At the conclusion of the 2018 season, with bad defense and a lull in recruiting, it seemed that the term Littyville had come and gone like Halley’s Comet.
But, in the week before Christmas, Lovie Smith’s Illini have gotten better. Much better. And for the first time since Ron Zook’s Illini started 6-0 in 2011, Illini fans have visions of sugar-plums dancing in their heads.
Illinois concluded the early scholarship signing period with a small but stout class, headlined by 2 Under Armour All-Americans, one on each side of the ball. Quarterback Isaiah Williams from Trinity Catholic in St. Louis brings electric playmaking ability to offensive coordinator Rod Smith’s spread-option attack. Williams is fast, with elite vision and cutting ability. He throws well, being very consistent on deep balls and showing a feathery touch on swing passes and screens. Williams will be a dangerous running threat on designed run-pass options but will also be lethal when scrambling.
Scrambling quarterbacks force the defense into much more zone coverage than they would sometimes prefer to play, simply because in man coverage, a 4 vertical route by the receivers takes four sets of eyes off a dangerous runner.
Marquez Beason, a corner from Duncanville, Texas gives the Illinois secondary a jet-pack of speed, with great fluidity, ball skills and competitiveness. Beason talks and plays with some swagger, and immediately upgrades the back 1/3 of the Illinois defense, a defense that was historically bad last year and must improve in order to allow the Illini to post more wins in 2019.
Illinois also landed a terrific group of defensive linemen, with Keith Randolph of Belleville, Moses Okpala of Ladue, Missouri, and Seth Coleman of Melbourne, Florida. All 3 are high floor, high ceiling athletes. Randolph and Okpala have the frame to eventually slide inside, but Coleman will remain on the edge. Okpala is a mountain of a man, 6’7″ and 260 lbs. All 3 have the athleticism to be very good high school basketball players and by 2021 project to the exactly the type of physical and fast athletes Illinois will need to compete with the rugged offensive lines in the Big Ten West.
Then, lest we forget, more presents are under the tree for Illini faithful: transfers. Not scrap heap transfers, but transfers with legitimate high end, championship potential.
The headliner is electric wide receiver Jeff Thomas, hometown East St Louis. Thomas had two years of experience at Miami, where, quite frankly, he was underutilized. Thomas, also an Under Armour All-American, is a human cheat code with an extra gear and incredible change of direction. Possessing great hands, Thomas has the potential to be a first round NFL draft choice and simply the most electrifying player in Illinois football history. Illinois must hope he gets a transfer waiver from the NCAA to play next year or he may never see the field in Champaign. Sugar plums, sugar plums.
Also rumored to be transferring in is Thomas’ ex-teammate Rey Estes, who has been playing some defensive back at the University of Minnesota the last two seasons. If Estes comes to Illinois, he may be a slash-type offensive player or continue on the defensive side. Estes is a solid depth piece and, again, a piece of the puzzle to potentially boost Illinois recruiting in the hotbed of East St. Louis.
Two other names to watch on the transfer wire: WR AD Miller from Oklahoma, who has already applied for admission to Illinois, and TE Luke Ford, a Georgia Bulldog freshman from Carterville, IL. Both players would be significant talent upgrade to Illinois football.
Illinois will already be counting on adding significant talent to the field from players who are returning from injury or suspension or academic hold-outs.
Linebacker Milo Eifler, a former top 60 player in the country, transferred in from Washington. Although he was injured in practice this season, he should be good to go in the spring and would be the favorite to take over at LB for DelShawn Phillips. Eifler looks the part of a rugged, physical Power 5 linebacker. Let’s hope he plays tougher than a Mary Kay consultant on the field.
Massive offensive lineman Larry Boyd is poised to return to action to augment the Illinois offensive line. Boyd, who had moments of stardom as a true freshman, had a year to focus on his academics and citizenship while working on the scout team as a redshirt in 2018. A young man with NFL potential, Boyd could be even better than the player he may replace, senior Nick Allegretti.
Strong and athletic Verdis Brown comes off a red-shirt freshman season in which he practiced and got his academics in line. Brown has an exceptionally wide body, but great strength and mobility, which will make him an immediate upgrade for Illinois at defensive tackle or nose guard.
And then the Illini fans are waiting to see who fills out Lovie Smith’s 2019 coaching staff.
In 2018, Illinois lost defensive line coach Mike Phair to the Indianapolis Colts. His replacement, Southern Cal grad assistant Austin Clark oversaw a unit that was quite possibly the worst position group of any Big Ten program. Other than sophomore Bobby Roundtree, the Illinois defensive line was not below average, they were horrible. Like a kinetic chain, when your defensive line is awful, is makes life very difficult on the linebackers and when the secondary is counted so heavily for run support, pass coverage suffers. In other words, the key to good defense starts up front.
Now, Clark absolutely proved his worth on the recruiting trail and I’m giving Lovie Smith the benefit of the doubt in hiring a smart coach. So, I’m giving Clark a pass on his bad unit, which means the blame falls on players who just weren’t very good. Jamal Milan was injured, as was Jamal Woods. Illinois improves when they are healthy. Isaiah Gay was just dreadful and defensive end, and Owen Carney was below average. Illinois struggled all year to contain the edge, and I believe that they made a conscious decision to overplay the middle and gamble that they could run to the edge. Unfortunately, the Illinois linebackers were not athletic enough to do that against an opponent not named Kent State.
During 2018, Illinois lost CB coach Donnie Abraham and Defensive Coordinator Hardy Nickerson as well. These openings remain, and, while the openings were filled with family and graduate assistants, the Illini faithful feel like a seasoned Defensive Coordinator should take over. Speculation has Lovie Smith calling the defense himself. Sounds good to me, as long as Smith hires effective recruiters and coordinators to fill out the staff.
With no announcements so far, I have to believe that those hires are coming either from some highly successful college programs or from the NFL. One name from the college ranks to keep an eye on, Glenn Schumann, the young inside linebackers coach at the University of Georgia. Schumann worked six years at Alabama under Nick Saban before joining Kirby Smart in Athens. He is young and considered a savant of sorts in college football. He makes great money at Georgia, and would probably need the title of defensive coordinator to come to Illinois, but as long as Lovie is calling the shots at first, I think this coach is a coach who could eventually be Lovie’s successor.
Lovie still has a deep Rolodex of NFL contacts, and at the conclusion of the NFL season there are always moving parts in the NFL coaching world. I suspect the Illinois defensive hires will be made in early January following the American Football Coaches Association clinic.
Illinois Looks to Win its 6th Straight in the Annual Braggin’ Rights Game against the Missouri Tigers
The Illinois Fighting Illini and the Missouri Tigers will face off yet again at the Enterprise Center in Saint Louis, Missouri for the annual Braggin’ Rights game. This series first began in the 1980’s with the Illini winning the matchup 84-62. Since then there have been some fantastic games like the 108-107 triple-overtime game where the Missouri Tigers were victorious , and who could forget the recent Rayvonte Rice step-back three point jumper to sink Missouri as time expired in 2014. Illinois has been dominant in the last few years winning every game in the series since the 2013-2014 season. Currently, the Fighting Illini lead the series 25-12 and would be looking to win their sixth straight.
Some fans believe that the Braggin’ Rights game has lacked some of its luster in recent years as both basketball programs have been going through rebuilding years. I have heard rumors that this year’s game will be back to normal attendance which will bring back one of the great atmospheres in all of college basketball rivalry games.
THE MISSOURI TIGERS
The Missouri Tigers (7-3) come into the Braggin’ Rights game straight off a 71-56 victory against the Xavier Musketeers on Tuesday night. Infamous to Illinois fans, Missouri C Jeremiah Tilmon had a career game scoring 23 points on 10-13 shooting while also grabbing 10 rebounds. Former Illinois guard and Mr. Illinois Basketball winner Mark Smith has also been enjoying a strong start to the season averaging 12 points per game, 6 rebounds a game, while shooting 47% from three point range. For Smith, it will be a pretty special game for him Saturday as he’ll have an opportunity to prove his former Head Coach Brad Underwood wrong about letting him leave the program.
Finally, Mizzou’s most important player might be senior guard Jordan Geist as he is the most experienced player on this Mizzou roster. During the season Geist is averaging 12.7 points per game, 4.3 rebounds a game, and 2.4 assists a game. Two years ago, Geist scored his Braggin’ Rights career high of 12 points in a loss to the Illini. This will be his last year to try and break that spell of no Braggin’ Rights victories in his time at Missouri.
Projected Starting 5:
G Mark Smith So.
G Jordan Geist Sr.
G Javon Pickett So.
F Kevin Puryear Sr.
C Jeremiah Tilmon So.
Under the Radar Player to Watch:
G Torrence Watson Fr.
THE ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI
The Illinois Fighting Illini (4-7) have been playing better as of late as they are currently riding a two game win streak against the UNLV Running Rebels and the East Tennessee State Buccaneers. In both games, the Illini had solid half-time leads before playing less than stellar second halves. Playing a full forty minute game is something that this group needs to keep working on, granted they were without three significant players against ETSU in freshman guard Ayo Dosunmu, freshman guard Alan Griffin, and freshman small forward Tevian Jones. Dosunmu and Griffin are both expected to play against Missouri while Jones’ situation is still up in the air.
Trent Frazier has been fantastic in his last two games despite his recent 3-4 game slump. The sophomore guard is averaging 15.4 points per game, 2.4 rebounds per game, and 3.4 assists per game. He will have to have another strong performance if the Illini are to pull off their 6th straight victory in the series. Another pleasant surprise for Illini fans is the play of freshman forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili as he has emerged as a leader on and off the court for this young Illini squad. If he can clean up the fouls, his offensive versatility will be a huge asset to Underwood’s offense.
Projected Starting 5:
G Ayo Dosunmu Fr.
G Trent Frazier So.
G Aaron Jordan Sr.
F Kipper Nichols
F Giorgi Bezhanishvili
Under the Radar Player to Watch:
F Samba Kane Fr.
Once thought to be the next great duo in orange and blue, the matchup of Trent Frazier and Mark Smith will be one that will intrigue many. When Smith came to Illinois he was the face of the program and many fans believed he’d finally be that state player that would take the program back to the promise land. Things didn’t workout that way despite Underwood continuously comparing Smith to Jason Kidd. Smith then decided that he would transfer out of Illinois once Trent Frazier became the face of the program. Once Smith decided to transfer to Missouri, he became one of the most infamous individuals in Illinois history; rivaling former Iowa Assistant Bruce Pearl for his recruiting antics with the Illini. All eyes will be on him as he returns to face his former teammates.
Neither team is great this year but that won’t take anything away from how competitive this rivalry game will be. Expect things to get a bit chippy at times as both teams will be trying to establish their game plans. It’ll be a battle between the strengths of both teams; the guard play of the Illini and the forward play for Missouri. Last year, the Illini owned the first half with a 20 point half-time lead over the Missouri Tigers before Mizzou clawed themselves back in and fell just short of completing the comeback in the second half. I’m picking this game to come down to the wire as it almost always does.
Illinois 67 Missouri 66
Line: Illinois -1.0
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.
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 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)
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.
At every level of sports the higher you go, the more competitive the games become. I once trailed in a junior high basketball game 96-0 after three six-minute quarters.
The final score was 107-6, but only because the opposing Superintendent fired the opposing coach a minute into the fourth quarter.
At the high school varsity level, you will once in a while see a running clock in the second half, but for the most part, the games stay within 3 scores.
Once you move to college, the margins close even more, and in the NFL, large margins are the exception rather than the rule.
Yet, as we watch Big Ten football, our Illini have been on the receiving end of some beat-downs that, quite frankly, have been ugly. In the UFC world, they would stop the fight in the first 3 minutes.
But Saturday, in Piscataway, New jersey, the Illini imposed their will on a Big Ten opponent, Rutgers, and went into their house and took away a 21 point victory.
And here is how I came up with the title to my column after this game: The Illini went into someone else’s house, raided their refrigerator, took the meat, the salads, the condiments, the taters and everything else they wanted and left nothing but the egg salad. Because who in the world would wanna take anyone’s egg salad?
The Fighting Illini went on the road, starting mostly true sophomores and true freshmen and took everything from another Big Ten team, leaving them them with nothing but nasty Egg Salad.
Rutgers is a program in disarray. Good Lord, they’re awful. They are not physical, they’re not fast, no one cares about their program…how fast can they get out of the Big Ten into the All-American Conference?
Still, for an Illini program that has been struggling MIGHTILY, going on the road, anywhere, and imposing their will is a huge step in the right direction.
It wasn’t Alabama 63-0 domination, but it was a thorough ass-kicking, on the road, against a Power 5 conference team….and that, my friends, is a better result than the previous 4 games the Illini played this season.
Let’s dig deeper:
AJ Bush really looked rusty at the beginning of the game. Totally disjointed. However, let’s remember his relative lack of experience and give the Rutgers coaching staff some credit for confusing him on the first few drives.
The Illini ball security is remarkable. 2 interceptions thru 5 games is about five times better than any reasonable fan could hope for. Bush and MJ Rivers have been exceptionally good at protecting the football for Illinois. You would have to think that the numbers would normalize, (bad for the Orange and Blue) over the rest of the season.
If they don’t, it’s a huge credit to offensive coordinator Rod Smith.
Bush and Rivers are protecting the ball at a very high level, along with the running backs, and protection of the ball has always been a tenet of the Lovie Smith way of doing things.
The lack of a pass rush is alarming, however. Lovie wants speed off the edge with a rugged, physical push inside. He’s getting neither. But let’s take a step back and realize how young these cats are. Bobby Roundtree is a true sophomore. Isaiah Gay is also. Kenyon Jackson is a junior. Julian Pearl is a true freshman. So much youth. Let these guys mature into Big Ten linemen…..
Let’s accentuate the positive in the best win of the year: Jake Cerny played really well in this game, giving the Illinois staff at least one serviceable backup on this young offensive line. Redshirt freshman Kendrick Green looked like he matured an entire year during the bye week. Green looks like a seasoned, physical Big Ten guard. Alex Palczeski looks like a future pro. Doug Kramer looks every bit like a 4 year starter that moves immediately into a coaching position because of his toughness and intangibles.
This Illinois offensive line, with the addition of Larry Boyd, the redshirt freshmen, and at east one elite junior college transfer next year will all of a sudden be an ELITE offensive line. Book it.
Halfway through this season, Illinois is in the top 10% of rushing offenses. WITHOUT AN ELITE NFL CALIBER RUNNING BACK. Without a solid passing Quarterback, and without any wide receivers who can create separation. That is truly remarkable. When you don’t have a true threat at quarterback, teams scheme to take away the run. When you don’t have threatening wide receivers, teams load the box.
The fact that Illinois is having offensive success without elite quarterbacks, and without elite wide receivers is absolutely remarkable. Credit to Offensive Line Coach Luke Butkus and Offensive Coordinator Rod Smith. They are making premium Chicken Salad out of less than premium Chicken.
Rod Smith’s offense really accentuates the abilities of Reggie Corbin. An afterthought under Garrick Mcgee, Corbin is finding space and making plays for Illinois. Rod Smith has figured out how to leverage the abilities f the Illini offensive line to create holes foe the runners.
I wanna give a special shout-out to Nick Allegretti. He’s playing at a high levee. A level which will get him NFL opportunities. His combo block in the later part of the first quarter was a thing of beauty. He double teamed the 3 tech with Pacho, then slid off and pancaked the nose guard on the first Illini TD ( the one that AJ dribbled to the end zone).
Defensively, Illinois looked so much better with some personnel adjustments. The coaching staff looks really comfortable with the overall athleticism in the defensive backfield. Sydney Brown looks like a young Troy Polamalu. All of a sudden, Illinois feels like they can match up outside and give an extra defender in the box to defend the run. That is huge.
The Lbers and in the box safeties looked so much more aggressive in attacking the run game. They will need to be better against the Purdue skill position players, especially Rondale Moore. Moore is to Purdue what Mookie Cooper could be to Illinois. Electric, game changing talent. Future first round NFL draft choice.
For the first time in 4 years, Illinois physically dominated another Big Ten opponent, on the road. I can’t express how important it is to physically impose your will on the road. This is a quantum lead for Lovie’s program. Taking what is their’s at homecoming against a pretty good and desperate Purdue team will be the next step.