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.

Illinois vs Penn State: Game Preview and Key Matchups

After a tough loss by a touchdown despite leading for most of the game Saturday against the University of South Florida, the Illinois Fighting Illini football team will go up against one of the best teams in the Big Ten, and one of the best teams in the country. The Penn State Nittany Lions will be coming to town on Friday night to play a game under the lights at Memorial Stadium, and it won’t be an easy rebound game for the Illini.

Penn State, coached by James Franklin, is 3-0 on the year after a tight win against perennial giant-slayer Appalachian State, followed by blowout wins against Pittsburgh and Kent State. Penn State has their offense rolling thus far this season, and quarterback Trace McSorley looks more and more comfortable in the pocket as every week passes by.

Illinois put up a solid showing in a game where many experts gave them no chance of winning, leading almost the whole game last week against USF, before an explosive USF offense came to life in the fourth quarter and won the game. If it weren’t for a few defensive miscues by Illinois, the Fighting Illini may have won that game and advanced to 3-0 for the first time in seven years.

The secondary failed in coverage on a few too many plays, however, and a late Illini drive wasn’t enough for them to tie the game, as an M.J. Rivers hail mary flew deep out of back of the endzone as time expired. The Illini will look to rebound and get their third win this week in a matchup that will likely prove their hardest matchup of the year. Penn State is highly regarded as one of the best teams in the country, and they’ll be looking to state their case Friday night.

Currently, the Illini are four touchdown underdogs. A large spread against the Illini seems appropriate, considering the team’s status as a program and struggles in certain areas (especially secondary defense) thus far this season. Not to mention, they’ll have #10 Penn State coming to their home field at Memorial Stadium, with one of the most dynamic offenses in college football. Anytime a Top-10 ranked team comes to a team who has only won four Big Ten games the past three seasons, there’s bound to be a big spread.

Let’s take a look at the team’s performances last week.

Last Week:

Illinois Fighting Illini

The game against USF didn’t end the way the Illinois program and its fans would’ve wanted. The Illini program would’ve hoped for a big win in front of a large, Chicago-based crowd. Instead, Soldier Field was relatively empty, and the Illini fell by a score of 25-19, even though they led for a majority of the game.

The Illini had a quick start led by M.J. Rivers and the young offense. Rivers came into the Illinois offense in their game against Western Illinois, after grad-transfer starter A.J. Bush went out with an injury.

Rivers didn’t have a bad game against USF by any means, as he completed 20 of 29 passes against the Bulls for a total of 168 yards in the air. Rivers led the offense downfield multiple times on scoring drives and may have been even more successful with a tad better play-calling along the way.

Rivers has looked good in his time playing for the Illini, and he became one of few true-freshmen to start a game for Illinois Football. He has, without a doubt, gained some experience already that will help him and the Illini offense going forward. Rivers will likely be the starter until A.J. Bush can return from his injury.

(At the time of writing this, Bush’s status is unclear for the game Friday.)

The Illini also got a productive game out of star sophomore running back Mike Epstein. Epstein, in previous games, had only limited carries in order to “save” him for the more difficult challenges that come naturally headed into Big Ten play. This is likely a result of the Illini losing Epstein for the latter half of the season last year due to injury.

Epstein has played well in his limited time though, and finally got the chance to show off his talent against USF. Epstein, a Florida native, starred in his freshman year as an Illini last year, before missing the final seven games with an injury. He was one of the lone bright spots to a slow-going season for the Illini offense.

This season, Illinois ranks fourth in the Big Ten and 23rd in the FBS, averaging 243 yards rushing per game. Epstein (7.17) and fellow running back Reggie Corbin (6.49) rank second and fourth, respectively, in the Big Ten in yards per carry.

With a new Offensive Coordinator in Rod Smith, however, Epstein and the Illini backs will look for more growth and production this season. Against USF, Epstein took 19 carries for 113 yards and a touchdown. He also pulled in five receptions for 56 yards.

Penn State

Penn State comes into Friday night’s contest with one of the country’s most fun offenses to watch. Led by quarterback Trace McSorley and dynamic running back Miles Sanders, the Penn State offense has been stellar so far this year.

McSorley already has accumulated 603 passing yards, and 143 rushing yards. He’s second in rushing on the team only to another dynamic offensive player in Miles Sanders. These two account for a lot of offense for Penn State, but the best way to tell you about how dynamic this offense as a whole is?

They had EIGHT players involved in a touchdown last week against Kent State.

The Illini took care of Kent State earlier in the season, but only won by a touchdown in a 31-24 outing in which the Illini struggled to get anything going on offense, or anything stopped on defense, for a majority of the game.

Penn State isn’t perfect, however, and they will be looking to correct a lot of miscues that occurred last week in their game against Kent State. Those offensive miscues included two fumbles, a handful of dropped passes and nine penalties for 109 yards — three of those which canceled out long touchdowns.

Coach James Franklin was heavily displeased after Saturday’s game, even though the Nittany Lions put up 643 yards, and the team was reported as being “hard at work” on Monday, a well-known typical off-day for the Lions, studying their mistakes in the short week of preparation.

Three Penn State wideouts have also dropped at least two passes each, and their offense, though high-scoring, hasn’t hit peak cohesiveness yet. They’ll be looking to continue to gel during a Friday night game at Memorial Stadium.

Keys Matchups

Trace McSorley vs. the Illinois Secondary

McSorley has been good as a dual threat QB thus far in the season for Penn State, and has basically accomplished everything that head coach James Franklin has asked of him. Armed with a talented WR group, who themselves haven’t exactly been perfect, McSorley could be one of the top QBs in the Big Ten this year.

If we’re being honest, Penn State has an advantage in just about every category against a young Illinois team, and this matchup seems to be no different against an Illinois secondary that has struggled in recent weeks.

The Illinois defense is ranked No. 122 nationally after allowing 325.3 passing yards per game, including 411 yards last week against USF. That being said…

It may not be easy easy as it looks on paper.

Illinois has been battered by injuries, suspensions and ejections in recent weeks, and has been forced to put a heavy reliance on freshmen and walk-ons.

The Illini will be bolstered in spirit by the fact that that should all change this week.

Starting members of the secondary Bennett Williams and Nate Hobbs will be returning to the lineup against Penn State this week after being suspended for a violation of team rules prior to the start of the season. Hobbs started 10 games last year, and Williams started seven. Hobbs was named to the BTN All-Freshman team last year after a standout season, and Williams was an ESPN.com Freshman All-American.

Talk about good reinforcements. Their return will be a huge boost to the Illini team that has so heavily relied on freshmen and walk-ons in recent weeks. Seeing them on the field will be a breath of fresh air to the program’s fans.

CB Cameron Watkins was ejected in the Week 2 tilt against Western Illinois, and Nickel CB Sydney Brown was injured in that game and missed the USF game. They are also back in the lineup this week for the Illini.

They’ll need all hands on deck, as they come up against an incredibly talented McSorley-led offense on Friday night, if they want to give their offense a chance to be competitive. It will be one of the toughest matchups that these young Illini players have faced in their college careers, and the defense will need to hold strong for the team to have a chance.

Mike Epstein vs. Penn State Defensive Line

In all honesty, every player on the Penn State defensive line will be important this week.

My reasoning?

The Illini’s biggest offensive threat comes in the form of sophomore running back Mike Epstein. Epstein is pretty well-rested after a low-use opening to the season before breaking out last week against USF and is arguably the biggest threat on this Illinois offense.

It’s odd to think that, as a sophomore who missed seven games last year due to injury, Epstein could be that much of a powerhouse that he would be one of my keys to the game, but Epstein was one of the few bright spots in the Illinois offense last year, and he has been well-rested specifically for Big Ten season this year. That all starts this Friday night against Penn State.

The Penn State defensive line did well last week against a relatively-week Kent State rushing game, after getting torched by the Pittsburgh rushing game and allowing 214 yards in just one half of play.

The Nittany Lions defensive line will have to be consistent and pay close attention to running backs like Epstein and Reggie Corbin, as well as forcing their way into the backfield to get to the Illini quarterback.

Penn State will be required to read a lot of counters and stretch plays coming from the Illini offense, and it will be one of the more fun matchups to watch going into Friday’s game. Epstein is a dynamic talent for the Illini and will be one of the focal points for the Penn State defense as they look to contain a young, Illinois offense.

Rod Smith will need to pull out all the tricks and stops with Epstein and other young, Illini weapons, in order to keep up with a high-scoring Penn State offense, and in order to out-play a strong Penn State defense.

It will be a big test for the Illini offense in their Big Ten opener, to say the least.

My Take

This is without a doubt one of the toughest challenges that this young Illini team will have faced in their college careers. The team will get key players back like Bennet Williams, Nate Hobbs, and Lou Dorsey this week. Though this is great for this Illini team, it is still tough to see them pulling through with a win in this game.

I think that this will be a very tough game for the Illini. I’m thinking Penn State’s offense, led by McSorley, is too much to handle for the Illini. On the offensive side, I don’t see the young Illini offense putting up enough points to keep up. Though I don’t think that the game will be quite as bad as most experts are predicting, the odds are certainly not in Illinois’ favor.

It’s going to take excellent production in the run game, and the best performance to date from the Illini secondary. I don’t think Illinois will be taking this game, and I think they will lose 41-24. I think the Illini hold the Nittany Lions to a field goal or less on a few drives, but the lack of experienced depth comes back to haunt the Illini, and Penn State eventually pulls away.

The best thing Illini fans should be hoping for is continued development throughout this game, as the Illini will hopefully learn some lessons playing against a Top 10 team nationally. Win or loss, the competition will be a good learning experience for the team to head into Big Ten season. Under the lights, however, I think we’ll see Penn State advance to 4-0 going up against a the #4 Ohio State Buckeyes the following Saturday.

Tune back in to the site for more Illini football, as well as for coverage of the HUGE Illinois basketball recruiting weekend.

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

Illinois Football vs South Florida, Preview and Key Players

Illinois football travels to a stadium that is incredibly familiar to the program and many of those involved with the team: Chicago Illinois’ very own Soldier Field. They make the trip up to Chicago to face the Bulls of the University of South Florida, in a rematch from last year’s non-conference game in which the Illini were thumped by a score of 47 to 23 by a then-ranked USF team.

For one thing, Soldier field has an important place in the history of Illini fans because of the legacy of Illini alumni like George Halas and Harold “Red” Grange, who were so important to the foundations of both Illinois football and the Chicago Bears organization.

Halas was the original founder and owner of the Bears, as well as an Illinois football, basketball, and baseball player. Grange, perhaps the most well-known Illinois player of all time, and ESPN-voted Best NCAAF player of all time, starred for the Bears after his graduation from Illinois.

Perhaps just as relevant to the current Illini team is Head Coach Lovie Smith’s relationship with Soldier Field, one of the most historic NFL Stadiums. Smith was the Head Coach of the Chicago Bears (in case you forgot) from 2004-2012 leading the team to the Super Bowl.

Smith will no doubt have some fond memories, as well as some not-so-fond memories, from the stadium remaining from his time in the NFL, and will lead the Illini into their biggest challenge yet this season against USF.

Last Week:

Illinois Fighting Illini

Illinois had a slightly more comfortable win last week in their matchup against Western Illinois, when they beat the Leathernecks by a score of 34-14 after falling behind by a touchdown early in the game (for the second week in a row.)

Illinois starting Quarterback A.J. Bush went off with a minor injury mid-way through the game, being replaced by true Freshman M.J. Rivers, who starred for the Illini for the rest of the game, finishing with one of Pro Football Focus’ highest QB passer ratings, tallying up 105 yards and 2 touchdowns in the air, and 36 yards on the ground.

The Illini offense also saw big games from RB Mike Epstein, who has starred in his playing time thus far, who ran the ball eight times for 105 yards. Epstein has starred in limited playing time for the Illini after having a breakout season last year before getting hurt. The Illinois run game will be pivotal if the Illini are to leave Chicago with a win against a very solid USF team, but I’ll have more on that later.

University of South Florida Bulls

The USF Bulls are coming off wins versus Elon and Georgia Tech. They beat the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets last week by a score of 49-38. The teams fought a high-scoring game in which teams scored 14 points or more in a quarter two times each.

USF QB Blake Barnett led the Bulls into the game, and walked out with a win after passing for two touchdowns, and running for another two. Barnett completed 21 of 31 passes and threw for 202 yards with one interception. Barnett is a good passer in the pocket, with the ability to break down secondaries if given time. More on him later, as well. The game wasn’t exactly impressive when you consider the impressive talent that resides on USF’s roster, but I have a feeling we haven’t seen the top performance of the year for the Bulls. They’re coming out of a tough game against Georgia Tech, after beating Elon by 20 points the week before.

Keys Players: USF

Blake Barnett, QB

USF’s Barnett was a top-rated quarterback coming out of high school, rated as the nation’s No. 1 pocket passer-style QB, and a consensus five-star prospect.

He signed with Alabama out of high school, and redshirted his first season in 2015. The following year in the 2016 season, he played in three games for the Crimson Tide, starting one game. He completed 11-of-19 passes for 219 yards and two touchdowns that season, before he was replaced by Jalen Hurts in the game against USC.

Barnett then transferred to Arizona State before the 2017 season, where he played in four games for the Sun Devils. He has two years of eligibility left for the Bulls.

Barnett has the opportunity and skills to give a young, depleted Illinois secondary a very tough time on Saturday, if he plays well, and if his offensive line can buy him some time in the backfield. The Illinois defense will be without several key starters this week, as far as we know, due to the suspension of players like Bennet Williams and Nate Hobbs, two starters.

The Illini have also been burned by QBs when playing otherwise-solid defense in coverage, due to the defensive line not being able to close holes, but the secondary will have to lock down Barnett in the passing game before even beginning to worry about that. Barnett is a solid pocket passer, with a good throwing arm, and will without a doubt test the coverage-skills of the secondary.

The Illinois secondary has struggled thus far in the season, with the exclusion of a few stand-out individual performances, and will be up against their toughest QB opposition yet in Barnett.

Ronnie Hoggins, CB

The USF defense was picked apart last week by the Georgia Tech offense, in a game where USF faced their first true defensive test of the season, after giving up 14 points to Elon in week one of their season.

USF’s defense comes into this year with a lot of experience, and second-year coach Charlie Strong, formerly the head coach at Texas, will feel that once the group has fully gelled, they will be a solid defensive unit.

Ronnie Hoggins, a senior, comes into this season as the USF defense’s leader. Hoggins comes into this game with 30 starts under his belt for the Bulls, and the experience of playing both the boundary corner spot and the nickel spot.

Hoggins is a speedy cornerback, with seven career interceptions. When watching game-tape of Hoggins, it’s also not hard to see that the cornerback, who comes in at just a hair under 5’9” according to most sites, possesses a leadership trait and swagger that isn’t quite matched by anyone on his team.

Hoggins has 5 solo tackles to go along with assists on 4 other tackles last week against Georgia Tech, and will be a big, experienced challenger to go up against speedy Illini wide receivers like Carlos Sandy and Dominic Stampley.

He will have to be solid in pass coverage, and in run defense, if they are to hold the Illini offense to less points than what Georgia Tech put up last year.

The Illinois offense is far from what Hoggins and USF defended against last year, and the young Illini offense be hoping that they can use their new scheme under new Offensive Coordinator Rod Smith to take advantage of the USF defense’s struggles from last week.

Key Players: Illinois

Mike Epstein, RB

Epstein hasn’t been used a lot this year, and that fact hasn’t gone unnoticed by even the casual Illinois Football fan. The sophomore back came into last year as a 3-star recruit, and the 58th overall ranked running back in the nation according to Scout. Epstein came onto the big stage at memorial stadium and dazzled crowds almost immediately.

Epstein hails from Florida, and will be looking to perform against the opposition from his home-state. Last year, Epstein played in five games as a freshman, and started three, before getting injured and missing the final seven games of the season.

Against USF last year, Epstein had eight carries for 56 yards, with one resulting in a touchdown. He added to that with two receptions for 27 yards and another touchdown. Epstein was one of the lone, effective offensive players on the Illini last year as they were badly beaten by the Bulls.

USF gave up _____ yards in last week’s game against Georgia Tech, and the Illini have the ____ ranked offense in the NCAA so far this year. Illinois will no doubt look to break open the running lanes early against the Bulls, but it could prove a challenge as USF Head Coach Charlie Strong will no-doubt be preparing for such an attempt.

Epstein may see a bigger role than in previous games, as it is a far more important game to this Illinois team than the previous two. He has shined in the roles he has been given thus far, and has averaged almost nine yards per carry over his 16 carries, an impressive tally. Epstein will be backed up by a solid running back stable comprised of solid runners like Reggie Corbin, who has three rushing touchdowns already this season.

Bobby Roundtree, DL

Bobby Roundtree, and the rest of the Illinois defensive line, if I’m honest, were noticeably lacking in presence in the Illini opener against Kent State two weeks ago. The Illinois defense only tallied up one sack in the game against the Golden Flashes, with 12 tackles for loss.

The defensive line really picked up the pace the follow Saturday against Western Illinois, tripling their sack total from the previous week, and adding on seven tackles for loss as a team. Roundtree threw in one sack in addition to those of Jamaal Woods and Isaiah Gay. The defensive line was visibly better in their week two matchup against the Leatherbacks, and will look to build off a strong game against a talented South Florida offense.

Roundtree’s athleticism, as well as that of his line partner Isaiah Gay, will be much needed in the game at Soldier Field. USF will put out all the stops in order to beat their biggest opponent thus far this year, and a Power-5 Conference team. Blake Barnett isn’t quite as athletic as last year’s USF QB Quinton Flowers, but he is still a runner, just as much as a pocket passer. Should Barnett get forced out of the pocket, his eyes will be looking downfield, and he will look to take off running.

Roundtree and Gay are the athletic pieces that Illinois will need to ensure Barnett stays inside of his pocket. IF they win their one on one matchups right off the bat, they will give the Illini defense a much better chance at containing what, to this point, has been a dynamic offense from USF. Ensuring Barnett stays in the pocket will give the Illini secondary the chance to make plays, and will give the Illini a fighting chance at a defensive victory.

My Take

This is without a doubt the toughest challenge that this young Illini team will have faced in their college careers. The team will still be missing key players like Bennet Williams, Nate Hobbs, and Louis Dorsey to suspension.

I think this is going to be a tough game for the Illini to pull out a win in, but I think that the defense continues it’s up-trend in performance, and does just enough to allow the rapidly-improving Illinois offense to take the game for the Illini. Staying true to my predictions earlier in the year, I think that the Illini come out of Soldier Field with a win here.

It’s going to take excellent production in the run game, and the best performance to date from the Illini defense, but I think the Illini will be up to the task against Charlie Strong’s Bulls. To me, Illinois walks away with a stand-out performance from its offense, and come away with close win, 34-31.

Tune back in to the site for more Illini football, as well as the big, upcoming Illini Basketball recruiting weekend.

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.