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.

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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.

Game Preview: Illinois Fighting Illini vs. Kent State Golden Flashes

In just a few short hours, Illini football fans will finally get what they have been anxiously waiting for: Illinois Football will be back. Fans will once again return to Memorial Stadium with happy, hopeful attitudes, as the Illini football team will once again take the field.

Of course, with the return of Illini football comes a new group of non-conference foes waiting in the corners to face the young, Illini team, and attempt to give the young group of Illini players a cold welcome into the world of college football.

The first opponent the Illini will face as the new season begins comes in the form of Kent State, a Mid-American Conference opponent whose situation arguably resembles that of the Illinois program’s: a rebuild. The Kent State Golden Flashes come into Memorial Stadium on Saturday on the heels of going 2-10 last season, hiring a new coach (the youngest in the FBS in 31-year-old Sean Lewis), and completely changing their defensive scheme.

You can read more about Kent State, their situation coming into their season opener against the Illini, and their key-playmakers in my recent article “Know The Foe” when I detailed everything you need to know about Kent State Football ahead of their game against the Illini.

As stated above, Kent State are in a weird place as a program currently, with swapping their entire defensive system, as well as losing five of their starters on defense.

That being said, the Illini surely can’t overlook the Golden Flashes, as they have a new head coach in Sean Lewis, a Dino Babers product, and one of the most highly-touted young coaches in college football. Lewis brings a new approach to the Kent State team, one that highly prefers speed and athleticism to throw opponents off.

Most analysts have Illinois winning in big fashion over the Kent State team, which will undoubtedly leave a chip on the shoulders of the Kent State team. That being said, in the past the Kent State team has struggled heavily to put up points on offense, despite typically having overall decent offenses.

My prediction may be a little bit closer than what most analysts are saying about this game. That being said, I think Illinois will come out on top, despite likely struggling in the early drives of the game to get the offense flowing. With a young team like Illinois has, under a new offensive system, you’re bound to see some slip-ups.

Golden Flash Player to Watch (Offense): Woody Barret (Sophomore, QB)

Woody Barret comes into the Kent State football depth chart at the quarterback position after transferring in from Auburn after just one year with the program. Even though Kent State isn’t planning on announcing a starting quarterback before gameday on Saturday, it could logically be assumed that we’ll see Barret under center at the start of the game.

That being said, returning sophomore Dustin Crum threw for over 200 yards, and rushed for over 300 yards last season after coming in as a relief quarterback. Barret played in the 2017 season before his transfer at Copiah-Lincoln Community College. He racked up 1,294 yards, eight touchdowns and three interceptions. Barret is a talented dual-threat quarterback, who will provide a good preview of what this Illinois defense will see in terms of mobile quarterbacks in the upcoming season. Barret also ran for 485 yards in his season at Copiah-Lincoln, and racked up six touchdowns.

Golden Flash Player to Watch (Defense): Matt Bahr (Senior, LB)

Matt Bahr is one of my favorite defensive players on the Kent State defense, and probably overall. Although admittedly junior running back Justin Rankin probably takes the cake in the “favorite Kent State player” category of my award show. (Can we make that a thing?)

Bahr is a redshirt senior coming off of being injured and missing the majority of the season last year. Bahr played in Kent State’s week one matchup against Clemson, but was injured in Week 2 and missed all following games. Bahr’s return is a big deal for the Kent State defense, alongside another player to watch in senior linebacker Jim Jones, who led the team in tackles last year.

Bahr, after joining Kent State as a walk-on, has moved his way up through the ranks, excelling on both special teams and regular defensive coverage. A linebacking core of Jones and Bahr will prove an interesting challenge for the young Illinois offense, led by new transfer quarterback A.J. Bush.

Illini Player to Watch (Offense): A.J. Bush (Senior, QB)

A.J. Bush, after brief stints at multiple schools before finding himself at Illinois as the now-starting QB, has impressed in his time at Illinois thus far. Fans and scouts alike have been impressed by his arm skill. Bush has exhibited great touch over the top, and accuracy when throwing on even the more tough routes.

Though it could be argued that many of the new faces of the Illinois quarterback room have a better skillset than many of the quarterbacks that Illinois has had in the past few years, Bush undoubtedly has a unique skillset. His ability to remain composed in the pocket thus far in practices has been great to watch, and his evasion skills allow him to open up seemingly dead-end plays into chances for big yardage.

Bush came in quickly and took control of the Illinois offense, and even though he hasn’t exactly had too much in-game experience, he is a welcome addition to an Illinois team in need of an offensive leader under center.

Illini Player to Watch (Defense): Del’Shawn Phillips (Junior, ILB)

I’m seeing Del’Shawn Phillips, who came into last year as a four-star JUCO recruit, taking up a lot of space in the middle of the field in an attempt to slow down Kent State’s desire to move the ball quickly.

Kent State comes into their season opener bolstering a new, fast-paced offense. The offense includes a mostly-unknown factor in quarterback Woody Barret, and an exciting player in running back Justin Rankin, along with a few other decent options. The Illini linebacking core is going to have its hands full trying to contain offensive options both in the run game, and in the passing game.

Phillips was second on the team in tackles during Big Ten play, and ranked eighth in the Big Ten in tackles per game as a whole. I’m looking for even more development from the linebacker from Highland Park, Michigan, who also happens to be one of the oldest players on the team. Look for interior defense to be key to stopping Kent State’s breakneck-speed offense.

My Prediction: Illinois 41, Kent State 13

As I said in my season predictions earlier on the site, which you can find in our gallery of articles (shameless plug), I think Illinois takes care of Kent State pretty easily. As Kent State was nearly unanimously voted to finish last in the MAC, I think even a team running a new offense, with a new quarterback under center in Illinois will easily take care of business come Saturday.

As for Kent State, I see good things in their future. There’s a reason Sean Lewis is highly-touted as a young, head coach, and he already brought in one of Kent State’s best recruiting classes for this year. I think Kent State’s ceiling only goes up from this season.

Overall, two teams at different stages of the rebuild come together on Saturday, for an electric atmosphere at Memorial Stadium, but Illinois walks out with the comfortable win, heading towards Western Illinois.

Know the Foe: Kent State Golden Flashes

Location: Kent, Ohio

Mascot: Flash the Golden Eagle

2017 Record: 2-10

The Breakdown:

After finishing 127th in the nation in total offense, and dead last in the Mid-America Conference in total offense and scoring, the Kent State Golden Flashes are looking for improvement, in just about any way they can.

Over the past five years, the Flashes have struggled, winning just 14 games in the MAC.

Last season Kent State won two games, beating Howard and Miami (Ohio), ending up with a one and seven record in the MAC.

The Flashes made drastic changes in their off-season, including the dramatic hiring of 31-year-old head coach Sean Lewis: the youngest FBS coach in the league.

Lewis has a three-game stretch to start the season where they face solely “Power 5 conference teams” on the road. It will be a tough stretch to begin the season for Lewis and his team, but could provide big rewards for Lewis’ team, and give much-needed experience for a roster in need.

That three-game stretch starts when Kent State visits the Illini this Saturday on September 1st.

In a key game where the Illini will be expected by many to win, and win big, the young Illini team will have to get over their first-game shakes and take care of business when the Flashes come to town.

That being said, who are the spearheads for this Kent State team in their turnaround revival efforts, leading them into a stretch of games where they not only face Illinois, but highly-rated Penn State?

Offense

In recent years, and throughout much of the program’s history, the Flashes have struggled to maintain a consistent, effective offense. It could be easily seen how even a mediocre offense in certain years could have immensely boosted Kent State’s season, as they have oftentimes fallen victim to the “wasting” of average-to-good defenses in certain years.

Last year, the offense was one of the worst in football, which is largely the reason for them being voted (almost unanimously) to the bottom of the Mid-American Conference. Despite an overall-average defense, the Flashes struggled to move the ball, which led to the offense averaging just over 12 points a game.

With new coach Sean Lewis at the helm, and a new class of recruits, the Flashes will hope to use the incoming speed and athleticism to move the ball more effectively. Lewis was an assistant under some good head coaches, and has often confirmed his love to play fast on offense.

Perhaps the biggest need, and maybe improvement, for the Flashes is the addition of quarterback Woody Barret.

Barret is a former Auburn player who transferred in with the class of 2018. However, Barret doesn’t quite have the job locked down just yet, as Lewis hasn’t confirmed a starting QB.

It is largely assumed that either Barret or former starter Dustin Crum will get the nod for the game at Illinois. Crum threw for 232 yards on 16 of 30 passing, and rushed for 310 yards on 85 carries last year.

Should Kent State be able to be confident in who they put under center, they without a doubt have some speed and physicality at skill positions that could lead to an improvement in their offense.

Another offensive player to watch is Senior Tailback/Receiver Justin Rankin. Over two years, Rankin has 70 receptions for 646 yards and three touchdowns. He also has 1,001 yards rushing with another six touchdowns.

Defense

This game will be won or lost on the offensive side of the ball, by whoever can most effectively move the ball downfield.

Okay, so maybe we already knew that, because that’s one of the basic elements of football. The Kent State defense held up decently well last year, as did Illinois’ defense when compared to the offense.

Like Illinois, Kent State has had many defensive changes over the past year, as they lost five starters from last year’s defense. Lewis and his staff also have changed their defensive system from a 4-3 to a 3-4 system, adding another question mark to the plan.

Though it may seem like a minor thing, a scheme change while trying to regroup a defense that lost more than a few key pieces is almost never a smooth process. The question for the defense this year will be if they can adjust to the changes, and if they have the personnel to fit the change.

There are some exciting players on this Kent State defense going forward, as Coach Lewis did land some talented 3 star recruits in one of Kent State’s best recruiting classes ever. This comes in Lewis’ first class for Kent State, the class of 2018, and bodes very well for the future of the program on both sides of the ball.

One key player to Kent State’s defense should be redshirt senior linebacker Matt Bahr, who missed most of last year with injuries, but has starred on special teams and in defensive coverage after walking on to the Flashes football team his freshman year.

Bahr will be a key centerpiece of experience for a young Kent State team.

Kent State is typically solid defensively, but the questions above remain true. It has yet to be seen exactly how the defense will fare this season.

After letting opposing teams score 40+ points multiple times last season, Lewis will hope the influx of young talent, and the scheme change, along with a more productive offense, will help the defense perform better.

Special Teams:

As someone who loves watching punters and kickers, Kent State has a very good punting unit, with punter Derek Adams, who averaged 43.6 yards per punt last year even after being asked to punt 79 times, which ended up being the 11th most punts in the FBS.

Overall:

Ideally and incredibly likely, the Fighting Illini football team shouldn’t have much trouble dispelling a young, rebuilding Kent State team. However, the Illini themselves aren’t yet at their peak, despite the growing momentum that is without a doubt trending upwards.

As is typical with most teams in the situations of Illinois and Kent State, there will likely be some freshman mistakes, but Illinois looks to be the much better team on paper. However, as we have all learned in the past: sometimes the paper lies.

A win to start the season would be big for both teams, but I’d say all the pressure here lies on Illinois’ shoulders. As I said in my season predictions, which you can read here, I think the Illini will take care of business in their opening week, and win by a relatively large margin.

Look back for another installment of Know the Foe next week, when the Illini take on Western Illinois, and be sure to check back on the website and on twitter for more Illini Scoops and content, and follow Nate (@NateJWSports) on twitter!

Illini Scoops Staff football predictions and season keys

We’re just days away from the beginning of the 2018 Illinois Fighting Illini Football season, and we here at Illini Scoops are just as excited as you guys are. That being said, how will the Illini Football team fare as compared to last year, going winless in the Big Ten?

With a freshly upgraded roster (nearly all-around), and a stable QB room that will look to improve under new Offensive Coordinator Rod Smith, how much improvement can Lovie Smith and the Illini make from their season just one year ago?

Below, our staff gave their season predictions for the Illinois Football Season, and each gave what they believe to be a key to the Illini having some success.

Nate Williamson’s Season Prediction:

I expect some improvement from the Illini, to say the least. Illini fans should be looking for a four or five win season, but for my predictions, I’m going to go with the Illini football team winning six games, and dropping six games. Taking a brief glance at this schedule, it’s one of the easiest schedules the Illini have faced in many years. A schedule without Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State bodes well for the young Illini.

I have the Illini starting at 3-0, with blowout wins against Kent State and Western Illinois. They’ll follow these games with a tight win against the University of Southern Florida. They will drop to 3-1 after a loss against Penn State, beat Rutgers and Purdue (homecoming), before dropping a game to a stacked Wisconsin team that will be in contention for the National Title. A win against a Maryland team in an interesting situation at the moment secures a bowl birth for Illinois, before they move on to losses against Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, and Northwestern to end the season, before they are announced to a bowl.

Key to the season: Health. The team has to keep it’s playmakers and best players healthy. A team that isn’t as deep as it would like to be, and for the Illini to succeed and achieve the wins above, they’ll have to keep positions like the offensive line, running backs, their main quarterbacks, and their linebackers all healthy. A handful of key players going down hurt the Illini greatly last year, and they’ll have to avoid that this year to succeed.

Aarman Sethi’s Season Predictions

This should be a fun year for Illini football. Head Coach Lovie Smith has announced AJ Bush as the starting QB and I definitely expect some offensive fireworks this year.

Regarding the Illini’s overall record this year I fully expect them to qualify for a bowl game. Here’s how they get there. The Illini should have a comfortable start to their season with wins over Kent State, Western Illinois, and USF. Next is a tilt with Penn State in Champaign. Penn State has too much talent currently and might be heading to the college football playoff. That’s a loss, but Rutgers and Purdue are next up and I believe Illinois will be victorious in those matchups.

This puts the Illini at an unfathomable record, for most fans, 5-1. Great start to the season, but can they finish it off? The road tilt against Maryland and the home tilt against Minnesota are the two matchups remaining that I believe Illinois can get that sixth or seventh win. That would be a remarkable season for the Illini and really bring the buzz of college football, back to Champaign.

Keys to the Season:

Skill players. Yes, the QB position is vital for an Illinois football team that will rely on its offense to pull out victories this year, but if the skill players produce, they could make AJ Bush’s year a lot easier. Expect the household Illini football names, Mikey Dudek, Ricky Smalling, Mike Epstein, Louis Dorsey, etc. , to produce big time if their team is to have a successful season.

Matt Moore’s Season Predictions

The third iteration of Lovie Smith’s Fighting Illini will roar out of the gate with a remarkably improved offense. I look for 50-plus points to be scored in each of the first two games against Kent State and Western Illinois. If the Illini aren’t putting up pinball machine type numbers in the first two games, it could be a really long season once again.

The neutral site game in Chicago versus South Florida will be a stern test. South Florida will have the team speed to run all over the field with the Illini skill players. It will be time for the Illini to just make more plays than a good, but not as good as last year USF team. Just because I WANT the Illini to show good improvement, I will say that a 37-36 win over USF will begin to build some positive vibes around the program.

Ryan Evan’s Season prediction

I think it’s safe to say that Illini Scoops strongly believe in the rebuild of the Illinois football program and it’s new pieces. USF is the pivotal game that could swing a big season for Illinois. Illinois will at least double it’s win total from last season, but in my opinion, they will win all the home games they are supposed too plus steal a road game. I see Illinois winning 7 games this season and upsetting Maryland or Nebraska.

Having a Quarterback with 5 tools and quality leadership isn’t something Illinois has had in many seasons. A.J. Bush will make life so much easier for everyone and adding another year for a young but talented O-Line will be priceless. Confidence and that taste of winning for a program turning the corner will fill memorial stadium, something the players are thirsty for. Illinois wins 7 and goes bowling for the first time in 4 years.

Key to the season: Defense

This is the year Illini fans truly see what Lovie has patiently been building. He has Maulers up front on the defensive line, and many of them. Calvin Avery and Verdis Brown will help talented upperclassmen Tymir Oliver, Kenyon Jackson and Jamal Milan greatly. All 5 of those men are nasty warriors in the trenches. With the maturity and weight added to Bobby Roundtree and Isaiah Gay along with Owen Carney and Lere Oladipo, this defensive line is set for years to come. Having a healthy Jake Hansen to match with Delshawn Phillips will be critical for success this season at the weakest position of depth and experience. Dele Harding and Khalan Tolson will be names to watch as well.

Illinois already will have a top 5 secondary in the BIG once the season is over with year. Instinctual, hard hitting and relentless describes what you will see from Hobbs, Adams, Green, Watkins, Williams, Martin ,Walker, Joseph and Brown this season. Ballhawks. The Year of Lovie defense has arrived in Champaign