On Homecoming weekend against Minnesota, the Illini were once again limited to third-string quarterback Jeff George Jr. under center. The redshirt freshman played well for the most part, and showed flashes that he can develop into a full-time starter at some point in the future. Unfortunately for the Illini, he is nowhere near ready right now, and the Illini were toppled by the Gophers, 40-17.
This was a weird game to watch. The squad that Illinois put on the field today, filled with inexperienced youngsters by choice and necessity, simply isn’t good enough to beat a mid-tier team like Minnesota. I don’t really think Illinois played *that* poorly, outside of three turnovers that led directly to 17 Gopher points.
Illinois gifted Minnesota with 14 points in the first quarter with a pair of fumbles that allowed the Gophers to gain possession of the ball in the red zone. No unit played particularly poorly, but certainly the Illini offense and defense have both seen better days.
Here are a few things we learned from Saturday’s game against the Gophers.
Jeff George Jr. showed flashes of competence, but he’s years away at best
He was able to build off his 4-for-18 performance last week with an efficient 8-for-10 mark in the first half Saturday. In particular, his touchdown toss to Zach Grant highlighted great accuracy and precision. But inexperienced plays like taking a sack in the end zone and a pair of fumbles showed how green he is as a field general for this team. He needs to learn the minutiae of playing quarterback: when to throw it away, how to feel pressure closing around him, looking off receivers, etc. This stuff takes years to master, so it’s not fair to indict him in just his second career game. Mistakes can be a great learning tool, and George Jr. has plenty to gain from going over the film of his past two starts.
Silly miscues continue to haunt this team
Illinois leads the Big Ten in penalties committed entering the game, but it wasn’t infractions that burned the Illini on Saturday. The Illini entered the game ninth in the country in turnover margin, but two uncharacteristic turnovers directly led to 14 Minnesota points, which forced Illinois to play from behind for the entire game. Even when the game was probably out of reach with the Illini trailing by 14 in the fourth quarter, George Jr. took a sack in the endzone for a safety to put the final nail in the coffin for Illinois.
Injuries will continue to strain this team’s depth
Malik Turner was stretchered off the field after a nasty targeting hit over the middle that left him down on the ground for an extended period of time. WDWS radio reported that he was sent to a local hospital for further evaluation, and the hit looked dangerous for his personal health. In the fourth quarter, Ke’Shawn Vaughn was carried off into the locker room without a shoe on his left foot and he couldn’t put any weight on the foot. Even freshman Dominic Thieman left the game after recording four catches in just over a half of action. Lovie Smith and Co. will have to dig deeper down the depth chart to find players for the rest of the season.
Hey at least the Gray Ghost uniforms looked cool!
Not too much else to report here from Champaign. This team is building for the future and these young guys need reps to progress. There will be some growing pains along the way.