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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.

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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)

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.

Egg Salad

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.

The Illini are So Close, yet Still So Far Away

I really struggled with how to frame the discussion of the Penn State at Illinois football game from last Friday night.

The Illini actually lead Penn State, a Top 10 team in the country, 24-21 in the third quarter. Heck, it was only 28-24 Penn State heading into the 4th quarter. This is real progress, real change from what Illinois fans have endured the last two years.

Then a 35-0 Penn State blitzkrieg happened in the fourth quarter, and it seemed as though all hope is still lost.

In a season preview column, I detailed what I saw as potential trap games for Illinois to either win or lose during the season.

This game was certainly a trap game for Penn State. To wit: Illinois has been exceedingly bad for the last two seasons, and poor before that. Penn State has seen a revival of their proud program coming out of the dark shadows of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Penn State came in undefeated, but not untested, as Appalachian State took the Nittany Lions to overtime in the season opener. Penn State has 4 and 5 star veteran talent all over the field. Illinois has young, less-heralded talent, and some of it coming off suspensions. AND>>>>>Penn State’s next game is their biggest game of the the season, a matchup with The Ohio State University Liars, er, Buckeyes. The Ohio State at Penn State game winner will be in a strong position to claim a spot in the college football playoff if they stay clean the rest of the year.

Here’s the thing about trap games that no one talks about: it’s not just a day-of-the game phenomenon. It’s a whole week of 20 year old kids not really dialed in to their upcoming opponent. It’s about lax preparation which leads to poor results.

We see it all the time in high school ball, where some team beats a team by 30 in the regular season and then gets beat by said team in the playoffs. It happens as sure as so many other things in our imperfect human nature, as we start to think that we have everything under control.

And that’s what I think happened to Penn State in the first 35 minutes of the game at Illinois: kids really not paying attention during film study and maybe not getting fired up to play in front of 35,000 empty seats in Champaign.

To Illinois’ credit, they came prepared to compete, and did so pretty well for 2 1/2 quarters. Previous editions of Illinois football wouldn’t have even been able to do that. The Garrick McGee lead offenses would have stubbled to get a first down all night long, even against a yawning opponent.

Now, to Penn State’s credit, they were able to put their foot on the gas and destroy Illinois over the final 20 minutes of game action, to take a deficit and still easily cover a 29-point spread on the road. Not many teams at any level can go from Deadsville to stomping on an opponent’s throat, but James Franklin’s team did just that.

So, Illinois fans could be hopeful that there is enough athleticism to play well for extended stretches against a good team. Fair enough.

But, honesty compels me to take an alternate view.

What if…

Penn State was coming to Illinois on a beautiful Saturday homecoming weekend where they would play in front of only 10,000 empty seats, and what if Penn State had already beaten Michigan and Ohio State and their upcoming opponents were Indiana and Rutgers? So Penn State comes in locked and loaded and plays their best quarter in the first quarter, and boat races Illinois out to a 42-0 lead five minutes into the second quarter?

How would Illinois fans feel then, even if Illinois would still put up a few yards and make a few nice plays?

I contend that Illini-Nation would feel a whole lot worse than they do now.

And, honestly, I don’t know which is better or if any of it matters. I do know that Penn State was still gouging the Illini first-team defense toward the end of the game with their backups in place. I know, also, that Illinois’ first offensive line group played the whole way and got nothing going against Penn State’s back-ups in the last half-quarter. I also know that the Illinois coaching staff missed a golden opportunity to engage some depth pieces as the game got out of hand.

Illinois could have given very inexperienced offensive line and linebacker second-teamers some valuable reps. Specifically, Illinois’ linebackers, Jake Hansen and DelShawn Phillips had their worst games of the season. They would grade out very poorly. And Illinois’ top back-up linebacker, Dele Harding, did not play due to injury. The Illinois staff has used top linebacker recruit Khalan Tolson in every game on kick-off coverage, and I believe I saw him on some punt coverage, too. But Tolson has only received 3 scrimmage snaps in garbage time vs Western Illinois. Literally, in the last minute of the game. Tolson gets 4 games of participation before a red-shirt is burned, so why on Earth would you not get him in the game to see what he can do prior to having to make that decision. 12-15 downs against Penn State would tell you a lot.

All the other freshmen who are playing are getting scrimmage reps. But Lovie doesn’t sub out his linebackers. The D-Line has a rotation, the D-Backs have been in and out a lot, but not the linebackers.

Similarly with the offense. The Running Backs and Wide Receivers and Tight Ends come in and out, but there has been very little substitution on the offensive line. Everyone knows the O-Line is the weakest position group on the team, at least from a depth standpoint. It’s unrealistic to think that Illinois won’t need to rely on a depth piece or two throughout the rest of the Big Ten schedule. A Big Ten schedule that all of a sudden has games that look more winnable at Rutgers, vs Purdue, Northwestern, Nebraska, and Minnesota.

Tolson has a lot of ability. He looks like a Big Ten linebacker. But I don’t want his first meaningful reps to be with the game on the line vs Purdue or Minnesota. The Illini need every single win the program can muster right now in order to give the fan-base hope, appeal to recruits and their families, and to keep the players believing that they are being developed to the best of their abilities. But, when you’re down 3 touchdowns to Penn State with 7 minutes left, it’s time to look at some other guys.

Ultimately, talent wins, especially more mature talent.

And that’s what we saw in the Penn State game. The Nittany Lions’ big Offensive Line wore down Illinois. As the game situation got more dire, you saw a couple instances where Illinois defenders lost gap responsibility trying to go around a blocker rather than defeating him. That is called being beaten up. Not giving up, but being beaten up.

Still, some good things happened. Carmoni Green came back from suspension and looks like the second best receiver on the team. And that’s important, because there’s a huge drop off from Ricky Smalling and Sam Mays to anyone else on the roster.

The starting offensive line looked so much better than at any time last year or even during the first three games of this season. so I see improvement there.

MJ Rivers showed improvement as Rod Smith gave him a bigger bite of the apple with which to work. Rivers protects the ball, and would still be without an interception if not for a deflection off his own receiver.

The offensive scheme looks varied enough to compete and to give opposing defenses some difficulty. This Illinois team will be able to win a game this season even if they give up 28 points. That could not have happened last year.

So, improvement is happening. But could it just happen a little bit faster? We should know in the next two games if Illinois will be able to convince anyone regionally or nationally that things are actually getting better.

Know the Foe: Penn State Nittany Lions

Location: University Park, Pennsylvania

Mascot: The Nittany Lion

2017 Record: 11-2

The Breakdown:

Penn State University, in my opinion, is the most impressive B1G Ten football program over the last 1-2 years. When Head Coach James Franklin was hired from Vanderbilt University in 2014, many Penn State fans were less than impressed. Fast forward 5-6 years and James Franklin was able to successfully implement his play-style with the help of talents such as rookie RB and NYG Saquon Barkley. Last year, was quite disappointing for Penn State fans. Penn State came in with CFP aspirations and might have gotten there had it not been for a home loss against Ohio State (after leading in the fourth) and a road blemish against Michigan State. The latter result was really what lost Penn State the season.

This year Penn State fans have similar aspirations of their team. In the first game of the season Penn State played host to Appalcahian State, a program that made a name for itself in 2013 by defeating Michigan in the “BIG HOUSE”. It took Penn State all four quarters plus an overtime period to stave off upset minded Appalachian State by a final score of 45-38. This was a less than stellar performance from the Nittany Lions but they bounced back in their rivalry game with the Pittsburgh Panthers, winning by a score of 51-6. Finally, last week Penn State came back home to welcome the Kent State Golden Flashes and put on an absolute beating, winning by a score of 63-10. After a slow start in week 1, it looks like Penn State is back to being themsleves. Now let’s take a look at specific personnel to keep an eye on for this weeks matchup with the Illinois Fighting Illini.

Offense

The Nittany Lions offense lost a big time contributor last year in fomer Heisman candidate RB Saquon Barkley and you would think this would mean that the Penn State run offense would decline. Well, it didn’t. In fact, it might have gotten better. The backfield is led by junior RB Miles Sanders. Sanders has compiled a decent stat-line through is first three games totaling 295 rushing yards and 2 TDs on 49 carries. Behind him is freshman RB Ricky Slade, who was a five star recruit in 2018 and was also the #1 player in the state of Virgina in 2018. He has a very similar skill-set to Miles Sanders but has only been used sparingly in Sanders’ absence, thus totaling 53 rushing yards and 2 TDs in the first three games.

I would be crazy to talk about the Penn State offense and not address the extraordinary talent, and Heisman pre-season candidate, that is senior QB Trace McSorely. Since his sophomore year, McSorely has looked like one of the best QB’s in college football. He reminds me of former Oklahoma QB and the #1 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Baker Mayfield. He can make all the throws, can scramble, and has all the intangibles to lead this Penn State team to a CFP berth. This season, McSorley is off to a flying start totaling 604 passing yards, 5:1 TD to INT ratio, and 126.4 QBR rating per game. If he continues at this pace, I would not be surprised to see Penn State win the B1G Ten outright. He is a player that you should keep an eye on for the future of the NFL.

Defense

Penn State’s defense got off to a very slow start against Appalachian State giving up 38 points to the small institution from North Carolina. This was disappointing because James Franklin’s 2018 recruiting class consisted of a large number of talented defensive players of whom are playing significant minutes this season. One player in particular to keep an eye on is freshman LB sensation Micah Parsons. He is a 6-3, 240 lb LB and is more of an athlete than a linebacker. What I mean by this is don’t be surprised to see Micah Parsons, at some point in his career, carrying balls out of the offensive backfield.

The next individual that I want to provide some insight on is senior DE Shareef Miller. He is a man among boys. At 6-5, 260 lb, he is a player who can wreak havoc on any offensive line in the country. In three games, he has already acculmulated 3 sacks. At that rate, the Penn State defense might have 12-14 sacks from Miller alone. Look for opposing offensive lines to attempt to double team Miller in order to keep him at bay. Between these two players alone, the Nittany Lions defense oozes potential.

Miscellaneous

SPECIAL TEAMS! Penn State’s special teams unit went through a pretty extensive overhaul this year. James Franklin had to figure out how to replace a four year starter at kicker and his answer was freshman kicker Jake Pinegar. Pinegar hasn’t been tested too much this season as he has connected on all his extra point attempts. The only blemish on his rather perfect and short kicking career is missing a 40+ yard field attempt leaving him 1-2 on field goals this season. This could be the only glaring weakness of Penn State’s roster.

Overall

So, basically Penn State is pretty good and it’s going to be a very difficult game for the Fighting Illini regardless of the location. With that being said, I am looking for improvement from the Illini program this year. I want to see Illinois’ full roster up against a full roster of Penn State. If Illinois can show that they can compete with the likes of the Penn States of the world, then maybe, just maybe, it won’t be too long before Illini fans can expect to see their team in orange and blue challenge for the B1G Ten West and further accolades.

Tune to FS1 at 8:00 PM on Friday night to check out this matchup!

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