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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.

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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.

Know the Foe: Western Illinois Leathernecks

Location: Macomb, Illinois

Mascot: Rocky the Bulldog

2017 Record: 8-4

The Breakdown:

A year later, after making the FCS playoffs, the Western Illinois fan-base has low expectations for their team which lost a loaded senior class.

Despite the low expectations, many individuals in the fan base we’re gut punched by a late Montana State FG which gave Montana State the lead and additionally was a game winning FG.

It was a tough start for newly appointed Jared Elliot, who was promoted from the offensive coordinator of Western Illinois to their head coach this summer. It is quite expected for the overall quality of this team to regress as he attempts to make this his program.

Offense

The Leathernecks are returning a chunk of their offensive talent from a year ago. Firstly, and maybe the most important, is senior RB Steve McShane. He lead his team in receiving yards last year with 307 yards and combined with his fellow RB Max Norris for 1,238 rushing yards and 12 TD’s. Additionally, in his most recent game against Montana State he had quite the impressive stat-line with 11 carries for 76 yards 1 TD, 6 rec 40 yards 2 TD’s.

Western Illinois also returns their starting QB senior Sean Maguire. He had a fantastic season as well, throwing for 2,852 yards and 25 TD’s. He played pretty well for the first 3 quarters but eventually was the culprit of the final turnover that lost Western Illinois the game. His stat-line was 20-31, 164 yards, 2 TD’s and 2 INT’s. He’ll look to be much sharper in his next game.

Defense

If Western Illinois exceeds expectations this year, it will be because of their strong defensive unit. Some of the standout returnees of the defense include senior defensive back Justin Fitzpatrick who lead his team in interceptions last year (5). Included in this list is senior defensive line Khalen Saunders and senior linebacker Quentin Moon who lead Western Illinois in sacks (7.5) and tackles (70) respectively.

The extraordinary thing about these players is that they didn’t have that much of an impact against Montana State. That’s why this defense is such a strong group, they play together and as a unit. Expect it to cause problems early and often for the Illinois Fighting Illini this weekend.

Miscellaneous

Western Illinois has a okay Special Teams Unit led by RS sophomore punter Adam Feller. Against Montana State, he punted 5 times for 244 yards and 48.80 yards on average. The kicking unit is still suspect as it seems there are two kickers who could see time agianst the Illini this weekend. Sam Crosa and Nathan Erickson both attempted a FG a piece with Crosa going 1-1 and Erickson missing his only attempt.

The return game is where this special teams unit is at its best. RS sophomore WR Tony Tate had a big return of 63 yards during the Montana State game. He is an speedy and electric player that Illinois will have to keep their eyes on this weekend. Additionally RS freshman defensive back Andre Whitley is second on the kickoff return depth chart and is capable of making an impact in the return game.

Overall

This shouldn’t be much of a test in an ideal world, but it reamins to be seen which team will come out and play. It is important to understand that Western Illinois might have had a lot of turnover in the last year, however their players know how to win. That’s why I believe that Western Illinois will have a similar showing to that of Kent State this past weekend.

Western is hungry after a loss that should have never occured. They will come into Champaign with a nothing to lose kind of attitude, and be ready to play a competitive contest against the Illini. I am not sure which program needs the win more currently, but whoever gets this win can ride the momentum in to their next game. A loss to Western would severely damage bowl hopes for the Young illini who are likely to have many players Injured and suspended again.

A Confluence

is defined by Webster as a coming or flowing together at one point.

Just as rivers like the Kankakee, Fox, Sangamon, Spoon, LaMoine, Vermilion, Iroquois, DuPage and others flow together to make up the Illinois River, so did a bunch of factors flow together to make the Illini’s 31-24 season-opening victory over Kent State much closer than it should have been. Freshman mistakes, suspensions, injuries, some really eye-popping plays from Kent State, bad angles and some debatable coaching decisions all came together and almost cost Illinois an embarrassing loss.

I admit, I have much higher hopes for this year’s Illini team than what we saw in the first half Saturday.

I drank enough of the Orange and Blue Kool-aid to predict an 8-4 season for Illinois and a berth in the Outback Bowl. After watching the first half on TV, I was just feeling blue. Visions of 1-11 were going through my mind….how could it possibly be this bad?

But, after meticulously reviewing the TV version for 4 hours Sunday night into Monday morning, I feel better.

It was better than I thought once I put my “football coach” glasses on and watched each play 3 or 4 times, focusing on specific things. But before we go too far into the analysis on the field, let’s look at a couple other things that effected the Illini performance.

Suspensions. Ugh. Boys will be boys, but Lovie Smith is taking a hard line in character building and team-culture building, meting out some tough love on some fellas who somehow misbehaved at some point since the last Illini game. In my training camp articles, I had mentioned how this Illini team was razor-thin in terms of depth, and immediately that depth is tested not as much by injury (those happen) but by bad behavior. It’s not like the guys who were suspended were just guys, they were a few of the best players on the team. Bennett Williams and Lou Dorsey were excellent last year as freshman, as was Nate Hobbs, who missed all of training camp due to illness last year.

Now think about how young this team is….the players who replaced those guys were all playing high school football 9 1/2 months ago.

On top of the suspensions, sophomore offensive lineman Larry Boyd is out for the season to take care of academic business along with freshman defensive lineman Verdis Brown, the Illini’s highest rated recruit.

And on top of that mess, the Illini’s best defensive tackle Jamal Milan and another starting corner, Tony Adams, missed the game due to injury.

So, if I told you that a thin, young Illini team would go into a game versus a former Under Armour All-American quarterback as part of an aerial circus without 3 of their best players in the secondary, would you think that maybe, there could be some growing pains??? Well, there were some growing pains, but a lot of positives, too.

Kent State is not a 2-10 team in 2018.

They will be significantly better than they were last year for a couple reasons, not the least of which is Quarterback Woody Barrett, who I predict will be the best quarterback in the MAC. He’s really good. He throws a great ball, and physically, he’s a real load. Somehow, he’s listed as a sophomore for Kent State, and if he gets 3 years to develop, he will be a solid draft choice in the NFL.

Barrett’s rugged physical abilities combined with the horizontal spreading of the Kent formations creates a ton of problems for a defense. And we saw that on Saturday.

But still, it’s a MAC level team and a Big Ten team should have it’s way with them….

Kent has Penn State and Mississippi left in their non-conference schedule so the overall record won’t be pretty, but I could see them winning at least half their conference games, if not more.

So, if YOU were coaching a bunch of true freshmen in the secondary and were facing a rocket-armed passer in a wide-open, fast-paced attack, what would your strategy be?

I know what mine would be….“Don’t get beat deep.” And that is exactly how Illinois played it. Illini safeties were sometimes as far off the ball as 20 yards at the snap. One of the tenets of a Lovie Smith defense has always been to keep everything in front of you. Contain, make lengthen the field. The Illini did this very well. Especially considering how young they wee in the defensive backfield. I would give the unit 4 stars, actually. I also think that when Adams, Hobbs, and Williams return to action, you will see decidedly tighter coverage, pre-snap and afterwards.

But how did it get so ugly on Illinois in the first half???

Like I said, it was a confluence. Like the rivers that form the Illinois, which leads to the Mississippi, some of the mistakes were smaller, and some were bigger. Even good, veteran teams make mistakes, and this Illinois team will continue to make mistakes as they grow, but most of what I saw are correctable, and, in fact, most of them were corrected throughout the game.

Let’s run down some of those mistakes….

Ricky Smalling drops a potential touchdown pass on the Illini’s first play…..if Smalling catches that ball and scores, the mojo for the entire day changes.

Illinois continued the opening drive and went downfield to get a field goal, but along the way there were a couple mistakes that probably cost the Illini a touchdown. Sophomore offensive tackle Alex Palczewski missed the key block on a well-designed cut-back run to the weak-side by RaVon Bonner. Palcho pulled on the play and two Kent defenders came up to force the play inside. All Palcho had to do was block either one of them. He didn’t block either, instead running upright RIGHT BETWEEN THEM and they smothered Bonner for a one yard gain. If Palcho makes a block, Bonner is into the second level and might have had a touchdown. A couple plays later, freshman tight end Daniel Barker (playing because Dorsey is suspended) whiffed on a block in the same fashion. Barker ended up making the same block successfully later in the game.

So, instead of 7, Illinois gets 3.

On the defensive side of the ball, Isaiah Gay squeezed down the line of scrimmage so aggressively and his eyes were on the offensive tackle instead of on the running back or quarterback. Gay got too far inside, got hooked by the pulling guard and got caught inside. Delshawn Phillips was playing with his mouthpiece when the ball was snapped, was slow to react, and got outrun to the outside. 20 yard gain.

Again, preventable, and correctable. However, on the very next play, Kent goes with a WR screen, which Illinois attacked aggressively. Somehow, nickel back Sydney Brown completely whiffed on the ball carrier, he broke free for another 20 yard gain.

So, later, Illinois forces a 4th and 9 at their own 44 and rather than punt to pin Illinois down, Kent goes for it. Kent spread the formation with twins each side, which took Illini LB Jake Hansen out of the box. On the resulting (and very predictable) quarterback iso, Hansen was shielded from making the tackle by the official. Hansen decided not to blow up the official, which would have tackled Barrett, but Barrett scampered away for another first down. Ugh.

The first Kent touchdown was really a brilliant design. J Leman called it a pick play, a rub route on the broadcast, but it was nothing of the sort. If you taped the game, I really suggest you go back and watch this play, because it was so perfectly designed, and perfectly executed.

Kent State had already run a couple of wide receiver screens to set this play up. They went with a wide trips bunch to the left and all 3 receivers did little things to ensure the success of the play. The wide guy faked the hitch route, which signaled all three Illini defenders to attack, including the safety over the top. The middle receiver, ran upfield to the boundary to simulate a blocking route on the Illini corner. Barrett very calmly looked to the hitch receiver, while the inside receiver ran directly toward Illini safety Delano Ware (a true freshman), hesitated so slightly like he was breaking down to block, then took off right past Ware catching an uncontested ball for six points. The receiver was so wide open he would have scored if the field was 1000 yards long.

So, again, tip of the cap to Sean Lewis, the Kent State coach, and to Woody Barrett, who effectively sold the hitch, and to the 3 receivers who all did their part. That play scores a touchdown against a lot of teams, especially against such an inexperienced secondary.

So, on the following kickoff….

Kent State’s kicker kicks it down the boundary to about the 8 yard line, where the ball somehow backs up like a Phil Mickelson wedge at Augusta. With a live ball on the ground at the 12 and two feet from the boundary, Illinois’ Austin Roberts picks it up, but his momentum takes him out of bounds. If you thought that was bad, Dominic Stampley says, “hold my beer.”

Despite starting at their own 13, Illinois effectively picks up a first down, then AJ Bush misses a wide open Sam Mays on what would have been another touchdown. So that 3 touchdown opportunities missed and we’re still in the first quarter.

Illinois gets a first down, then would have and another, but Smalling gets called for a stupid block in the back. Still, an Illinois offense that was playing better than the results, converted two plays later to move the sticks. With first down at the Kent 19, Illinois throws a post corner, which drew a pass interference penalty on Kent State. Unfortunately, Illini redshirt freshman guard Kendrick Green was illegally downfield, so no first down and goal at the 8, just a re-do.

After a short Bonner gain on first down the drive so far has been 13 plays, 70 yards, and the Illinois offense has overcome two penalties and a missed shot downfield. On second and 7, AJ Bush rolls left and runs to the Kent State 8, which would have been a first down and goal, but here’s where some bad luck hits the Illini. On the back side of the play, Palczewski perfectly executes a cut block, but his right arm falls over the leg of the defensive tackle. Palczewski made absolutely no attempt to grab the defender with his arm…it’s just where his arm fell on the cut block. Needless to say, Palcho got called for holding, and instead of first and goal, it’s second and 17 from the Kent State 27.

Faced with a 3rd and 15, AJ Bush held the ball for too long and was sacked on a weak side corner blitz. Of course, he fumbled, Kent State recovered and after giving up what felt like 130 yards of offense on the drive, Kent gets off the field unscathed.

Lots of good offense, but just too many little mistakes to get the score. So, at this point, realistically, it should have been 14-7 Illinois, but it’s 7-3 KSU.

Kent takes the ball, converts two fourth downs, and gets a field goal. 10-3. Illinois first showed signed of spying Barrett on this drive, using Kendall Smith to spy Barrett. Kendall Smith didn’t look like he knew what he was doing, was slow to react, and got caught up in the wash which allowed the second fourth down conversion. With the game on the line in the 4th quarter, Kendall Smith was not the spy anymore.

Then we have the Dom Stampley moment. You know, the one that he will always be remembered for, as he caught the KSU kickoff running out of bounds at the 3 yard line. As bad as it was, I have to lay part of the blame for the poor Illini kick off returns at the feet of Coach Bob Ligashesky. Ligs is a meticulous planner and stickler to detail, but he missed covering this, evidently.

So, the Illinois offense again starts with crappy field position. But unlike last year, when the Illini would have punted from their own end zone, the offense generated a couple good first downs and got out to the 37 before a couple of poorly thrown passes killed the drive. Still, the offense was good enough to flip the field position ahead of the Blake Hayes punt.

Kent moved down the field and, thanks to a Bobby Roundtree missed sack on third and long, eventually got another big play on 3rd and 12, which was the result of a perfectly thrown ball by Barrett for the touchdown. The big physical play by Barrett makes Kent a dangerous offensive team, and he was just better than the Illini defense on this drive. He’s going to be either the best or 2nd best quarterback Illinois plays all season, though. McSorley from Penn State is the only other quarterback in the kid’s class.

17-3 Kent State and the demoralization factor is really going up. The following Illini 3 and out left Illinois to punt, with a gassed defense set to go back on the field. Blake Hayes drilled a 67 yard directional punt to pin KSU back at their own 3. With only 2 minutes to go in the first half, however, KSU decided to milk the clock, making Illinois use time outs. Illinois held for a 3 and out, holding one time out with 1:26 on the clock. At this point, Kent State is punting from their own end zone with a back up punter. This should have set up really well for Illinois. Instead, Ligashesky’s special teams made 2 more critical mistakes which negated that opportunity.

The first mistake was putting the LONE RETURN MAN too deep for a back-up punter. WAY TOO DEEP. With the KSU punter standing at the back of his own end zone, Senior Mikey Dudek was stationed at the Illinois 40 awaiting the kick. 65 yards way from where the ball is kicked. (When I coached high school football, I physically stood at the yard line where I wanted my return man. I would have been standing at the Kent State 45, because that still gives the punter credit for kicking it 50 yards).

The punt was what you would expect from a backup MAC punter. It was fairly low, and landed at the Kent State 41. If Dudek is in the correct position to begin with, he catches it easily and probably returns it to the 30, just because it was low. Because he was 15 yards too deep, the ball hit the ground and bounced hard and fast to Dudek’s right, making him run backwards all the way to the Illinois 31 before he could get it. He ran around trying to make a play, but got pushed out of bounds around the Illinois 30. That right there is a 40 yard difference due to bad, bad special teams coaching. BAD!

But hey! Kent State had a penalty, so the play is called back! Illinois gets a do-over! And this time the punter is even further toward the back of the end zone. So what adjustment does Ligashesky make? He puts two return men back…..BOTH OF WHOM ARE STILL TOO DAMN FAR BACK. The ball again lands well in front of Dudek, and he lets it slow roll this time all the way to the Illinois 39.

In the process of 2 horribly botched punt returns, the clock went from 1:26 to :54, and instead of having the ball at the Kent 35 with 1:18 in the half, it’s at the Illinois 39 with :54.

And, of course, this brutal first half ends with a missed Illinois field goal.

So. Many. Mistakes.

And I didn’t even mention AJ Bush holding the ball too long which cost Mike Epstein a touchdown or two blown coverages by the Illinois secondary that KSU didn’t fully capitalize on.

So, we all know that the 2nd half was what we thought the whole game could be like for Illinois. 28 points of offense, only 7 allowed, and the Illini pick up win #1.

Still, for a starving fan base, this win felt like a moral loss….you know the opposite of the moral victory.

There were still some mistakes. Like the fair catch by someone other that the kick returner on the opening kickoff of the second half. Freshman Syd Brown was out of position several times. Delshawn Phillips had a potentially disastrous blown coverage.

But, Illinois sucked it up and found a way to win.

I thought the offensive line was very much improved from a year ago. Very, very much improved. I thought AJ Bush had better and quicker decisions in the second half. And I think Rod Smith decided to get the ball to his top playmakers more often. NFL veteran coach Gill Byrd, now coaching the Illinois secondary, cleaned up things schematically, and to their credit, the young Illini were coachable enough to make the adjustments.

Here are some other things I liked:

Owen Carney played really well. In fact, I think he played better than Isaiah Gay.

Quan “don’t call me Jartavius” Martin played very well. I could see stardom in his future.

Kerby Joseph and Delano Ware had some really good moments.

Blake Hayes is truly a difference maker at punter. But we already knew that.

Jake Hansen played very well against the run. However, expect to see future offensive coordinators pick on him in the pass game. Against the pass, he was downright awful.

Cam Watkins was really, really good Saturday. Great coverage, and rugged and physical versus blockers and coming up on the run. You can tell a real, tangible, physical difference between the third year player Watkins versus the true freshmen.

The Illinois team that took the field Saturday vs Kent State would absolutely go winless in the Big Ten. There’s no doubt in my mind.

However, real bona fide reinforcements will be back by the Penn State game. And I think we can expect better coaching from Ligashesky and Rod Smith and real improvement from AJ Bush, who just hasn’t played much real football in a long time.

Let’s hope we just witnessed the worst half of football Illinois will play for many years, because even for a young football team, the first half was incredibly bad. Illinois was lucky to walk away with a win versus an inferior opponent.