Tonight the Illinois Fighting Illini will take to the Lou Henson Court at the State Farm Center in Champaign for their second game of the regular season.
The Illini started off the season in front of a decent crowd, taking down Evansville (IN) in big fashion, by a score of 99-60. The Illini put on one of their best offensive showings under Brad Underwood, led by highly touted freshman, and former 5-star recruit, Ayo Dosumnu who filled the stats sheet with 18 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists in 24 minutes on the court.
One of only two seniors on the team, Aaron Jordan, contributed to the cause with 19 points of his own, making 7 of his 12 shots. Junior JUCO Transfer Andres Feliz, along with sophomore Trent Frazier, also grabbed big numbers for the Illini, with 16 points and 10 points, respectively. Frazier assisted on seven Illinois scores, with Feliz assisting on three himself, along with grabbing three rebounds.
Freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili was the leading rebounder for Illinois, with 10 rebounds in his debut game in the orange and blue.
Evansville is a good team when you let them catch-and-shoot, and they showed that against the Illini, but Brad Underwood’s defense did enough, holding the Purple Aces to just 6 of 24 shooting from behind the arc.
Tonight, however, will be a completely different opponent for the Illini, as they will play host to the Georgetown Hoyas. The Hoyas will serve as the first true test to where this Illinois program stands in its second year under Head Coach Brad Underwood, but what will it take for Underwood and his players to get the job done?
Here’s my thoughts.
Keys to the Game
Can Illinois contain the Georgetown frontcourt?
Illinois Basketball has had a problem in recent years. Amidst all of the other things that you can say about the Illinois program since the last glimpses of historical success, this problem has stood (almost) the test of time.
Illinois lacks a true Big Ten Caliber center, or do they?
Freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili pulled down 10 rebounds last week, and took advantage of a massive height advantage against Evansville (who were missing their starting Center, due to a suspension). Other Freshman Samba Kane was inactive against Evansville due to a violation of team rules, but Brad Underwood has confirmed he will be available for tonight’s game. Graduate transfer Adonis De La Rosa’s status is still up in air, as he attempts to make up ground lost with his new program due to an injury that kept him out of early season practices. De La Rosa will be a fantastic addition to the Illinois program when he is healthy, but for now, his availability is unclear headed into this game.
Georgetown comes to town with a height advantage in the paint, and Hoyas center Jessie Govan is a legit NBA prospect, and could be one of the best big men the Illini face this season. He’s currently averaging 19.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks on the season.
The responsibility of containing Govan will fall largely on the shoulders of true freshman Bezhanishvili, along with Samba Kane coming in for occasional reps. Kipper Nichols experience could also come into play in out-rebounding Govan, as last season he often featured against opponents who had a height advantage. Bezhanishvili will come into a battle against Govan that will, undoubtedly, allow him to continue to learn and develop.
Should the fan-favorite freshman be able to contain Govan, the Illini will feel they have a real chance at going to 2-0 on the season.
Can the Illinois Guards continue to score at a high rate?
In their last game, the Illinois “Three-Headed Monster” of sophomore Trent Frazier, freshman Ayo Dosunmu, and junior Andres Feliz combined to score a massive 44 points for the Illini. They also combined to perform well in the rebounding and assist category.
Brad Underwood feels great about this guard combination, aided by defensive-standout DaMonte Williams, and freshman Alan Griffin, who was a standout in New York as a hot-handed shooter. With so much youth and talent on the roster, the Illini will hope their proficiency in small-ball will allow them to overcome any height disadvantage they face tonight against the Hoyas, and for the rest of the season.
Small, fast-paced play is a virtual “Ten Commandment” of Brad Underwood basketball, and they’ll look to continue to improve in that category as they come up against a talented group of young guards, including the high-flying Mac McClung.
The young Illinois guards will continue to try to perform, and could prove too big a task for even talented young guards Mac McClung and James Akinjo. The duo is currently playing in its third collegiate matchup, and will face its toughest test yet in an underrated group of Illini guards.
If all four young guards are at the top of their game in the game tonight, it could be a heck of an early-season matchup for the two combinations.
Can Illinois continue to force massive amounts of turnovers?
In their game against Evansville, the full-court pressure and half-court pressure of the Illini seemed to overwhelm the Purple Aces at times.
In fashion with that trend, the Aces turned the ball over a massive 24 times. The Illini capitalized, and turned those turnovers into several fastbreaks throughout the night. Illinois, as stated above, faces another group of young guards, but the Hoyas also boast an older group of starters and reserves than Evansville did, and turnovers could be harder to come by.
Last season, the Illini performed well in the turnover category. This season’s recruiting class increased the capabilities of the Illini in the defensive category, with the addition of length and quickness when compared to last year’s roster.
Freshman guard Ayo Dosunmu was known for his quick hands in high school, and has already showed the capability to force turnovers in the young season. Add that to Brad Underwood’s defensive style, which is consistently changing and capitalizing on the mistakes of opposing offenses, and it bodes well for the Illini in the turnover category.
To me the second most important thing the Illini have to do tonight, besides overcoming a height advantage, will be forcing the talented young duo of McClung and Akinjo to turn the ball over. If the guards have trouble controlling the ball, it will be much harder for Georgetown to take advantage of the height difference between the two teams.
Illinois face a wholly different task tonight against the Hoyas, but if they can force turnovers, overcome the height difference, and continue to provide offensive firepower, they should move to 2-0 on the young season before being tested in the Maui invitational.
The fourth-ranked University of Illinois Fighting Illini volleyball team made yet another headline-worthy moment to add onto their (frankly, giant) pile of moments for the season.
That’s right, not only in this season has Illini-star Ali Bastianelli set the record for most blocks in Illinois history, but the team tied yet another mark this week.
The Illini team hit a historic high in the NCAA rankings this week, being listed at No. 2 on the NCAA Stats RPI, and No. 4 overall on the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll. After a big win on the road at Nebraska, last year’s NCAA Champion, the Illini bolted up the rankings to hit their highest ranking since the magical 2011 season in which the Illini made their way to the NCAA Championship game.
Nebraska, a perennial contender in the hunt for NCAA Volleyball titles, is known as a tough challenge for just about any team.
Beating them on the road? That’s on another level.
The (then-ranked #6) Illini continued their great run this season, beating (then ninth ranked) Nebraska in Lincoln, on their own court, three sets to one. The Illini were led by 49 assists from star setter Jordyn Poulter, with 23 of those sets going towards kills from hitter Jacqueline Quade.
To speak on the star-power of this team: Poulter and Ali Bastianelli, who was tied for the team-lead in blocks on the night, were named finalists of the NCAA Senior Class award, an award given to top athletes from top sports, at the end of the year.
Poulter currently sits at the top of the Big Ten and ranks sixth in the NCAA with 11.77 assists per set, with Bastianelli coming in at third in the Big Ten and 21st in the NCAA in blocks per game.
Spectacular team defense was also key to the Illini’s win over the Cornhuskers, with Morgan O’Brien recording her career high in digs with a MASSIVE 32 digs in Lincoln. Not too far behind was Taylor Kuper, who finished with 25 digs against the Cornhuskers.
The team routinely took away for-sure points from Nebraska and turned them into their own positive plays, including an incredible last rally in which Poulter snuck a set over the net for the game-winner.
Team performances like that will be key to the success of the Illini going forward.
So what’s next for the Illini after one of the biggest road wins of the season?
The Illini have now moved to 9-3 in the Big Ten, and face eight more matches against Big Ten opponents before they finish their regular season. The Illini sit at 7-3 on their last ten, with an active 5-game win-streak.
The Illini sit at 20-3 overall, and 9-3 in the Big Ten, which puts them second behind the undefeated Minnesota Gophers. They’ll move on to face Purdue (8-4, 5th in Big Ten) and a tough team in Penn State (currently 9-3, tied for 2nd in Big Ten) during their home-stretch of games which also includes Northwestern, Ohio State, Maryland. Michigan State, and Rutgers.
Head Coach Chris Tamas and his team will face both of these tough teams at Huff Hall while they fight for a spot in the NCAA Tournament, in the midst of one of their best seasons since the Illini made their first ever appearance in the NCAA Championship game, before falling 3-1 to USC.
Many think that the Illini could be posed to make a similarly deep tournament run with this year’s well-rounded team.
The NCAA Volleyball tournament will start on November 29th this year, with 64 teams to start the tournament, and Tamas will be looking to guide the Illini through the competition, and to continue making history for the program.
Keep an eye on the Illini.
After a tough loss by a touchdown despite leading for most of the game Saturday against the University of South Florida, the Illinois Fighting Illini football team will go up against one of the best teams in the Big Ten, and one of the best teams in the country. The Penn State Nittany Lions will be coming to town on Friday night to play a game under the lights at Memorial Stadium, and it won’t be an easy rebound game for the Illini.
Penn State, coached by James Franklin, is 3-0 on the year after a tight win against perennial giant-slayer Appalachian State, followed by blowout wins against Pittsburgh and Kent State. Penn State has their offense rolling thus far this season, and quarterback Trace McSorley looks more and more comfortable in the pocket as every week passes by.
Illinois put up a solid showing in a game where many experts gave them no chance of winning, leading almost the whole game last week against USF, before an explosive USF offense came to life in the fourth quarter and won the game. If it weren’t for a few defensive miscues by Illinois, the Fighting Illini may have won that game and advanced to 3-0 for the first time in seven years.
The secondary failed in coverage on a few too many plays, however, and a late Illini drive wasn’t enough for them to tie the game, as an M.J. Rivers hail mary flew deep out of back of the endzone as time expired. The Illini will look to rebound and get their third win this week in a matchup that will likely prove their hardest matchup of the year. Penn State is highly regarded as one of the best teams in the country, and they’ll be looking to state their case Friday night.
Currently, the Illini are four touchdown underdogs. A large spread against the Illini seems appropriate, considering the team’s status as a program and struggles in certain areas (especially secondary defense) thus far this season. Not to mention, they’ll have #10 Penn State coming to their home field at Memorial Stadium, with one of the most dynamic offenses in college football. Anytime a Top-10 ranked team comes to a team who has only won four Big Ten games the past three seasons, there’s bound to be a big spread.
Let’s take a look at the team’s performances last week.
Illinois Fighting Illini
The game against USF didn’t end the way the Illinois program and its fans would’ve wanted. The Illini program would’ve hoped for a big win in front of a large, Chicago-based crowd. Instead, Soldier Field was relatively empty, and the Illini fell by a score of 25-19, even though they led for a majority of the game.
The Illini had a quick start led by M.J. Rivers and the young offense. Rivers came into the Illinois offense in their game against Western Illinois, after grad-transfer starter A.J. Bush went out with an injury.
Rivers didn’t have a bad game against USF by any means, as he completed 20 of 29 passes against the Bulls for a total of 168 yards in the air. Rivers led the offense downfield multiple times on scoring drives and may have been even more successful with a tad better play-calling along the way.
Rivers has looked good in his time playing for the Illini, and he became one of few true-freshmen to start a game for Illinois Football. He has, without a doubt, gained some experience already that will help him and the Illini offense going forward. Rivers will likely be the starter until A.J. Bush can return from his injury.
(At the time of writing this, Bush’s status is unclear for the game Friday.)
The Illini also got a productive game out of star sophomore running back Mike Epstein. Epstein, in previous games, had only limited carries in order to “save” him for the more difficult challenges that come naturally headed into Big Ten play. This is likely a result of the Illini losing Epstein for the latter half of the season last year due to injury.
Epstein has played well in his limited time though, and finally got the chance to show off his talent against USF. Epstein, a Florida native, starred in his freshman year as an Illini last year, before missing the final seven games with an injury. He was one of the lone bright spots to a slow-going season for the Illini offense.
This season, Illinois ranks fourth in the Big Ten and 23rd in the FBS, averaging 243 yards rushing per game. Epstein (7.17) and fellow running back Reggie Corbin (6.49) rank second and fourth, respectively, in the Big Ten in yards per carry.
With a new Offensive Coordinator in Rod Smith, however, Epstein and the Illini backs will look for more growth and production this season. Against USF, Epstein took 19 carries for 113 yards and a touchdown. He also pulled in five receptions for 56 yards.
Penn State comes into Friday night’s contest with one of the country’s most fun offenses to watch. Led by quarterback Trace McSorley and dynamic running back Miles Sanders, the Penn State offense has been stellar so far this year.
McSorley already has accumulated 603 passing yards, and 143 rushing yards. He’s second in rushing on the team only to another dynamic offensive player in Miles Sanders. These two account for a lot of offense for Penn State, but the best way to tell you about how dynamic this offense as a whole is?
They had EIGHT players involved in a touchdown last week against Kent State.
The Illini took care of Kent State earlier in the season, but only won by a touchdown in a 31-24 outing in which the Illini struggled to get anything going on offense, or anything stopped on defense, for a majority of the game.
Penn State isn’t perfect, however, and they will be looking to correct a lot of miscues that occurred last week in their game against Kent State. Those offensive miscues included two fumbles, a handful of dropped passes and nine penalties for 109 yards — three of those which canceled out long touchdowns.
Coach James Franklin was heavily displeased after Saturday’s game, even though the Nittany Lions put up 643 yards, and the team was reported as being “hard at work” on Monday, a well-known typical off-day for the Lions, studying their mistakes in the short week of preparation.
Three Penn State wideouts have also dropped at least two passes each, and their offense, though high-scoring, hasn’t hit peak cohesiveness yet. They’ll be looking to continue to gel during a Friday night game at Memorial Stadium.
Trace McSorley vs. the Illinois Secondary
McSorley has been good as a dual threat QB thus far in the season for Penn State, and has basically accomplished everything that head coach James Franklin has asked of him. Armed with a talented WR group, who themselves haven’t exactly been perfect, McSorley could be one of the top QBs in the Big Ten this year.
If we’re being honest, Penn State has an advantage in just about every category against a young Illinois team, and this matchup seems to be no different against an Illinois secondary that has struggled in recent weeks.
The Illinois defense is ranked No. 122 nationally after allowing 325.3 passing yards per game, including 411 yards last week against USF. That being said…
It may not be easy easy as it looks on paper.
Illinois has been battered by injuries, suspensions and ejections in recent weeks, and has been forced to put a heavy reliance on freshmen and walk-ons.
The Illini will be bolstered in spirit by the fact that that should all change this week.
Starting members of the secondary Bennett Williams and Nate Hobbs will be returning to the lineup against Penn State this week after being suspended for a violation of team rules prior to the start of the season. Hobbs started 10 games last year, and Williams started seven. Hobbs was named to the BTN All-Freshman team last year after a standout season, and Williams was an ESPN.com Freshman All-American.
Talk about good reinforcements. Their return will be a huge boost to the Illini team that has so heavily relied on freshmen and walk-ons in recent weeks. Seeing them on the field will be a breath of fresh air to the program’s fans.
CB Cameron Watkins was ejected in the Week 2 tilt against Western Illinois, and Nickel CB Sydney Brown was injured in that game and missed the USF game. They are also back in the lineup this week for the Illini.
They’ll need all hands on deck, as they come up against an incredibly talented McSorley-led offense on Friday night, if they want to give their offense a chance to be competitive. It will be one of the toughest matchups that these young Illini players have faced in their college careers, and the defense will need to hold strong for the team to have a chance.
Mike Epstein vs. Penn State Defensive Line
In all honesty, every player on the Penn State defensive line will be important this week.
The Illini’s biggest offensive threat comes in the form of sophomore running back Mike Epstein. Epstein is pretty well-rested after a low-use opening to the season before breaking out last week against USF and is arguably the biggest threat on this Illinois offense.
It’s odd to think that, as a sophomore who missed seven games last year due to injury, Epstein could be that much of a powerhouse that he would be one of my keys to the game, but Epstein was one of the few bright spots in the Illinois offense last year, and he has been well-rested specifically for Big Ten season this year. That all starts this Friday night against Penn State.
The Penn State defensive line did well last week against a relatively-week Kent State rushing game, after getting torched by the Pittsburgh rushing game and allowing 214 yards in just one half of play.
The Nittany Lions defensive line will have to be consistent and pay close attention to running backs like Epstein and Reggie Corbin, as well as forcing their way into the backfield to get to the Illini quarterback.
Penn State will be required to read a lot of counters and stretch plays coming from the Illini offense, and it will be one of the more fun matchups to watch going into Friday’s game. Epstein is a dynamic talent for the Illini and will be one of the focal points for the Penn State defense as they look to contain a young, Illinois offense.
Rod Smith will need to pull out all the tricks and stops with Epstein and other young, Illini weapons, in order to keep up with a high-scoring Penn State offense, and in order to out-play a strong Penn State defense.
It will be a big test for the Illini offense in their Big Ten opener, to say the least.
This is without a doubt one of the toughest challenges that this young Illini team will have faced in their college careers. The team will get key players back like Bennet Williams, Nate Hobbs, and Lou Dorsey this week. Though this is great for this Illini team, it is still tough to see them pulling through with a win in this game.
I think that this will be a very tough game for the Illini. I’m thinking Penn State’s offense, led by McSorley, is too much to handle for the Illini. On the offensive side, I don’t see the young Illini offense putting up enough points to keep up. Though I don’t think that the game will be quite as bad as most experts are predicting, the odds are certainly not in Illinois’ favor.
It’s going to take excellent production in the run game, and the best performance to date from the Illini secondary. I don’t think Illinois will be taking this game, and I think they will lose 41-24. I think the Illini hold the Nittany Lions to a field goal or less on a few drives, but the lack of experienced depth comes back to haunt the Illini, and Penn State eventually pulls away.
The best thing Illini fans should be hoping for is continued development throughout this game, as the Illini will hopefully learn some lessons playing against a Top 10 team nationally. Win or loss, the competition will be a good learning experience for the team to head into Big Ten season. Under the lights, however, I think we’ll see Penn State advance to 4-0 going up against a the #4 Ohio State Buckeyes the following Saturday.
Tune back in to the site for more Illini football, as well as for coverage of the HUGE Illinois basketball recruiting weekend.
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?
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.
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.
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.
On Tuesday August 14th, the Illinois fighting Illini Football team held another open practice during their training camp period, while getting ready for the upcoming season. There was a lot to watch for, as is typical with so many fresh faces when a new season begins, but these training period really allow us to look at exactly who could take a leap and become a household name this season.
Lovie and Co. had another good day with their young, talented squad, and the team didn’t disappoint the fans and media members in attendance, as Illinois showed off what could be the best top-to-bottom roster it has had in recent years.
Here’s some of the key things I noticed at today’s camp, for those of you that missed my breakdowns on Twitter.
M.J. Rivers had his best day thus far, after being rewarded with second team reps for today’s practice. He showed off his high arm strength that many Illini fans have pointed out recently from his high school highlights. Rivers comes into a quarterback race at Illinois that remains wide-open, and he certainly made his case today, completing on several deep balls and also on quick slant routes to all manners of receivers during both QB/WR Drills, and full-team offense/defense drills.
If Rivers can continue to build and get comfortable in Rod Smith’s offense, he certainly has the talent and ability to make himself a top-tier choice for the Illinois offense behind apparent QB1 A.J. Bush.
Rivers, however, has a lot of competition for the QB position, and will have to fight with, and likely surpass, the player who is the focus of the next thing I saw.
Matt Robinson, now an Illini fan favorite, continued Tuesday to showcase his abilities and make his case. From the start, Robinson really caught my eye. In QB/Receiver drills, Robinson showed off his accurate arm, completing both deep-ball passes on streak routes to speedy receivers like Mike Dudek, to corner routes from TE Luis Dorsey.
Robinson has really impressed Illini fans as of late with his ability to throw the ball, but Robinson also showed his running ability, on one play in a later drill, evading the sack from a defensive lineman, and scrambling for a fifteen-yard gain, and could easily have had more. Robinson, to me, looks like the clear-cut QB2 for this team that showcases one of the deepest Illini QB rooms in recent years.
I was impressed with Robinson today, even though Bush and Rivers got most of the time with first string units. He’s shown out through camp and will look to continue fighting for the primary backup spot, or even the starting spot, should Bush suffer a setback.
The Defensive Line showed out, and took the day from Offensive Line. The Defensive Line was matched up once again against the Offensive Line in today’s practice, and they certainly didn’t disappoint. The defensive line (in real-time drills) often got into the line of scrimmage and frustrated the offensive unit, taking sacks and tackles-for-loss at a high rate. The young defensive line is certainly a bright spot going forward, especially with the addition of one of my favorite freshmen, Calvin Avery.
The Illini Special Team’s Unit continues to impress me. As someone who loves watching special team’s work, the Illini have a great, talented group of kickers (and returners) this year. Blake Hayes continues his development, as his foot power is unparalleled to any that I’ve seen don an Illini uniform in some time. Placekickers like and Caleb Griffin continue to impress with their consistency in the position, and Coach Ligashesky’s unit will hope to thrive behind a new offense under Rod Smith and the newly-implemented offense.
Also, it’s worth noting the Special Teams performance, especially Blake Hayes, even “wowed” a certain legendary News Gazette writer who covers Illinois sports.
The team’s depth of quality the best it’s been in some time. It’s been a while since I’ve been to an Illini practice or early-season training camp where I could visibly not keep my eyes on one specific player, due to the large amount of talent on the field.
This year’s recruiting class brought in not only a solid stable of skill players, but with it the Illini also added depth and young talent at most of the positions. From linebackers to offensive linemen, the team is stacked with young, untapped potential.
The team looks fresh and ready to go for the upcoming season, and the sheer intensity players like Bennet Williams, Mike Dudek, and A.J. Bush (amongst many others) have shown throughout the early-season training camp practices points to a much-acknowledged fact: very few positions are set in stone.
Overall, Lovie’s team this year features a lot of positional battles, which bodes well for an Illini team that has for so long lacked the depth of talent that this year’s roster appears to have. With an already-booming Class of 2019 coming in next year, the staff will look to build this year, and have a seasoned core of sophomores and juniors to add to the special incoming class.
Lovie Smith and the Illinois Fighting Illini Football staff received another commitment today out of what is quickly becoming a flowing pipeline for the coaching staff from Florida. The Illini staff gained the commitment of yet another prospect out of the Sunshine State in defensive end Seth Coleman, from Holy Trinity Episcopal Academy in Melbourne, Florida,.
Coleman announced his commitment to Illinois on Sunday the 29th, continuing recent recruiting success for Lovie and his assistants. Coleman confirmed his commitment to Illinois during his weekend visit to Champaign.
Coleman is definitely a “style-of-play” recruit for Lovie Smith and company. This group of Illini coaches likes to use quick, athletic defensive ends to get into the backfield and disrupt opposing offenses. Seth Coleman certainly fits this bill. Coming in around 6’5”, 200 lbs., the defensive end utilizes a wide range of skills and natural physical ability to find holes in opposing offensive lines.
With a good sense of timing, and a great ability to read the snap count and get ahead of the offensive line, Coleman’s highlights are full of him breaking through gaps in the line, and using his great physical ability and quick burst of speed off the line to get to opposing quarterbacks. He will likely be utilized as a 5-technique rusher on the edge, used to get straight to opposing quarterbacks.
Coleman also has a great frame for Lovie’s ideal physique for the position, with long arms and good strength to get through tight gaps, into offensive backfields.
Coleman also is a highly productive player for his school’s basketball team, which can easily be guessed as he has great reaction times, and his highlights show multiple pass break ups, wherein he uses his long arms and quick reflexes to swat or bat down passes.
Seth Coleman has thus far been a bit under-recruited when it comes to power-five schools, and Illinois became the first power-five team to offer him in June, via a phone call from Head Coach Lovie Smith himself. Coleman also currently holds offers from fifteen schools, including offers from South Florida, Florida Atlantic, Navy, Ohio, and other Division-I Programs.
He also has had reported interest from schools like Iowa State, Tennessee, and Michigan.
Coleman is the first defensive end, and the first player from Florida to commit to Illinois in the 2019 class, and with the staff hitting the state hard, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see more follow in the coming months.
The Illini continue their recent recruiting successes, as Coleman joins a class of top-tier talents Isaiah Williams, Marquez Beason, and several others.