Illinois Basketball vs Georgetown: Keys to the Game

Tonight the Illinois Fighting Illini will take to the Lou Henson Court at the State Farm Center in Champaign for their second game of the regular season.

The Illini started off the season in front of a decent crowd, taking down Evansville (IN) in big fashion, by a score of 99-60. The Illini put on one of their best offensive showings under Brad Underwood, led by highly touted freshman, and former 5-star recruit,  Ayo Dosumnu who filled the stats sheet with 18 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists in 24 minutes on the court.

One of only two seniors on the team, Aaron Jordan, contributed to the cause with 19 points of his own, making 7 of his 12 shots. Junior JUCO Transfer Andres Feliz, along with sophomore Trent Frazier, also grabbed big numbers for the Illini, with 16 points and 10 points, respectively. Frazier assisted on seven Illinois scores, with Feliz assisting on three himself, along with grabbing three rebounds.

Freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili was the leading rebounder for Illinois, with 10 rebounds in his debut game in the orange and blue.

Evansville is a good team when you let them catch-and-shoot, and they showed that against the Illini, but Brad Underwood’s defense did enough, holding the Purple Aces to just 6 of 24 shooting from behind the arc.

Tonight, however, will be a completely different opponent for the Illini, as they will play host to the Georgetown Hoyas. The Hoyas will serve as the first true test to where this Illinois program stands in its second year under Head Coach Brad Underwood, but what will it take for Underwood and his players to get the job done?

Here’s my thoughts.

 

Keys to the Game

 

Can Illinois contain the Georgetown frontcourt?

Illinois Basketball has had a problem in recent years. Amidst all of the other things that you can say about the Illinois program since the last glimpses of historical success, this problem has stood (almost) the test of time.

Illinois lacks a true Big Ten Caliber center, or do they?

Freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili pulled down 10 rebounds last week, and took advantage of a massive height advantage against Evansville (who were missing their starting Center, due to a suspension). Other Freshman Samba Kane was inactive against Evansville due to a violation of team rules, but Brad Underwood has confirmed he will be available for tonight’s game. Graduate transfer Adonis De La Rosa’s status is still up in air, as he attempts to make up ground lost with his new program due to an injury that kept him out of early season practices. De La Rosa will be a fantastic addition to the Illinois program when he is healthy, but for now, his availability is unclear headed into this game.

Georgetown comes to town with a height advantage in the paint, and Hoyas center Jessie Govan is a legit NBA prospect, and could be one of the best big men the Illini face this season. He’s currently averaging 19.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks on the season.

The responsibility of containing Govan will fall largely on the shoulders of true freshman Bezhanishvili, along with Samba Kane coming in for occasional reps. Kipper Nichols experience could also come into play in out-rebounding Govan, as last season he often featured against opponents who had a height advantage. Bezhanishvili will come into a battle against Govan that will, undoubtedly, allow him to continue to learn and develop.

Should the fan-favorite freshman be able to contain Govan, the Illini will feel they have a real chance at going to 2-0 on the season.

 

Can the Illinois Guards continue to score at a high rate?

In their last game, the Illinois “Three-Headed Monster” of sophomore Trent Frazier, freshman Ayo Dosunmu, and junior Andres Feliz combined to score a massive 44 points for the Illini. They also combined to perform well in the rebounding and assist category.

Brad Underwood feels great about this guard combination, aided by defensive-standout DaMonte Williams, and freshman Alan Griffin, who was a standout in New York as a hot-handed shooter. With so much youth and talent on the roster, the Illini will hope their proficiency in small-ball will allow them to overcome any height disadvantage they face tonight against the Hoyas, and for the rest of the season.

Small, fast-paced play is a virtual “Ten Commandment” of Brad Underwood basketball, and they’ll look to continue to improve in that category as they  come up against a talented group of young guards, including the high-flying Mac McClung.

The young Illinois guards will continue to try to perform, and could prove too big a task for even talented young guards Mac McClung and James Akinjo. The duo is currently playing in its third collegiate matchup, and will face its toughest test yet in an underrated group of Illini guards.

If all four young guards are at the top of their game in the game tonight, it could be a heck of an early-season matchup for the two combinations.

 

Can Illinois continue to force massive amounts of turnovers?

In their game against Evansville, the full-court pressure and half-court pressure of the Illini seemed to overwhelm the Purple Aces at times.

In fashion with that trend, the Aces turned the ball over a massive 24 times. The Illini capitalized, and turned those turnovers into several fastbreaks throughout the night. Illinois, as stated above, faces another group of young guards, but the Hoyas also boast an older group of starters and reserves than Evansville did, and turnovers could be harder to come by.

Last season, the Illini performed well in the turnover category. This season’s recruiting class increased the capabilities of the Illini in the defensive category, with the addition of length and quickness when compared to last year’s roster.

Freshman guard Ayo Dosunmu was known for his quick hands in high school, and has already showed the capability to force turnovers in the young season. Add that to Brad Underwood’s defensive style, which is consistently changing and capitalizing on the mistakes of opposing offenses, and it bodes well for the Illini in the turnover category.

To me the second most important thing the Illini have to do tonight, besides overcoming a height advantage, will be forcing the talented young duo of  McClung and Akinjo to turn the ball over. If the guards have trouble controlling the ball, it will be much harder for Georgetown to take advantage of the height difference between the two teams.

 

Illinois face a wholly different task tonight against the Hoyas, but if they can force turnovers, overcome the height difference, and continue to provide offensive firepower, they should move to 2-0 on the young season before being tested in the Maui invitational.

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New look Illini get the better of Illinois Wesleyan

A 7 pm ET tip-off time. A sea of orange and blue. Illinois basketball is less than a week away from their season opener against the Evansville Aces at the State Farm Center in Urbana-Champaign. Tonight provided a glimpse at the possibilities of various lineups that Coach Underwood could employ throughout the season. The starting 5 of

G Ayo Dosunmu (Fr.)

G Trent Frazier (Soph.)

G Aaron Jordan (Sr.)

F Kipper Nichols (Jr.)

F Giorgi Bezhanishvilli (Fr.)

got off to a strong start start tonight. In fact, this team could be the most entertaining team that the Illini have had since the 2012-2013 Illini squad.

What We Learned 

Well these early exhibition games never really tell us too much about either team because each team is still learning the X’s and O’s of their system. From the Illini’s point of view, I think it is very clear that they will continue to employ Brad Underwood’s pressure defense that was used last year. Coach Underwood also looks like he wants to his press to a full-court press which proved to be very helpful tonight.

Next, I thought a lot of performances stood out tonight. Firstly, sophomore guard Trent Frazier didn’t miss a beat tonight and was second on the Illini in scoring with 19 PTS on 6 of 9 shooting and he chippped in with 5 AST. Frazier almost won B1G Ten Freshman of the Year last year and it wouldn’t surprsise me if he has an even better season this year. Secondly, junior guard Andres Feliz looked really really good and had many moments that proved why he was the #1 JUCO point guard in the 2018 class. He finished the game as the Illini’s leading scorer with 20 PTS. If he can continue this production throughout this season, he can really help take the pressure off of Trent Frazier. Lastly, I loved the way that freshman big man Giorgi Bezhanishvilli played tonight. Yes, I know he got into foul trouble but when he was on the court, he brought energy to this team that I haven’t seen a big man provide the Illini in a very long time. He added 9 PTS on 2 of 4 shooting and 4 rebounds. Bezhanishvilli also has an incredible skill-set where he has great vision, is capable of knocking down threes with ease, and being able to finish around the rim. This is going to serve him well as this season goes on and it’ll be difficult for Coach Underwood to keep him off the court. There were other good performances from players such as freshman guard Ayo Dosunmu (13 PTS) , sophomore guard Da’Monte Williams (1 point, 4 rebounds, 3 AST, and three charges), and senior guard Aaron Jordan (9 PTS and 7 Rebounds) but those three performances stood out the most to me.

The Illinois Fighting Illini will officially get their 2018-2019 basketball season underway against the Evansville Aces on Thursday November 8 at the State Farm Center in Champaign, Illinois. in the Maui On The Mainland game.

Illini Volleyball Continues Stellar Season, Eyes NCAA Tournament

The fourth-ranked University of Illinois Fighting Illini volleyball team made yet another headline-worthy moment to add onto their (frankly, giant) pile of moments for the season.

That’s right, not only in this season has Illini-star Ali Bastianelli set the record for most blocks in Illinois history, but the team tied yet another mark this week.

The Illini team hit a historic high in the NCAA rankings this week, being listed at No. 2 on the NCAA Stats RPI, and No. 4 overall on the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll. After a big win on the road at Nebraska, last year’s NCAA Champion, the Illini bolted up the rankings to hit their highest ranking since the magical 2011 season in which the Illini made their way to the NCAA Championship game.

Nebraska, a perennial contender in the hunt for NCAA Volleyball titles, is known as a tough challenge for just about any team.

Beating them on the road? That’s on another level.

The (then-ranked #6) Illini continued their great run this season, beating (then ninth ranked) Nebraska in Lincoln, on their own court, three sets to one. The Illini were led by 49 assists from star setter Jordyn Poulter, with 23 of those sets going towards kills from hitter Jacqueline Quade.

To speak on the star-power of this team: Poulter and Ali Bastianelli, who was tied for the team-lead in blocks on the night, were named finalists of the NCAA Senior Class award, an award given to top athletes from top sports, at the end of the year.

Poulter currently sits at the top of the Big Ten and ranks sixth in the NCAA with 11.77 assists per set, with Bastianelli coming in at third in the Big Ten and 21st in the NCAA in blocks per game.

Spectacular team defense was also key to the Illini’s win over the Cornhuskers, with Morgan O’Brien recording her career high in digs with a MASSIVE 32 digs in Lincoln. Not too far behind was Taylor Kuper, who finished with 25 digs against the Cornhuskers.

The team routinely took away for-sure points from Nebraska and turned them into their own positive plays, including an incredible last rally in which Poulter snuck a set over the net for the game-winner.

Team performances like that will be key to the success of the Illini going forward.

So what’s next for the Illini after one of the biggest road wins of the season?

The Illini have now moved to 9-3 in the Big Ten, and face eight more matches against Big Ten opponents before they finish their regular season. The Illini sit at 7-3 on their last ten, with an active 5-game win-streak.

The Illini sit at 20-3 overall, and 9-3 in the Big Ten, which puts them second behind the undefeated Minnesota Gophers. They’ll move on to face Purdue (8-4, 5th in Big Ten) and a tough team in Penn State (currently 9-3, tied for 2nd in Big Ten) during their home-stretch of games which also includes Northwestern, Ohio State, Maryland. Michigan State, and Rutgers.

Head Coach Chris Tamas and his team will face both of these tough teams at Huff Hall while they fight for a spot in the NCAA Tournament, in the midst of one of their best seasons since the Illini made their first ever appearance in the NCAA Championship game, before falling 3-1 to USC.

Many think that the Illini could be posed to make a similarly deep tournament run with this year’s well-rounded team.

The NCAA Volleyball tournament will start on November 29th this year, with 64 teams to start the tournament, and Tamas will be looking to guide the Illini through the competition, and to continue making history for the program.

Keep an eye on the Illini.

Illinois Basketball; Illinois Wesleyan Matchup Preview/Prediction

Illinois Fighting Illini basketball is back this Friday and I, like many fans, can’t wait to see how Brad Underwood’s new group looks come game time.

Brad Underwood’s first season in charge didn’t exactly get off to a “Flying Illini” start as his team went 14-18 overall and 4-14 in conference play. This came as a surprise to many Illini fans as Coach Underwood never had a losing record in any of his previous years as a Head Coach. Another issue that concerned many Illini fans this past off-season was the many departures that occured during the culmination of last year. Firstly, junior forward Leron Black and the Illini’s leading scorer last season, moved on from the program to pursue his professional basketball career. Next, former Illini freshman center Greg Eboigbodin, freshman forward Matic Vesel, junior forward Michael Finke, sophomore guard Te’Jon Lucas, and freshman guard Mark Smith all transfered out to find new opportunities. Finally, 5th year guard Mark Alstork also departed the program as he finished his years of eligibility.

That’s a lot of change to a first year Head Coach’s team. Despite only having three returning players that played major minutes last season, Brad Underwood’s group might have an optimistic outlook of this upcoming season.

The Illinois coaching staff really pulled off an impressive first class ranking twenty-fifth nationally by 247 Sports. The class was headlined by 5-star top 30 national & two time State Championship winner Ayo Dosunmu. The former Mac Irvin Fire and Morgan Park standout is a combo guard who has outstanding quickness and a special ability to get to the rim and score at will. He was also named to the Third Preseason All-B1G team. Another member of the 2018 class that stands out to me is Tevian Jones. He is probably one of the most athletically gifted players that the Illini have had since Joseph Bertrand. He is a special player who, because of his size at 6-6 and 220 lbs and his strong shooting capability, can force favorable matchups for the Illini. He is probably the player I am most excited about in this class. Finally, the third player of this class that stands out to me is center Samba Kane. Samba is a very similar player to former Illini Greg Eboigbodin except I think Samba has a better ability to run the court and thus is a better fit for Brad Underwood’s roster. He is very raw on the offensive end but I think he will have a huge impact on defensive end this season. It is way to early to predict where his career will go, but my bold prediction is that he will challenge Nnanna Egwu for All-Time Career Blocked Shots at Illinios.

Who Will Be The Starting 5?

Well as we all know from last year, Coach Underwood doesn’t really care who starts the game for him, he just wants to have a balanced team. Therefore it”ll be extremely intruging to see if Coach Underwood elects to play more small-ball lineups as that would allow the Illini to be more dynamic on offense. Things could change, but this is my projected starting 5 for the Illini against Illinois Wesleyan.

Andres Feliz G (Jr.)

Andres Feliz commit to Illinois late in the recruiting process and I think he was an absolute steal for this year’s team. From a national perspective, Feliz was ranked as the #1 JUCO PG in the 2018 class. Feliz has the ability to not only be a effective ball-handler but he is more than capable of being a “go to scorer” in Brad Underwood’s offense.

Trent Frazier G (Soph.)

Well, if you don’t know who this guy is, you missed an absolutely special freshman season from the Florida native. Frazier averaged 12.5 PTS ,1.5 REB and 3.1 AST over the course of the year. Those stats don’t even tell the entire story as Frazier not only became a leader and fan favorite, but also became the face of the Illini program. It’ll be interesting to see if he is able to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump this season as he will be an integral part of his team’s success.

Ayo Dosunmu G (Fr.)

Yeah… just understand this when it comes to Ayo, he is an absolute stud, and has been the Illini best player in many practices.

Kipper Nichols F (Jr.)

Kipper Nichols, often referred to as the jokester on the team, is a player that has “untapped potential”, as Coach Underwood stated last year. Nichols had a solid season last year as he averaged 10 PTS, 4.2 REB, 0.7 AST per game. The most disappointing part of Nichols is he could have been the most talented player on the team, but he was probably the most inconsistent player for the Illini last year. For example, Nichols would be on fire during a game, and then would miss on a fast break lay-up soon after. Even on the defensive side of the ball, Nichols had his up and downs. Against the Michigan State Spartans, Nichols more than held his own against the likes of Jaren Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges but in other games he would be a non-factor. That cannot happen this year.

Giorgi Bezhanishvilli F (Fr.)

All off-season, Coach Underwood raved about Giorgi, Underwood stated that he was very impressed by Giorgi’s basketball IQ and by extent his ability to pass the ball really well. He is also a very capable shooter whether that be back to the basket or facing up to the rim which would mean that he will be a key recipient on a good amount of the pick and pop plays we saw the Illini run last year. Finally, Giorgi is actually quite strong of a ball-handler so his ability can further help the Illini against full-court pressure situations.

Learn about Illinois Wesleyan

Illinois Wesleyan is an elite Division III program that has enjoyed success over the last couple years and thier history, reaching 6 Final Fours in total. IWU is coming off an impressive season where they went 19-8 and won a co-CCIW Championship title with one of last season’s opponents, Augustana (IL.). In fact IWU is projected to enjoy some more success as they are ranked in the Preseason Division III Top 25 coming in at 19th in the country.This team was also fantastic from behing the three point line shooting 268-712 (.376). As a team that is outstanding and is a factor that makes it extremely difficult to guard them around the court. In their front court, they have a strong starting pair in sophomore Miles Curry and RS sophomore Alex O’Neil. IWU is also a team that was very strong at beating the full-court press and this should help them have some success against Brad Underwood’s pressure defense however thr Illini’s quickness, size, and athleticism might make it an even tougher test for IWU. Obviously, this team is good, but maybe not as talented as most Division I programs based off just sheer athleticism and size.

Who will be the Starting 5?

Brady Rose G (Sr.)

Brady Rose is a really talented player that had the option to play Divison I and Divison II basketball but chose to stay closer to home. As the Head Coaches’ son, a lot is expected out of him and he certainly delivers on that. Last year Rose averaged 21 PTS and established himself as one of the best players in Divison III basketball. Rose is also an elite shooter and if you back off him he will hurt you. He shot 71-184 (.386) from three point range despite shooting a ridiculous .447 in conference play. He also has great quickness and an extra bounce in his step, which will make him even harder for the young Illini defenders to stop him from scoring at will.

Colin Bonnett G (Sr.)

Colin Bonnett came to IWU in the same class as Rose and has been another player who has played an important part in his program’s success. Colin Bonnett has that B1G mentality about being tough and scrappy on the floor. He is what some like to call a “glue guy”. He is also talented enough to shoot it well from behind the arc while also being able to take the ball to the rim and finish with ease.

Jason Gregoire G (Sr.)

Jason Gregoire is another guy who is a great shooter however he is a pure shooter. He isn’t someone who will light you up for 20 PTS in a given night, but he can and will hurt you from deep if left open.

Miles Curry F (Jr.)

As mentioned previously, Curry is one part of a strong front court for IWU. He is a gifted player athletically which allows him to grab rebounds at a high percentage. As a slasher, he is capable of having a strong performance offensively on a given night but he is mainly referred to as the energy/hustle guy. His single-game highs last season were 15 PTS (vs North Carolina Central), 9 rebounds (vs. Birmingham-Southern) and 3 AST (vs. Fontbonne).

Alex O’Neil C (Jr.)

Originally a Creighton and St. Cloud State University commit, Alex O”Neil transferred to IWU to further pursue his basketball career. During his time at Peoria Christian High School he averaged 13..9 PTS, 9.6 REB and 5.0 BLK a game. Those are some elite numbers and it makes sense that he is one of the more elite centers in Divison III basketball. He is more of a traditional center who is very skilled with his back to the basket. He also a Divison I athleticism which will make it tough for the young Illini bigs to contest for rebounds with him.

What will happen?

In this early season Exhibition game, I expect both teams to struggle out of the gate as they are still trying to gel and get acclimated to their respective system. Therfore I would not be surprised if this is a back and forth first half where either team struggles to take charge of the game. This will also be a battle of two different rosters dealing with the debate of what is better, talent or experience. IWU is a very fundamentally sound team that will not beat themselves often, which will really test these young Illini on the defensive side of the ball. Again, not to take anything away from IWU because they are an elite program, but the Fighting Illini are the superior team in terms of talent. The Illini will look to wear down IWU with their size and athleticism and thus proving to much to handle for IWU.

Prediction: Illinois 81 Illinois-Wesleyan 65

Thank you to Bob Quillman (@IWUhoopscom) for providing insight on the Illinois-Wesleyan Men’s Basketball team

Follow me on twitter Aarman Sethi (@aarmansethi)

Know the Foe: Purdue Boilermakers

Location: West Lafayette, IN.

Mascot: The Boilermakers

2017 Record: 7-6

The Breakdown:

The Purdue Boilermakers (2-3) enter this game having won their previous two contests and are looking to keep the winning momentum going against the Illini. It was a rough start for Purdue’s 2018 season as they fell to Northwestern in their first game 31-27. This was probably a game they should have won, especially with freshman wideout Rondale Moore emerging as a star, in this contest.

The next contest saw Purdue host Eastern Michigan. This ended in disappointment as Purdue fell in upset fashion yet to a 2018 opponent by a final score of 20-19. The next matchup pit SEC foe Missouri and Purdue together. This was a back and forth contest with the Missouri Tigers coming out on top 40-37.

After this game there were a lot of questions being asked about Jeff Brohm’s team and whether his team could handle the preseason expectations. Purdue then hosted then ranked #23 Boston College and Purdue had their best showing of the year, winning 30-13. Finally, two weeks ago Purdue continued B1G play against Nebraska and was virtually unstoppable on offense and thus cruised to a 42-28 victory. Coming off a bye week, Purdue has had plenty of time to prepare, so it’ll be interesting to see how they come out against the Illini.

Offense

The Boilermaker’s offense is quite intriguing because it has all the major components to be one of the best in the B1G. Starting at QB is senior David Blough who had a fantastic season last year before suffering a season ending injury against the Illini. He has been fantastic this season completing around 68% of his passes, throwing for 1318 yards, and a 7 to 1 TD to INT ratio in just 3 games (took over starting job in third game of the season).

He is not the only threat for Purdue’s offense. Senior RB DJ Knox has also had himself a nice start to the season totaling 390 rushing yards on 70 carries while also scoring 5 rushing TD’s. Knox is the type of player who doesn’t look very fast at first, but has excellent second level speed. If I were to compare him to anyone in the B1G it would have to be the Illini’s very own, Reggie Corbin.

As stated before, freshman wideout Rondale Moore had a pretty outstanding first collegiate game against Northwestern. As a receiver he had 11 receptions for 109 yards and a TD, and as a runner he carried the ball twice for 79 yards and a TD. These stats were absolutely phenomenal and he instantly become a Purdue fan favorite. He has kept up that pace too as he has totaled 41 receptions for 457 yards and 4 TD’s this season. Purdue’s offense is one to watch even if they aren’t playing the Illini that week.

Defense

Miscellaneous

Tune to FS1 at 3:30 PM ET on Saturday to check out this matchup!

Follow us on twitter @asethi02

; @NateJWSports

Game Preview: Illinois Football vs Purdue

Saturday, the Illinois Fighting Illini Football team comes back to Champaign to take the field looking to win two Big Ten Conference games in a row for the first time in years, after they’ve looked promising so far to start the season.

Lovie and co will square off against one of their two rivals from the next state over in the Purdue Boilermakers. The Boilermakers sit at 1-1 in the conference on the season, with a 2-3 record overall with losses against Northwestern, Eastern Michigan, and Missouri.

Illinois is the only team that the Boilermakers have a multi-game active win streak against, after topping the Illini in the last two seasons.

Two years ago, hearts were broken as the Boilermakers completed a last-second kick to down the struggling Illini at Memorial Stadium. Then last year, the Boilermakers took control early of the game at Purdue, and though they definitely didn’t take momentum and blow out the Illini, they grabbed a comfortable win in front of their home fans.

Illinois and Purdue are both in rebuild mode this season, with Illinois’ Lovie Smith in his third year of the process, and Purdue’s coach Jeff Brohm is in his second season with the Boilermakers, with a 7-6 record overall.

Rebuilding teams collide at Memorial Stadium for Illinois’ Homecoming game on Saturday in a game that will have significant bowl-game impact for both teams, the question stands: will the Illini achieve their second Big Ten win in a row, or will Purdue spoil the Illini celebrations?

Let’s discuss.

 

Illinois Fighting Illini vs Purdue Boilermakers: Preview

 

Rutgers

Last Week

Last week, Purdue got their first Big Ten win of the season against the Nebraska Cornhuskers. The Purdue offense went off, and the Cornhuskers couldn’t keep up as Purdue’s Junior Quarterback David Blough threw for 328 yards and a touchdown on 25 completions of 42 attempts. HE also rushed for 38 yards and a touchdown on just seven attempts.

Purdue didn’t look bad last week against Nebraska, and if they are able to run the ball and mix in misdirection as they did last week, Illinois will need a lot of offense if they are to remain in the game.

Rutgers defense struggled last week, allowing Nebraska’s Quarterback Adrian Martinez to throw for 323 yards and two touchdowns on 25 completions out of 42 attempts. He also threw an interception, and accumulated 91 rushing yards on 18 attempts.

Purdue also allowed Nebraska’s Devine Ozigbo to take control of the game, rushing for 170 yards on 17 attempts, with two touchdowns of his own. If Illinois can take advantage of Purdue’s rushing defense, and prove that they can (at least, sort of) throw the ball, they’ll be hard to stop on offense.

 

Illinois

Illinois didn’t look half bad either in last week’s game against Rutgers, in which the offense starred against a poor Scarlet Knights defensive effort. And when I say the Rutgers defense is poor, I mean really poor. Illinois did what they needed to, and took care of Rutgers.

The Illinois defense had 3 interceptions in the game, and allowed just 267 passing yards from Freshman QB Artur Sitkowski, on 29 completions for 46 attempts. Though the interceptions are great, the passing statistic still jumps out to me as something the Illini need to improve on. Passing defense, simply has to be better. The new loss of last year’s freshman stud Bennet Williams certainly won’t help that.

The Illinois offense, however, looked good last week. Quarterback A.J. Bush didn’t have much chance to really take control of the game, as the Illini focused on running the ball down the throats of a poor, Rutgers rushing defense. That being said, in the statistical category, Bush only threw for 89 yards on 10 of 18 attempts, but managed to throw for one touchdown.

Bush’s real impact was seen in the ground game. Bush ran for 116 yards with two touchdowns, on 18 attempts, and was a vital piece of an Illinois offense that put up one of it’s most impressive showings in recent years, combining for 334 yards rushing, and scoring 38 points to add to 89 passing yards.

Purdue will have to keep it’s offense moving against the Illini, and force the young Illini offense to compete with it, in order to win this game in the scoring category.

 

Players to Watch: Purdue

 

Rondale Moore, Freshman, WR

Moore comes into this season as a highly-touted four-star recruit at the wideout spot for the Boilermakers. He originally was committed to Texas, but then flipped his commitment to Purdue during the process. Moore is an immediate impact player, and he has shown it thus far on the season. Currently, the 5-foot-9, 175-pound Moore leads the Big Ten in receptions per game with 8.2, and also leads in all-purpose yards per game with 179.

Moore gives the Boilermakers a talent you usually only see at big-name schools like Ohio State, Alabama, etc., and will be a big test in coverage for the young Illini secondary.

Markus Bailey, Junior, LB

One of the most impressive things about the Boilermaker’s star linebacker is his durability and longevity. Bailey has started 30 straight games for Purdue headed into Saturday’s game at memorial stadium, and has racked up a massive 226 tackles, 10.5 sacks, and five interceptions to go along with many other impressive stats. Bailey is a big, athletic man in the middle for the Boilermakers, and will be key to shutting down the dynamic Illinois rushing game.

 

Players to Watch: Illinois

AJ Bush Jr, Senior, QB

The temptation to put one of Illinois’ playmakers in this spot was incredibly tempting. And of course, the likes of Mike Epstein, Reggie Corbin, and Ricky Smalling will need to have good games in order for the Illini to win this game.

But honestly, football is a game ran by quarterbacks, and without a decent-to-good passing game, games are much harder to win. Bush will need to shake off some rust from his weeks away when M.J. Rivers was at the helm, and prove that the Illini can pass the ball, in addition to run it. Some of this, of course, relies on playmakers like Ricky Smalling and Luis Dorsey to get open enough to allow for passes to be completed, but the responsibility lies heavy on the head of the Illini quarterback.

 

Nate Hobbs, Sophomore, DB

Hobbs did some of his best work last week against the Rutgers offense, and was rewarded with his ffirst interception as an Illini. Hobbs was a BTN.com All-Freshman Team recipient last year, and started in ten games for the Illini. Hobbs was suspended earlier in the season, but has already made his presence known to opposing offenses.

Though thus far this season there has been stability at the defensive back position in the form of Cameron Watkins, Hobbs, alongside guys like Tony Adams and Sydney Brown, will need to step up and perform this weekend against a solid Purdue offense. If the Illinois defense can slow down the Boilermakers and put their offense in a good position, the Illini will have a good chance to take the game.

It’s been tough for the Illini defensive backs thus far, and the defensive unit as a whole, as they’ve let up more than their fair share of yards. If they can pull it together, they can give Illinois a chance to win back to back conference games, and continue their momentum going forward.

 

My Prediction

Illinois 34, Purdue 31.

I predicted Illinois to win this game earlier in the preseason.

It isn’t going to be easy for the Illini to take this game, but they won’t be disappointed with their chances and opportunities, as Purdue has been far from struggle-free this season. I think that Illinois’ offense continues their run of good from from their game against Rutgers, and QB A.J. Bush shakes off the rust. This will allow the Illinois defense to do just enough to secure the win in front of their home crowd on homecoming. The Illinois RBs have to continue to do their job, and the offensive line has to continue to set their guys up to succeed.

Illini fans, you’ll need your fingers crossed for this one.

 

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

With the 2018 Homecoming game vs Purdue a little less than 24 hours away, Illini football fans can see some progress.

And it’s so good to see. After the last couple of years where we knew that if the other team got a 10 point lead, the Illini were done, this year’s team has shown growth on both sides of the ball. The Rutgers game was clearly the best overall performance of the year. The fact that it came in a young team’s first road game of the season just adds to the level of optimism that a solid 21 point win generates.

Let’s forget for a minute that Rutgers is the worst Power 5 Conference team in the NCAA this season. It was good to see the Illini basically handle an opponent in every facet of the game.

Road win equals a significant step forward. Big Ten Conference win equals another step in the right direction.

Bennett Williams has been kicked off the team.

Momentum seemingly comes to a screeching halt and the feelings of disappointment make this feel like a big step in the wrong direction. So what the heck happened?

To his credit, Lovie Smith plays disciplinary matters very close to his chest. If word gets out, it doesn’t come out officially, and after some unfavorable tweets about disciplinary matters earlier this summer seemingly originated from sources inside the team, that has been cleaned up as well.

As a fan, it drives me crazy. I want to consume all the news about my favorite college football team, and I want all the details.

As a man, I 100% admire this stance. When Lovie Smith recruits a young man and his family into the Illini program, he takes the “in loco parentis” stuff very seriously. Lovie and his coaches can sit in a living room anywhere with any parents and look those parents in the eye and tell them that the Illini Football Family will protect their son’s interests at all times, even when poor life choices are made.

That is a huge selling point. The college years will serve to establish a great foundation for the rest of a student’s life. And the choices they make as young adults with their first taste of adult-like freedoms either kick-starts a great life, or it requires a re-set.

It appears that Bennett Williams has chosen the re-set path.

(But why does it have to be him? The Illini’s most impressive returning young player, a player who played with intelligence, football intelligence, range, and toughness. Attributes which Lovie and the Illini can build around for future success?)

From appearances, Williams seems like a real clean cut kid. Even his social media is clean, respectful and overwhelmingly positive. His father’s Twitter account looks like that of an absolute All-American father. And Bennett was personally recruited to this Illini program by Defensive Coordinator Hardy Nickerson, a long-time close family friend.

I won’t speculate on what the series of transgressions amounted to that earned Williams first a three-game suspension from the team and then a dismissal.

What I will say is that this IS a huge setback from a football standpoint for Williams and for Illinois. Williams only played in one game this season, so he can use a red-shirt, but he still has to sit out next season if he wants to transfer to another FBS school. So, in essence, Williams will have followed up a brilliant freshman season at Illinois with one-half of one game in the next two years. All over some self-inflicted wounds. And if and when Mel Kiper gets to analyze Williams’ suitability to play in the NFL, then any on-field evaluation will be hit with a red-flag for “character issues.”

For Illinois, it really sucks, even though the Illini may already have a better player playing Williams’ old position. Tony Adams and Sydney Brown looked athletic, fast, and tough in their first games at the new positions. There are backups behind those guys who have gotten some good reps this season. And more DB talent is on it’s way to Champaign next year.

Still, Williams displayed real savvy at the safety position, and coaches always love guys who are in position at all times.

Sadly, Williams chose to be out of position with respect to off-the-field behavior.

So, 2 steps forward and one step back.

That’s how builds usually work though. Almost nothing in life just gets better all the time in a straight linear fashion. Weight loss doesn’t work that way. Relationships don’t work that way. The stock market doesn’t work that way. So, obviously, it’s foolish to think that the Illini Football (or basketball) rebuild will work that way, either.

As Purdue looms closest on the game horizon, I simply cannot get a feel for how the match ups work for Illinois.

I know that Purdue passes the ball really, really well, and I also believe that Purdue will have the best skill-position player on the field with Wide Receiver Rondale Moore. But, Purdue’s defense isn’t very good, they have lost to a MAC team, it is a home game for the Illini, and the team really showed improvement off their bye week. (Purdue will be coming to Champaign fresh off their bye week, so expect them to improve, too)

Bye weeks are a really big deal. Bye weeks allow nagging injuries to heal. Bye weeks allow a mental refresh in the middle of the season-long grind. Big time college programs will take extra time in recruiting (which obviously has no bearing on this game), but also on game-planning for their next 3 opponents. Coaches are always saying one game at a time, but during a bye week, a coaching staff may take a day to spend time looking at the second and third upcoming opponents, if for no other reason, to be able to instruct the graduate assistants to look more closely at certain things.

The other big deal with a bye week is called the self-scout. Sure coaches watch the film of their previous games on Saturday night or Sunday, but there really isn’t time during the season to do the deep dive of looking at your own team, introspectively, to have conversations with the other staff members and to decide on changes. The self-scout is hugely important. It shows you what your own tendencies are in down and distance situations. It shows strong-side vs weak side, + or – field position tendencies, short side vs wide side plays, etc. For the defensive side, it shows you when your coverages are predictable, and it allows you to really dive deeper into figuring out what the other guy is seeing on tape and how they may scheme against you.

Jeff Brohm at Purdue is a good football coach, so expect his team to have a couple things really figured out vs Illinois. This game, because of it’s timing and the opponent’s strengths, will test Illinois schematically more than any other game on the Illini schedule.

If the Illini get caught out of position a few times, it could get real ugly really fast. Like 49-23 ugly…

And that would amount to 2 steps forward and 2 steps back. Spinning wheels go round and round.

Lovie Smith’s defensive trademarks are to keep everything in front of you, cover all the quadrants, be in position to make plays. Bend, but don’t break, lengthen the field and take the ball away often. This greatly limits explosive plays and missed assignments (the game winning TD for USF was a real aberration and a play not made by a player who likely won’t play on Saturday).

I don’t necessarily see this Purdue game as a stinker for Illinois, but I absolutely do believe that the Illini will have at least 1 really bad game among the last 7.

To this point, Illinois had a stinker first half in the Opener vs Kent State, a bad 4th quarter against USF, and a horrific 4th quarter vs Penn State. 4 bad quarters in 5 games is a whole lot of progress compared to last year. But this team is due to be bitten by a turnover bug in a game. Right now, Illinois is on pace to have a turnover margin of +25 for the season. Nobody does that and neither will Illinois this season. There will be a statistical correction at some point, and when that happens, the stinker game will be upon us.

I also feel that, on balance, Illinois will play better over the final 7 games than they have over the first 5…..even with all 7 of those games being against conference opponents.

Again, I see this team growing and developing. With the amount of youth on this team, you would hope that development over the course of a 12 game season would be substantial. I see 5 WINNABLE games remaining on the Illinois schedule. Any of those 5 would likely be seen by the media as upsets, although the game at Nebraska may be a pick-em. It just depends who is healthy by the time that game is played. I think Illinois absolutely plays at least one very, very good game and has a big surprising margin in an upset, so with one great game and one-stinker, that leaves Illinois at 4-3 with 5 question marks.

I think the most growth the remainder of this season will come on the defensive side of the ball. I think the offense is squeezing just about all it can from a group which has a young offensive line, inexperienced quarterbacks, average running backs, and well-below-average receivers.

The defense, however, looked dramatically different with Brown and Adams at safety and with Jamal Milan back at Defensive Tackle. In the final 7 games of the year, I look for Illinois to slowly normalize their defensive statistics, meaning that they won’t allow 565 yards per game the rest of the year. If they can get that average down below 475, the Illini just may earn themselves a 13th game.

And that would constitute several more steps forward.