At 7 p.m. CST on September 9th, the Illinois football team takes the field against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. In an electric night atmosphere, the Illini will hope to build on their shaky win last week against the Ball State Cardinals.
The Hilltoppers are no slouch, however, as they won 11 games including a bowl game in 2016. Last week, there were mixed emotions amongst fans in regards to the victory that Illinois notched. Some were encouraged. Due to the amount of true freshmen playing, kinks and mistakes were expected but the young Illini competed until the end and squeezed through. Some believe this is a valid step into the future. However, some were disappointed and with good reason too.
No matter how young this team is or how many newcomers there are, no power-5 team should lose to Ball State, a team that is slated to place last in the MAC conference. Illinois squeezed through with a couple of big plays from their playmakers, however were clearly outplayed throughout the entire game. To be honest, Illinois probably should have lost that game. The fact that the game was decided in the last few minutes worries fans heavily.
No matter what sports reporters and experts are saying to preach patience and understanding of Lovie Smith’s situation, there comes a point where tangible results are necessary. Fans need to fill Memorial Stadium, and as a former student, no fan wants to go watch a team that barely beats a mediocre mid-major school. That is fact, no matter how young this team is or how “bright” this future is.
Lovie Smith’s squad needs to show, at the very least, a consistent flash of excitement that can be bought into. Most recruits follow the same mentality as fans, especially higher rated prospects. Why go to a struggling rebuilding team when they can play on a bigger stage with a better oiled machine, so to speak.
Negativity and gloom aside, what do the fans want to see in Week 2?
1)Stability Up front
Last week, two starting offensive linemen sat out the first couple drives of the game. Larry Boyd and Christian DiLauro were the two who sat out due to a “coach’s decision” according to Lovie Smith. Boyd and DiLauro entered the game and helped stabilize a helpless offensive line. After playing at full strength up front, center Doug Kramer went down with a leg injury causing another shuffle of the men up front. Nick Allegretti shifted to center, while Adam Solomon stepped in to fill in for Allegretti’s spot.
After the dust settled, the group was still shaky. Gabe Megginson did not have a strong game as he failed to block his man, Anthony Winbush, on a variety of occasions leading to a sack. Adam Solomon is a strong kid, but he is inexperienced and has very slow feet. Solomon was blown by on numerous occasions leading to loss of yards.
In all, the group played poorly, but thankfully freshman running back Mike Epstein was able to make the most of the situation and make significant plays down the stretch. Senior Kendrick Foster was expected to also have a significant impact but could never find holes behind the struggling offensive line. Fans can hope that the group hit the film room hard and attacked weaknesses to provide stability to the run and passing game.
In addition, Chayce Crouch struggled in only his second start at the quarterback position. Crouch is a dynamic, mobile quarterback that was able to avoid a few of the rushes that the offensive line let past them, but Crouch struggled with his timing and never looked in command, particularly through the air. Crouch threw to the wrong shoulder on multiple deep post routes. If Crouch lead the receiver with the ball instead of throwing slightly behind, Illinois could have had a number of extra red-zone opportunities.
Understandably, however, it is expected that Crouch would play slightly nervous given that this is his first season as the unanimous starting quarterback and undoubted leader of the team. Hopefully once week two rolls around he will be able to channel his energy and leadership for the good of the team.
Though Illinois is notably a young team, they need to play with an assured confidence. Last week’s close win can be used as a vital learning experience to correct glaring holes within the team. To name a few, some glaring holes are:
- Opponent’s Time of Possession
- Total offensive yards
- Total yards allowed
Ball State had the ball for a total of 36 minutes and 33 seconds, while Illinois kept possession for 23 minutes. Ball State controlled the offensive side of the ball with long drives involving a healthy mixture of run and short passes. Ball State was 12-21 on third down conversions, with the main bulk of those failed conversions coming in the fourth quarter. Because Ball State maintained possession most of the game, this lead into the other two problems of the game.
The Illini only managed 216 total yards against a Ball State defense that is ranked rather low in the nation. Though this more than likely stems from a shortage of possession time, the Illini will need to string together stronger drives.
With the offensive line struggling, we can hope that Garrick Mcgee implores Chayce Crouch to use short passes and bubble screens to put the ball in the hands of his playmakers like Mikey Dudek, Mike Epstein and Malik Turner. Crouch also has not shown the arm or poise to throw the ball downfield, so this offensive scheme of short passes and bubble screens may just be what the redshirt junior quarterback needs.
As most noticed, the Illini defense struggled with third down conversions. Ball state was able to take advantage of freshmen corners, Nate Hobbs and Tony Adams. Both are supremely talented, however Hobbs only had a week of practice according to Coach Smith, and Adams played in his first game since tearing his ACL during his high school senior season. Look for the two backs to play with more poise during this week 2 matchup.
The Illini will be playing a night game in front of a large crowd. Last year’s night game against North Carolina was a sellout crowd of 60,670 people. Most would expect that this night match against Western Kentucky will bring about a similar crowd. With a large crowd, the Illini will need to produce and carry themselves with a swagger and confidence that will invigorate the fans, regardless of the result. This is a prime opportunity for Lovie Smith and his team to show off the progress and promise that fans so desperately crave
Prediction: Western Kentucky wins 38-21
I believe the young Illini team will come out firing, much like they did against North Carolina last year in a similar scenario. They will come out energized to make a statement and with the electric crowd backing them, I expect them to carry a lead into halftime. However, towards the end of the Ball State game, players were repeatedly smacking their helmets which is a signal for fatigue and calling for a substitution. I expect the same for the young men of the team. I believe that Illinois will run out of gas towards the end, but look for the team to keep competing as they will the rest of the year.