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About that Purdue game…..

After seeing the “stinker” game that I knew would happen to this young team, I wonder if I even want to write this, and if anyone will want to read it.

But, like the 3-3 Illini and even the 0-6 Nebraska Cornhuskers, we as fans must also press on and do our best to move forward.  I’m obviously not going to block and tackle, but I can do my best to write about the Illini and keep the fans who are interested in this team engaged.

When I say that I saw a stinker game coming, I figured we would see one at some point this season, not literally 48 hours after I typed it.  That being said, I wondered if this Purdue team was just a really bad matchup for this Illinois team.  As we found out, it is, and Lovie and staff now have 12 months to figure out how to change that before Purdue wallops Illinois once again.

I also said that I really believe that this Illini team has one outstanding, put-it-all-together performance waiting for us in the final six games.  I just hope it comes against someone other that Wisconsin or Iowa, because I just don’t think Illinois’ best can beat those teams’ worst right now.  Any of the other 4 games, if Illinois plays their best game of the season, can be a win.

And right now, we all need a W from the Orange and Blue…..and a couple shots of tequila.

Here’s what Jeff Brohm did to Illinois in his game plan, and it is highly likely to be repeated by all 6 of the Illini’s remaining opponents:

Take away the run.  Make AJ Bush and a bottom-2 set of Big Ten receivers beat you in the pass game.  Since Illinois’ receivers can’t get separation or catch the ball, seems like a sound strategy.  This Illini WR group, minus Dudek, minus Edwin Carter, and minus Lou Dorsey now, is as bad as I have ever seen at Illinois.  Dreadful.

Take away the running backs and make Bush beat you with his legs.  Bush runs it fairly well, certainly not as good as Cam Thomas did, not as good as the Martinez kid at Nebraska can, and not even as good as Ohio State’s back-up, Tate Martell.  Bush might move the chains a few times, but doesn’t represent the real big play threat that Reggie Corbin or Mike Epstein are.  And sooner of later, Illinois will feel obligated to try to throw on first down, more often than not resulting in a play that puts the Illini behind the sticks.

Stretch the Illini defense horizontally and vertically.  This is plain good offensive football, and Purdue executed it very well.  The young Illini defensive line relies on having multiple guys close together to clog anything up.  Space them out and you see the inability of Illini defenders to defeat any kind of block.

Here are some basics of what I saw from Illinois’ game plan that didn’t work well:

Defensively, the Illini tried to use a “robber” to double-cover Rondale Moore over the middle.  Sound idea.  Horrible execution.  In the first quarter, Kerby Joseph was attempting to do this, but got too shallow in his coverage, making a huge window for Purdue QB David Blough to throw to Moore over his head.  As a robber, Joseph is still playing zone responsibility.  A better choice would have been to borrow from the basketball playbook and double Moore with a “box and one” type concept.  That absolutely would have worked better.

The second and third things go together: play soft zone and never blitz or dog.  The young Illinois defensive line can’t pressure anyone without help and Lovie and Hardy won’t call for help.  The result, Freddy Kruger type gashing.

What went right for Illinois:

Lots of people showed up for homecoming on a nice fall day.  Still 19,000 empty seats, but attendance was better.

Lots of high level recruits were there to see that there are plenty of positions that need upgrading.

Nobody died.

Buckle up, Illini fans.  The growth pains are real.  Cultural mis-fits are still being weeded out. When those cultural mis-fits are some of the most physically gifted players, that sucks for a fan base.  Heck, it sucks for their former teammates, who sweated with those guys and who want to win more than any of the fans do.

I saw excellent effort and hustle, but right now, there aren’t enough good, mature football players on this team to win in the Big Ten.  I hope to see a few other guys get opportunity to play down the stretch.  We have seen what some guys have, but others need to get on the field to experience Big Ten football and better prepare them for next year.  A handful of players have yet to see any tick, let’s get them in 3 or 4 games, even if it’s just for a few plays, to see how they handle it.

Illinois has lost 2 of 3 Big Ten games by 39 points each.  Can’t tell me that there aren’t valuable developmental minutes to be given to kids who are on scholarship, who are working hard in practice, and who are itching to get even a small chance.

 

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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!

Follow me on twitter @aarmansethi

Know the Foe: University of South Florida Bulls

Location: Tampa, Fl.

Mascot: Rocky the Bull

2017 Record: 10-2

The Breakdown:

Former Texas Head Coach Charlie Strong, is in his second year as HC of the USF Bulls. He had a successful campaign last year going 10-2, losing to only UCF (12-0) and Houston (7-5). He brought a dynamic mindset both on the offensive and defensive side of the field. This trend has kept on going through the 2018 season.

In their last game, USF was up against the Georgia Tech Yellowjackets and boy was it an entertaining one. It went back and forth for all four quarters and in my opinion was the game of the week. USF went down early in the fourth quarter, 38-28, and thanks to an outstanding individual fourth quarter performance for junior quarterback Blake Barnett, USF was able to outscore Georgia Tech 21-0 and pull out an impressive 49-38 victory. HC Charlie Strong has really impressed me at his time at USF as he lost a majority of his talent on both sides of the field, yet he has found a way to win at a high level.

Offense

Gone is standout QB Quinton Flowers and in comes former Alabama QB Blake Barnett. The junior QB has moved around a lot in his college football career starting at Arizona State, then Alabama, and now in Tampa. This looks like it is a really good fit for him as he has boasted an impressive stat-line in his first two games totalling a 69.2% completion rate, 512 passing yards (5 TDs: 1 INT), and 117 rushing yards (3 TDs). Obviously, he is one guy that opposing defenses have to attempt to limit.

For the rest of the offense, it is quite difficult to pick out players that really stand out because everyone is capable of having a productive night on any given night. Against Georgia Tech, a player that really stood out to me was senior WR Tyre McCants who had 10 rec for 99 yards (season: 16 rec, 125 yards 1TD). He might not have scored against the yellowjackets, however catching 10 passes in one game is no easy feat. Look for him to be a “go to target” for junior QB Blake Barnett. Don’t forget about former Florida junior RB Jordan Cronkrite. He has only totalled 9 carries for 39 yards and 1 rec for 4 yards, however SEC fans know all too well how explosive he can be.

Defense

USF opened up against Elon which really wasn’t a test and the defense gave up 14 points. This past weekend they played Georgia Tech and the defense was picked apart throughout the game surrendering 38 points. This experienced defensive unit is still trying to gel with each other and could be in trouble against oppositon that have Up-Tempo play styles.

So far the defensive leaders of this group are senior DB Ronnie Hoggins (17 tackles; INT) and senior linebacker Nico Sawtelle (13 tackles; Sack; INT). Those two will really have to set the tone for this defense if they are to improve this season. Another player who will have to step for USF is senior linebacker Khalid McGee who led his team in tackles (7) against Georgia Tech. It’s hard to gauge which defense will play on Saturday, however it is pretty obvious that it will have a major impact on how successful this team is this season.

Miscellaneous

SPECIAL TEAMS! I think that’s all one has to say about this USF team as the special teams unit had itself a pretty special day this past weekend. Freshman wideout Terrance Horne is very special. Against Georgia Tech, he took consecutive kickoff returns to the house both for 98 yards. That isn’t something you see every day. If he can help put the USF offense in great field position, this team will be successful. Note to opposing teams, don’t kick it to number #80 in green.

The kicking and punting game is solid for USF but I don’t think I’ve seen enough to gauge how good it is. Senior Jake Vivonetto has attempted 4 field goals thus far and connected on both (long was a 41 yard field goal). He also has connected on all 8 of his extra point attempts. Also, freshman punter Trent Schneider has punted 7 times for 263 yards (average: 37.6 yards per punt).

Overall

I think USF wants to make amends for their loss to UCF last season. Both of those teams were undefeated at that time and they played one of the most memorable games of the 2017 college football season. That being said, this is a USF team with a lot of new faces and I still don’t think we have seen the best from this group. I would not be surprised if they win their conference championship.

USF’s road tilt with the Illinois Fighting Illini has been marked down as a “trap game” by most experts. For those of you who don’t know, a “trap game” is defined as a game where the opponent (Illinois) generally is deeemed to be easy to defeat. And of course, the Illini are underdogs in this game but USF is coming off a game where it took everything they had to pull out a victory. If Charlie Strong’s team doesn’t come out with that kill instinct, it could be a disappointing day for the talented program.

A Painful Victory Over Western Illinois

So, a Power 5 Conference team is supposed to just roll over any FCS school, especially a directional school from your own state, right?

As former Indiana coach and current College Game Day analyst Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast!” Every year college football sees a Power 5 team lose to a lower division opponent, and last week Kansas (does Kansas football even count?) lost at home to Nicholls State. This past Saturday, Southern Illinois put up almost 700 yards of offense and 41 points against an SEC foe.

So, these games are not as easy as they seem on the schedule. But for the progress-starved fans of the University of Illinois, it just feels as though we need a convincing, blow-out victory against anyone.

But Western Illinois wasn’t having it. And I give WIU some credit. First off, the FCS athletes want to prove that they belong on the same field as the big boys. They will go to their grave telling their grandchildren that they were simply overlooked. The games against Power 5 teams is not only a way for the smaller schools to fund their programs, but it’s a way for the athletes and the coaches of the FCS schools to compete and to measure their own growth. A Leatherneck player is going to be far more excited to play on the Big Ten network against Illinois than they are to be playing on no network against Missouri State.

And let’s not forget: Illinois was playing with about 2/3 of a squad. Less than that at some positions. In the second half of this game, Illinois was missing their top 6 defensive backs….3 suspensions, 1 injury and 2 ejections.

So let’s get to the analysis, and it’s really not very pretty.

If I am preparing a game plan against Illinois’ defense right now…

I’m running jet sweeps at Isaiah Gay until Illinois stops it. Time and again, Gay was caught with his eye directly down the line of scrimmage, looking at fat dudes rather than looking at fast dudes behind them who might get the ball. In fact, if I’m grading Gay on this game, it’s a big fat F, and he earns a seat on the bench, because, once again, Owen Carney outplayed him, both in contain responsibility and in physicality.

Illinois appears to be making a concerted effort to better support their defensive tackles by emphasizing a squeeze technique by the ends.

The result is Illinois really isn’t getting gouged up the middle like they have in the past (good), but now Illinois is not getting any effective speed rush off the edge and Gay is just getting beat around the weak side edge. As I stated last week, football coaches at every level are copycats, so expect South Florida to stress Illinois in this way at Soldier Field on Saturday.

Illinois is also playing some very vanilla stuff defensively. They seemed determined to stay in man-to-man coverage exclusively as long as they could, but WIU proved to be effective with a lot of horizontal “man-busters” and Illinois probably loses this game outright if they didn’t adjust. Illinois didn’t show any line stunts, and blitzes, or any real coverage combinations in this game, basically lining up to show USF as little as possible, and also putting a lot of stress on depth-level defenders.

Western took the opening kickoff and marched downfield for a touchdown in 6 plays,

getting Illinois defenders horribly out of position on 5 of them. (This is a problem, as 2 main tenets of defensive football are alignment and assignment.) WIU used fast-motion to create alignment issues for Illinois, and as I mentioned before, Gay was playing poor assignment football on the first two plays. On the third play, last week’s star, Jake Hansen got caught peeking into the backfield and WIU executed a standard bootleg pass into the flat for a big gain. It was so successful that they ran another one on the very next play.

Then, they went right back to the jet sweeps that Illinois hasn’t ben able to defend. This time, walk-on safety Michael Marchese was up in the box as Illinois tried to adjust, and Marchese just wasn’t athletic enough to make the play in space….remember, he’s a walk-on for a reason. Other Illini defenders freshman Quan Martin, and junior Stanley Green overran the play, and then another freshman, Sydney Brown, badly whiffed on the tackle. Brown, who grew up in Canada and played his last two years of high school ball at a very low level of school in Bradenton, Florida, is athletic enough, but he’s taking faulty angles and is blowing coverage assignments. Again, he really shouldn’t be starting a game this year, and, really, should red-shirt if Illinois had adequate athletic depth on the squad.

Finally, the touchdown pass to put WIU up 7-0 again isolated Brown by flashing a hook route in front of him (which is the LBer responsibility), while the Senior QB for WIU threw a nice post pattern over Brown’s head. The post beat Marchese, who, like Brown, shouldn’t be out there to start a game for a P5 school.

As bad of a defensive series as Illinois began the game with, the offense was worse.

On the opening play of the game, QB AJ Bush threw a hitch route to the wrong side of the field. He threw to the side that WIU had a man-advantage on. Illinois had one blocker and WIU had 3 defenders. Still Trenard Davis was able to make the catch and get four yards. On the second play, it was another mistake by Bush. Bush locked onto his receiver immediately, rolls toward the receiver, but then RaVon Bonner whiffs badly (there’s that phrase again) in protection. Instead of heaving the ball out of bounds, Bush takes a bad sack, and leaves Illinois at 3rd and 13.

Offensive coordinator Rod Smith drew up a nice third down play, but, for the 3rd play in a row, Bush mangled it. Illinois went 5 wide and had 4 vertical routes on the play, effectively clearing out an underneath drag route for Davis. The offensive line did it’s job…there was NO pressure, but Bush took off on a scramble within a second and a half, never looking to the open crosser. I looked to see if any offensive linemen peeled out to lead block, as this would indicate a designed clear-out quarterback run, but Vederian Lowe and Kendrick Green were set up in straight pocket protection…meaning AJ Bush got 3 plays and screwed every one of them up.

The mistakes kept coming for Illinois defense following the punt.

Gay was immediately sucked in and lost contain on his 3rd jet sweep in 7 plays. Illinois got TWO 15-yard penalties on the same play, immediately putting Western back into scoring position. McGuire then makes his first mistake, thankfully, as he checks down on a boot pass, which fell incomplete, all the while a backside corner route by the tight end was uncovered. Would have been an easy WIU touchdown. Western ends up self destructing on the drive and has to punt. (again, this was to no credit of the Illini defense….this was a young FCS team on the road, making mistakes.)

Illinois’ second possession was as bad as the first. Again, Illinois starts out with a wide receiver screen, but this time, converted linebacker Justice Williams gets completely blown up by the WIU safety, and the completed pass is broken up for no gain. You would think a senior, who used to play linebacker would have the necessary physicality to block an edge defender for an FCS school, but Williams got DESTROYED.

Moving forward to 3rd down, Bush throws the ball to the correct (wide open receiver) guy, but throws it 10 feet over his head…another 3 and out.

The offensive game plan was confounding, to say the least, because no Illinois running back got to run the ball until 1:15 remained in the first quarter.

For a team who says it is committed to the run first, and for a team who has better quality depth at running back than any other position in this game, it is a curious strategic maneuver.

On the third possession, Illinois moved the ball a bit before stalling and then settled for a punt out of field goal formation, which resulted in a nice field position move to pin WIU back at their own 2.

At this point, the Illini defense finally started making some positive plays. and with the exception of one well-contested touchdown pass late in the game, WIU never threatened again. Even then, the well contested TD pass was thrown against DB who really are 7-12 on the depth chart.

At the beginning of the second quarter, true freshman quarterback MJ Rivers came in after Bush suffered a mild hamstring strain. Rivers missed his first read, but generally showed better decision-making than Bush. Rivers has played a lot more football the last 3 years than Bush, even at the high school level, live action trumps practice reps.

Then, the most Illinois-thing happened to Illinois…..

Edwin Carter, a true freshman wide receiver from Jacksonville (FL) Sandalwood, gets in his first game action, AND ON HIS FIRST PLAY catches a touchdown pass from Rivers. A great moment for the kid. It was more a function of excellent play design, and bad alignment for WIU because the post was uncovered, but still….first play, touchdown!

On the next possession, Illinois drove down the field and went back to Carter in the red zone, where Rivers thew high to Carter, but Carter made a terrific catch while getting blown up by the WIU safety. Touchdown #2 for Edwin Carter, who, in the most-Illinois thing ever, suffered a gruesome, season-ending knee injury on the play. Tough kid, great catch, and a sickening result for an Illinois receiver for the second week in a row.

The second half was more like what Illinois fans had hoped for, with the exception that this Illinois team still doesn’t have enough talented offensive playmakers to put space between them and any opponent. Illinois dominated on both sides of the ball, blocked a punt for a touchdown, ran the ball a little more to support the freshman quarterback, and sealed away a 20-point (spread covering) win.

So, what do we make of this?

First off, this was the second suspension game, and if it is the last suspension game, then, Illinois will be getting some really talented players back next week for USF. If it is the second of 3 suspension games, then it will be an ugly display for Lovie Smith’s squad in it’s return to Soldier Field, where the Illini crowds are less than what Mike Thomas thought they would be. (Of course they are…..Mike Thomas’ reign as athletic director was basically a toxic waste dump of an administration) Chicago is a pro-sports town. Illinois football hasn’t been competitive. Ain’t nobody got time for that. USF isn’t a sexy Power 5 opponent, so I expect to see a paltry crowd in Chicago.

Hopefully Illinois gets wide receiver Ricky Smalling and defensive back Tony Adams back from injury. Hopefully, the Illini’s top defensive lineman, Jamal Milan, is ready for a few reps. Hopefully, the 5 other Illinois starters are returned to the field from suspension. Hopefully AJ Bush is healthy and makes better decisions. Hopefully, the weather in Chicago is really nice and a few thousand extra fans decide to come watch the game.

And Hopefully, the Illini find a way to upset USF. A starving fan-base needs some positive vibes.