is defined by Webster as a coming or flowing together at one point.
Just as rivers like the Kankakee, Fox, Sangamon, Spoon, LaMoine, Vermilion, Iroquois, DuPage and others flow together to make up the Illinois River, so did a bunch of factors flow together to make the Illini’s 31-24 season-opening victory over Kent State much closer than it should have been. Freshman mistakes, suspensions, injuries, some really eye-popping plays from Kent State, bad angles and some debatable coaching decisions all came together and almost cost Illinois an embarrassing loss.
I admit, I have much higher hopes for this year’s Illini team than what we saw in the first half Saturday.
I drank enough of the Orange and Blue Kool-aid to predict an 8-4 season for Illinois and a berth in the Outback Bowl. After watching the first half on TV, I was just feeling blue. Visions of 1-11 were going through my mind….how could it possibly be this bad?
But, after meticulously reviewing the TV version for 4 hours Sunday night into Monday morning, I feel better.
It was better than I thought once I put my “football coach” glasses on and watched each play 3 or 4 times, focusing on specific things. But before we go too far into the analysis on the field, let’s look at a couple other things that effected the Illini performance.
Suspensions. Ugh. Boys will be boys, but Lovie Smith is taking a hard line in character building and team-culture building, meting out some tough love on some fellas who somehow misbehaved at some point since the last Illini game. In my training camp articles, I had mentioned how this Illini team was razor-thin in terms of depth, and immediately that depth is tested not as much by injury (those happen) but by bad behavior. It’s not like the guys who were suspended were just guys, they were a few of the best players on the team. Bennett Williams and Lou Dorsey were excellent last year as freshman, as was Nate Hobbs, who missed all of training camp due to illness last year.
Now think about how young this team is….the players who replaced those guys were all playing high school football 9 1/2 months ago.
On top of the suspensions, sophomore offensive lineman Larry Boyd is out for the season to take care of academic business along with freshman defensive lineman Verdis Brown, the Illini’s highest rated recruit.
And on top of that mess, the Illini’s best defensive tackle Jamal Milan and another starting corner, Tony Adams, missed the game due to injury.
So, if I told you that a thin, young Illini team would go into a game versus a former Under Armour All-American quarterback as part of an aerial circus without 3 of their best players in the secondary, would you think that maybe, there could be some growing pains??? Well, there were some growing pains, but a lot of positives, too.
Kent State is not a 2-10 team in 2018.
They will be significantly better than they were last year for a couple reasons, not the least of which is Quarterback Woody Barrett, who I predict will be the best quarterback in the MAC. He’s really good. He throws a great ball, and physically, he’s a real load. Somehow, he’s listed as a sophomore for Kent State, and if he gets 3 years to develop, he will be a solid draft choice in the NFL.
Barrett’s rugged physical abilities combined with the horizontal spreading of the Kent formations creates a ton of problems for a defense. And we saw that on Saturday.
But still, it’s a MAC level team and a Big Ten team should have it’s way with them….
Kent has Penn State and Mississippi left in their non-conference schedule so the overall record won’t be pretty, but I could see them winning at least half their conference games, if not more.
So, if YOU were coaching a bunch of true freshmen in the secondary and were facing a rocket-armed passer in a wide-open, fast-paced attack, what would your strategy be?
I know what mine would be….“Don’t get beat deep.” And that is exactly how Illinois played it. Illini safeties were sometimes as far off the ball as 20 yards at the snap. One of the tenets of a Lovie Smith defense has always been to keep everything in front of you. Contain, make lengthen the field. The Illini did this very well. Especially considering how young they wee in the defensive backfield. I would give the unit 4 stars, actually. I also think that when Adams, Hobbs, and Williams return to action, you will see decidedly tighter coverage, pre-snap and afterwards.
But how did it get so ugly on Illinois in the first half???
Like I said, it was a confluence. Like the rivers that form the Illinois, which leads to the Mississippi, some of the mistakes were smaller, and some were bigger. Even good, veteran teams make mistakes, and this Illinois team will continue to make mistakes as they grow, but most of what I saw are correctable, and, in fact, most of them were corrected throughout the game.
Let’s run down some of those mistakes….
Ricky Smalling drops a potential touchdown pass on the Illini’s first play…..if Smalling catches that ball and scores, the mojo for the entire day changes.
Illinois continued the opening drive and went downfield to get a field goal, but along the way there were a couple mistakes that probably cost the Illini a touchdown. Sophomore offensive tackle Alex Palczewski missed the key block on a well-designed cut-back run to the weak-side by RaVon Bonner. Palcho pulled on the play and two Kent defenders came up to force the play inside. All Palcho had to do was block either one of them. He didn’t block either, instead running upright RIGHT BETWEEN THEM and they smothered Bonner for a one yard gain. If Palcho makes a block, Bonner is into the second level and might have had a touchdown. A couple plays later, freshman tight end Daniel Barker (playing because Dorsey is suspended) whiffed on a block in the same fashion. Barker ended up making the same block successfully later in the game.
So, instead of 7, Illinois gets 3.
On the defensive side of the ball, Isaiah Gay squeezed down the line of scrimmage so aggressively and his eyes were on the offensive tackle instead of on the running back or quarterback. Gay got too far inside, got hooked by the pulling guard and got caught inside. Delshawn Phillips was playing with his mouthpiece when the ball was snapped, was slow to react, and got outrun to the outside. 20 yard gain.
Again, preventable, and correctable. However, on the very next play, Kent goes with a WR screen, which Illinois attacked aggressively. Somehow, nickel back Sydney Brown completely whiffed on the ball carrier, he broke free for another 20 yard gain.
So, later, Illinois forces a 4th and 9 at their own 44 and rather than punt to pin Illinois down, Kent goes for it. Kent spread the formation with twins each side, which took Illini LB Jake Hansen out of the box. On the resulting (and very predictable) quarterback iso, Hansen was shielded from making the tackle by the official. Hansen decided not to blow up the official, which would have tackled Barrett, but Barrett scampered away for another first down. Ugh.
The first Kent touchdown was really a brilliant design. J Leman called it a pick play, a rub route on the broadcast, but it was nothing of the sort. If you taped the game, I really suggest you go back and watch this play, because it was so perfectly designed, and perfectly executed.
Kent State had already run a couple of wide receiver screens to set this play up. They went with a wide trips bunch to the left and all 3 receivers did little things to ensure the success of the play. The wide guy faked the hitch route, which signaled all three Illini defenders to attack, including the safety over the top. The middle receiver, ran upfield to the boundary to simulate a blocking route on the Illini corner. Barrett very calmly looked to the hitch receiver, while the inside receiver ran directly toward Illini safety Delano Ware (a true freshman), hesitated so slightly like he was breaking down to block, then took off right past Ware catching an uncontested ball for six points. The receiver was so wide open he would have scored if the field was 1000 yards long.
So, again, tip of the cap to Sean Lewis, the Kent State coach, and to Woody Barrett, who effectively sold the hitch, and to the 3 receivers who all did their part. That play scores a touchdown against a lot of teams, especially against such an inexperienced secondary.
So, on the following kickoff….
Kent State’s kicker kicks it down the boundary to about the 8 yard line, where the ball somehow backs up like a Phil Mickelson wedge at Augusta. With a live ball on the ground at the 12 and two feet from the boundary, Illinois’ Austin Roberts picks it up, but his momentum takes him out of bounds. If you thought that was bad, Dominic Stampley says, “hold my beer.”
Despite starting at their own 13, Illinois effectively picks up a first down, then AJ Bush misses a wide open Sam Mays on what would have been another touchdown. So that 3 touchdown opportunities missed and we’re still in the first quarter.
Illinois gets a first down, then would have and another, but Smalling gets called for a stupid block in the back. Still, an Illinois offense that was playing better than the results, converted two plays later to move the sticks. With first down at the Kent 19, Illinois throws a post corner, which drew a pass interference penalty on Kent State. Unfortunately, Illini redshirt freshman guard Kendrick Green was illegally downfield, so no first down and goal at the 8, just a re-do.
After a short Bonner gain on first down the drive so far has been 13 plays, 70 yards, and the Illinois offense has overcome two penalties and a missed shot downfield. On second and 7, AJ Bush rolls left and runs to the Kent State 8, which would have been a first down and goal, but here’s where some bad luck hits the Illini. On the back side of the play, Palczewski perfectly executes a cut block, but his right arm falls over the leg of the defensive tackle. Palczewski made absolutely no attempt to grab the defender with his arm…it’s just where his arm fell on the cut block. Needless to say, Palcho got called for holding, and instead of first and goal, it’s second and 17 from the Kent State 27.
Faced with a 3rd and 15, AJ Bush held the ball for too long and was sacked on a weak side corner blitz. Of course, he fumbled, Kent State recovered and after giving up what felt like 130 yards of offense on the drive, Kent gets off the field unscathed.
Lots of good offense, but just too many little mistakes to get the score. So, at this point, realistically, it should have been 14-7 Illinois, but it’s 7-3 KSU.
Kent takes the ball, converts two fourth downs, and gets a field goal. 10-3. Illinois first showed signed of spying Barrett on this drive, using Kendall Smith to spy Barrett. Kendall Smith didn’t look like he knew what he was doing, was slow to react, and got caught up in the wash which allowed the second fourth down conversion. With the game on the line in the 4th quarter, Kendall Smith was not the spy anymore.
Then we have the Dom Stampley moment. You know, the one that he will always be remembered for, as he caught the KSU kickoff running out of bounds at the 3 yard line. As bad as it was, I have to lay part of the blame for the poor Illini kick off returns at the feet of Coach Bob Ligashesky. Ligs is a meticulous planner and stickler to detail, but he missed covering this, evidently.
So, the Illinois offense again starts with crappy field position. But unlike last year, when the Illini would have punted from their own end zone, the offense generated a couple good first downs and got out to the 37 before a couple of poorly thrown passes killed the drive. Still, the offense was good enough to flip the field position ahead of the Blake Hayes punt.
Kent moved down the field and, thanks to a Bobby Roundtree missed sack on third and long, eventually got another big play on 3rd and 12, which was the result of a perfectly thrown ball by Barrett for the touchdown. The big physical play by Barrett makes Kent a dangerous offensive team, and he was just better than the Illini defense on this drive. He’s going to be either the best or 2nd best quarterback Illinois plays all season, though. McSorley from Penn State is the only other quarterback in the kid’s class.
17-3 Kent State and the demoralization factor is really going up. The following Illini 3 and out left Illinois to punt, with a gassed defense set to go back on the field. Blake Hayes drilled a 67 yard directional punt to pin KSU back at their own 3. With only 2 minutes to go in the first half, however, KSU decided to milk the clock, making Illinois use time outs. Illinois held for a 3 and out, holding one time out with 1:26 on the clock. At this point, Kent State is punting from their own end zone with a back up punter. This should have set up really well for Illinois. Instead, Ligashesky’s special teams made 2 more critical mistakes which negated that opportunity.
The first mistake was putting the LONE RETURN MAN too deep for a back-up punter. WAY TOO DEEP. With the KSU punter standing at the back of his own end zone, Senior Mikey Dudek was stationed at the Illinois 40 awaiting the kick. 65 yards way from where the ball is kicked. (When I coached high school football, I physically stood at the yard line where I wanted my return man. I would have been standing at the Kent State 45, because that still gives the punter credit for kicking it 50 yards).
The punt was what you would expect from a backup MAC punter. It was fairly low, and landed at the Kent State 41. If Dudek is in the correct position to begin with, he catches it easily and probably returns it to the 30, just because it was low. Because he was 15 yards too deep, the ball hit the ground and bounced hard and fast to Dudek’s right, making him run backwards all the way to the Illinois 31 before he could get it. He ran around trying to make a play, but got pushed out of bounds around the Illinois 30. That right there is a 40 yard difference due to bad, bad special teams coaching. BAD!
But hey! Kent State had a penalty, so the play is called back! Illinois gets a do-over! And this time the punter is even further toward the back of the end zone. So what adjustment does Ligashesky make? He puts two return men back…..BOTH OF WHOM ARE STILL TOO DAMN FAR BACK. The ball again lands well in front of Dudek, and he lets it slow roll this time all the way to the Illinois 39.
In the process of 2 horribly botched punt returns, the clock went from 1:26 to :54, and instead of having the ball at the Kent 35 with 1:18 in the half, it’s at the Illinois 39 with :54.
And, of course, this brutal first half ends with a missed Illinois field goal.
So. Many. Mistakes.
And I didn’t even mention AJ Bush holding the ball too long which cost Mike Epstein a touchdown or two blown coverages by the Illinois secondary that KSU didn’t fully capitalize on.
So, we all know that the 2nd half was what we thought the whole game could be like for Illinois. 28 points of offense, only 7 allowed, and the Illini pick up win #1.
Still, for a starving fan base, this win felt like a moral loss….you know the opposite of the moral victory.
There were still some mistakes. Like the fair catch by someone other that the kick returner on the opening kickoff of the second half. Freshman Syd Brown was out of position several times. Delshawn Phillips had a potentially disastrous blown coverage.
But, Illinois sucked it up and found a way to win.
I thought the offensive line was very much improved from a year ago. Very, very much improved. I thought AJ Bush had better and quicker decisions in the second half. And I think Rod Smith decided to get the ball to his top playmakers more often. NFL veteran coach Gill Byrd, now coaching the Illinois secondary, cleaned up things schematically, and to their credit, the young Illini were coachable enough to make the adjustments.
Here are some other things I liked:
Owen Carney played really well. In fact, I think he played better than Isaiah Gay.
Quan “don’t call me Jartavius” Martin played very well. I could see stardom in his future.
Kerby Joseph and Delano Ware had some really good moments.
Blake Hayes is truly a difference maker at punter. But we already knew that.
Jake Hansen played very well against the run. However, expect to see future offensive coordinators pick on him in the pass game. Against the pass, he was downright awful.
Cam Watkins was really, really good Saturday. Great coverage, and rugged and physical versus blockers and coming up on the run. You can tell a real, tangible, physical difference between the third year player Watkins versus the true freshmen.
The Illinois team that took the field Saturday vs Kent State would absolutely go winless in the Big Ten. There’s no doubt in my mind.
However, real bona fide reinforcements will be back by the Penn State game. And I think we can expect better coaching from Ligashesky and Rod Smith and real improvement from AJ Bush, who just hasn’t played much real football in a long time.
Let’s hope we just witnessed the worst half of football Illinois will play for many years, because even for a young football team, the first half was incredibly bad. Illinois was lucky to walk away with a win versus an inferior opponent.