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.

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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.

Illini Dudek Out: Who Gets the Targets?

Illinois Fighting Illini fan-base, and the program as a whole, was shocked at Lovie Smith’s announcement that fan-favorite wide receiver Mike Dudek suffered a season-ending injury for the third time in his collegiate career.

Not only did Illinois lose a fan-favorite receiver, but they lost one of the most promising receiving prospects the Illini have had in quite a while. Dudek, in his fifth year of school at Illinois after already having suffered career ending injuries twice, was set for a breakout season to (ideally) cap off his collegiate career in a high-performance year.

The Illini will miss his ability on field for yet another year.

Due to the loss of Dudek, graduation of second-leading receiver Malik Turner, as well as the on-going suspension of one of last year’s starlet freshmen, receiving tight end Louis Dorsey, the Illini will have to look for new receiving threats going into their Week 2 matchup against the Leatherbacks of Western Illinois. They will also be without WR Carmoni Green, who is also serving an indefinite suspension for violation of team policy.

The Illinois Wide Receiving Situation

First, we should take an appreciation of the improved Illinois passing game. Though we’ve seen a small sample size with only one game being in the books, in which the Illini offense struggled in the first half, the team still looked to have a much-improved passing game from last year.

Fans in 2017 complained (almost endlessly) about the abysmal Illinois passing game.

The offense received a much-needed upgrade with the hiring of new Offensive Coordinator Rod Smith, and the transfer of now-starting QB A.J. Bush, as well as some capable backups coming in with the 2018 recruiting class in Matt Robinson, M.J. Rivers, and Coran Taylor.

The Illinois passing game has a rejuvenated feel to it, and the improvement could easily be seen in the second half of last week’s game.

So, with an improved passing game, the question remains: Who does the new and improved passing offense look for in a receiving threat with Dudek and Dorsey out?

The answer?

It will be a whole-staff effort to get the receiving ball moving.

Currently, the Illini staff has 11 players listed as potential downfield targets on it’s roster besides those who are injured or suspended.

They are: Ricky Smalling, Dominic Stampley, Sam Mays, Carlos Sandy, Caleb Reams, Justice Williams, Zac Holman, Edwin Carter, Dylan Thomas, Jordan Holmes, and Cam Stacy.

Though that may seem like a lot of recievers on a roster, of the available players for Saturday, just two recievers caught more than one pass last week against Kent State: Sam Mays, and Ricky Smalling.

Smalling led the Illini in receiving yards last year, with 31 receptions for over 500 yards. He also showed off his talent on Saturday, in a game where he once again led the team in receiving yards, with a slick double-move down the field against the Kent State cornerback. That reception led to the biggest Illinois reception of the day.

Word around the program at the moment is that Smalling was in a boot at practice. That being said, it is just a precautionary statement at this point, and as far as we know, Smalling will once again feature in Saturday’s game against Western Illinois.

However, behind Smalling, the depth looks a little shallow. Which could be an issue if Smalling is ruled out for one reason or another. The only other receivers to catch a pass last week besides Smalling and Mays were WR Justice Williams (after a positional change coming into the year), and RB Reggie Corbin.

Of the remaining wide receivers besides Smalling and Dudek, the three players to catch a pass last week totaled for 6 catches, and 55 yards.

Though not a bad total overall considering the lackluster first half, the stats once again show the impact that the loss of Dudek will have on the receiving core, and the Illini offense.

The good news for the Illini? They have some depth that can step up at the wide receiver position.

Breaking down the remaining wide receivers after the loss of Dudek (and disregarding Smalling, for breakdown’s sake), the Illini have some promise still to make up for the loss of Dudek. Let’s break down the key remaining players.

Sam Mays – One of three Illini recievers to catch more than 1 pass last week, the senior from Missouri City, Texas is a big target for the Illini. Mays is listed on Illinois’ website at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds. He had his career-high in receiving yards last week against Kent State, and brings experienced to a mostly-young receiving core.

Dominic Stampley – Stampley, a Champaign native, transferred in this year to begin his sophomore year after spending one year at Coffeyville Community College, where he had 17 receptions for 278 yards. He averaged an incredible 16.4 yards per reception in his redshirt freshman year, and comes into Champaign with three years of elgibility remaining.

Stampley, a Champaign Centennial graduate, was all smiles after making his debut against Kent State. The Illini could definitely look to increase the looks that Stampley will get in the slot with Dudek being ruled out for the season. If Stampley could recreate even a small fraction of the success he had at Coffeyville, it would be a huge gain for the Illinois offense that will be looking for threats downfield on Saturday.

Carlos Sandy – Carlos “Ferrari Feet” Sandy comes into his freshman year at the University of Illinois after having been named a 3-star recruit by most services, and totaling almost 500 yards on just over 30 receptions as a senior.

Sandy also had an incredibly impressive junior year the year before at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Florida, pulling in 43 receptions for a massive 800 yards in the air. Sandy made his debut in the game against Kent State, but didn’t have a large impact on the game. He returned one kickoff for 28 yards, and the Illini will likely look to use him in that role again.

It’s entirely possible that we see Sandy’s workload increased though, in the game against Western Illinois, as Sandy can utilize great speed to get open downfield, something the Illini will look forward to using now knowing that A.J. Bush has a trustworthy arm in-game.

Justice Williams – Justice Williams has received high praise coming into this season after making a switch from the defensive side of the ball to being a sturdy wide receiver. The change happened after Williams impressed Coach Lovie Smith and staff in practice last year after an impressive catch made over former-Illini Jaylen Dunlap, who was one of Illinois’ best defensive backs at the time.

Williams made the switch in training camp prior to this season, and has impressed coaches with his size and ability to get vertical for the ball, using his long frame and big size to make plays. Williams is a good target for the Illini to look to use, and they targeted him a few times in the season opener with corner routes into the endzone. Though Williams only pulled in one catch for four yards last week, don’t be surprised if Rod Smith’s offense targets Williams more in the upcoming matchup.

The Non-WR Options:

There are a few other receiving threats on this Illinois team, currently, in other positions such as running backs and tight ends, but a good Big Ten team needs capable wideouts, even in the current conference, which focuses heavily on the run-game.

Players like Reggie Corbin and Mike Epstein could get more receptions coming out of the backfield to make up for the loss of Dudek. We could see more targets for the Illini tight ends, and we should expect to once Luis Dorsey rejoins the team. We could also see other tight ends like Austin Roberts and Brandon Jones get increased targets.

Smalling will have a lot more pressure to succeed in the coming games, and he will also likely now see opponent’s best cornerbacks lined up against him. It will be interesting to see how he reacts.

The Breakdown:

Having options is a good thing, but without many sure-fire options outside of Smalling and a handful of others, Rod Smith is going to have to test the waters for who he can trust in-game. Look for QB A.J. Bush to spread the ball around a bit in the passing game on Saturday, for the team to feel out their receiving situation.

Overall, the Illini have a lot of options, and should be able to find some capable players to target for the rest of the season. Whether it comes from new-faces to the team, or out of the backfield, Rod Smith will be sure to test out all of his options after the loss of Dudek.

Game Preview: Illinois Football vs Western Illinois

Any time a smaller, in-state school goes against the state’s flagship university, it’s bound to be a big deal to both schools.

The same type of situation can be expected Saturday night when the Western Illinois Leatherbacks football team will travel to Champaign-Urbana to take on the Illinois Fighting Illini. (6:30 p.m., BTN)

Last Week:

Illinois got off to a 1-0 start last week when a late-game interception sealed the fate of Kent State against the Illini, as linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips picked off Kent State QB Woody Barret, the former Auburn commit who otherwise had a solid performance, in the end zone to get Illinois the ball, and the opportunity to run the clock out. They went into the half in Memorial Stadium trailing 14-3 to the Golden Flashes, and mounted a comeback led by QB A.J. Bush to retake the lead, and send fans home happy.

Still more than a bit concerned, but happy.

Western Illinois is coming off of a game against the Montana State Bobcats. The Bobcats proved to be too much for the Leatherbacks, as they took the game by a score of 26-23 after kicker Tristan Bailey won the game for Montana State with a late field goal.

The Leathernecks had the lead late into the game, after kicker Sam Crosa hit a 38-yard field goal to give Western the lead. On the next drive, Bailey hit the game-winning field goal, and the Bobcats snuck away with the win, despite a very well-played game by the Western Illinois team.

Western will come into Saturday’s game having lost their last game in a heart breaker, and with great motivation looking for their first win of the season.

For more on Western Illinois as a team, including about their new head coach, check out Illiniscoop’s Aarman Sethi’s article in the “Know Your Foe” series for Illini football.

Key Players: Western Illinois

Western Illinois returns a lot of key players from last year’s team that finished 8-4 for the year. Their offense isn’t as impressive as the caliber of offenses that Illinois will be going up against for the rest of the year, but they still have a few players that are worth watching out for.

Steve McShane (RB)

In terms of the Western Illinois offense, the team moves as Steve McShane moves. They have a capable veteran at Quarterback in senior Sean McGuire, but that being said, McShane is the real root of the offense. The senior back stands at just 5-foot-8, but he’s a big time playmaker for Western Illinois in nost just one sport, but two. You read that correctly, McShane is a star not just on the leatherback football team, but he has started for the Western Illinois baseball team since his freshman year.

McShane has been All-MVC Second Team the past two years, and will be looking to use the Illinois game to prove that his game means business, and to propel himself into a successful First Team-worthy campaign. Last year, McShane rushed for 582 yards and seven touchdowns. He also caught 31 passes for 307 yards.

McShane has totaled all of Western’s touchdowns so far this year, with six catches for 40 yards. Two of these completions were for touchdowns in the Leatherback’s season opener. He also had 11 carries for 76 yards.

Khalen Saunders (DT)

When you think about Western Illinois’ defense this year, the undoubted first player to come into your mind should be senior defensive tackle Khalen Saunders. Saunders was a preseason All-American coming into this year after having a breakout junior year in 2017.

Last year, the stud Saunders registered 57 tackles, eight sacks, and three forced fumbles and spearheaded the Leathernecks’ defense. The Illini defense had an about average performance in their opener against Kent State. However Saunders, who is listed as 6-foot-2, 310 pounds, will prove a tough challenge for the Illini line. Interior linemen Doug Kramer and Kendrick Green will have to give their all to keep Saunders away from Illinois’ backfield.

Key Players: Illinois

Illinois wasn’t impressive in their first half against Kent State last week. Fans sat bewildered as their team went into halftime down by multiple scores on the hot, Saturday afternoon, uneasy about what would become of the second half.

That’s when A.J. Bush stepped in.

Bush led the team down the field on multiple drives, putting up 28 points in the second half of the game, and extending their opening-game winning stream to 21 games, the fourth longest streak in the nation. Big plays from players like Bush, Mike Dudek, and Reggie Corbin made up for the poor offensive half the Illini had in the first half of the game, and were just enough for the Illini to pull away.

They’ll be looking to jump right out of the gates against Western Illinois with some of the same sorts of offensive firepower we saw in the second half of the opener.

Ricky Smalling (WR)

The announcement that fifth-year senior wide receiver Mike Dudek had suffered a season-ending injury for the third time in his short career shook Illini fans to their core. Dudek, a popular player with coaches, fans, and media alike, would have yet another season cut short due to a leg injury.

Even though the news was dreadful to hear, and without a doubt the Illini will miss the incredibly promising receiver, Dudek, the Illini will have to regroup at the receiver position.

Smalling caught three passes for 70 yards on Saturday, including an extremely shift double-move to get open deep downfield that put the Illini in scoring position in a key moment for the team. Now that the Illini are without Dudek, they will be looking for Smalling, a popular target last year as well, often.

Word around the program is that Smalling had a boot on his foot at practice this week. I am only taking that as precautionary at this point. If it’s serious, we may be seeing more Carlos Sandy and Edwin Carter

In reality, this section should say “The Entire Illinois WR Core” because, due to Dudek’s loss, the Illini core will need all hands on deck in order to allow new fan-favorite A.J. Bush to show off his arm. Dudek and Smalling accounted for 135 of the Illini’s 190 receiving yards last week. Smalling, along with guys like Sam Mays, Dominic Stampley, and Justice Williams, will without a doubt have to step up.

Jake Hansen (LB)

Jake Hansen had a career day on Saturday against Kent State when he accumulated a career-high and team-high 15 tackles, to go along with Del’Shawn Phillips’ 12 tackles, and Cam Watkin’s 10. Hansen also had six tackles-for-loss in Saturday’s game, even though the Illini only had one sack in the game.

Hansen will have to have another good game on Saturday, alongwith his fellow linebackers, in order to keep offensive threats like Steve McShane and Sean McGuire at bay. Hansen will have to use his speed and play recognition to keep McShane under control out of the backfield. Hansen was a star last week, and with key offensive players like Bennet Williams and Nate Hobbs suspended in the secondary, will need another good week as a leader of this Illinois defensive unit.

My Take:

In my original season predictions, I have Illinois taking this game fairly easily. I still, suspensions included, think this way. I don’t think the Illini should have too much trouble dispelling Western Illinois. The sheer size of the Illinois defensive unit when compared to the Leatherback’s offensive unit will be a big factor in letting Illinois take over the game and lock down the opposition defensively.

Look for a low-scoring game from Western Illinois. That is, if Illinois can control the run, and close running lanes. Western Illinois is a team with a lot of experience on their roster, including the man under center in Sean McGuire, and aren’t to be written off easily by most teams. They could turn out to have a solid year under first-year coach Jared Elliott.

I’m taking Illinois in this game by a score of 42 to 13. I think Western Illinois will score a few times, but mostly on field goals. I’m giving the one touchdown to RB McShane, from above, and assuming the Illinois offense comes out firing in this game, not waiting around a whole half to kick into gear.

Check back on Illiniscoops.com for more Illinois content, and for more of my articles. You can follow me on twitter @NateJWSports.

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.