinois football with Robert (ALionEye), in which we discuss Illinois’ football classes in recruiting, preview the 2020 Illinois football season, and more.

For more on Illinois Basketball or Football, follow me on Twitter @asethi03.