Saturday was a lot of fun. While college football was making it's triumphant return, the birth of a new era was beginning in Champaign. It started at 7:00am when the new Illinois AD Josh Whitman went for a pregame run around campus with John Groce and a host of Illini fans. After tailgating for a bit in Grange Grove, Whitman watched his new football coach win his opening game in convincing fashion.
You can read more about that dominating 52-3 victory right here. Today, we're going to be taking a closer look at each Illini position group while rating them on a scale of 1-5 Champagne bottles.
Fighting Illini Offense
Wes Lunt started the game off strong with a drive that saw him complete toss three passes for 22 yards and a touchdown. From there, the senior would finish the game 15/21 (71.4%) for 226 yards and 3 TDs. Lunt looked very calm and collected under center, and didn't really try to force anything in the season opener. It was also nice to see Chayce Crouch getting reps in the second half.
There was some good and some not-so-good out of the running backs. Kendrick Foster was
good great with 4 rushes for 118 yards and 2TDs. Reggie Corbin impressed while logging 7 carries for 71 yards and a TD. Heck, even Tre Nation had a great debut with 8 carries for 47 yards. Ke'Shawn Vaughn ran well, but his numbers weren't the best against a weak run defense (17 touches, 49 yards, and a TD). He needs to be a dominating force next week if the Illini want to compete against the North Carolina Tar Heels.
Lovie Smith made it clear that running the ball would be a priority. That being said, any and all passing attempts will be critical in setting up the rushing attack this season. On Saturday against Murray State, the Illini were extremely successful in spreading out Murray State's 4-2-5 defensive scheme. Malik Turner was the most targeted receiver with 3 catches for 87 yards and 2 TDs, while Desmond Cain caught the 3rd and final passing TD for Illinois. Drops were limited, which was a refreshing sight after last season.
Good to see Caleb Reams getting some catches in this game, as well as Andrew Davis. I would like to see Garrick McGee get them even more involved in the passing game, but I feel like that may be something we see next week against UNC.
With the exception of blocking for Ke'Shawn Vaughn (which was a bit iffy sometimes), the line did a nice job of protecting Lunt while opening up gaps for a couple huge runs. Moving forward, controlling the line of scrimmage during Big Ten season will be crucial to setting up the rushing attack.
Fighting Illini Defense
Murray State finished the game with -10 yards rushing. Gimel President and Chunky Clements were in the Racer backfield on every drive, and with a total of 6 sacks and 11 tackles for losses as a unit, the defensive line deserves a LOT of credit for their play. Racers' quarterback KD Humphries is a great player, and he wasn't able to get going the entire afternoon.
Hardy Nickerson was all over the field, finishing the game with a team-high 11 tackles. Behind him was James Crawford with 7 tackles. Both players were swarming the ball well, and here's hoping we see more of their dynamic play this season.
TURNOVERS!!! 2 OF THEM!!! It was a little depressing to see that Murray State managed to find 175 yards through the air, but we have to tip the cap to Julian Hylton's play; not only was sophomore disruptive to the Racers' passing attack, but he intercepted a pass in his first start. Great stuff to start the year.
Fighting Illini Other Stuff
For the most part, Illinois' special teams were fine on Saturday. Chase McLaughlin was perfect on PATs, and he absolutely drilled a 48-yard kick in the 4th quarter. Ryan Frain was consistent and the kick coverage did a nice job flipping the field throughout most of the game. However, there were way too many penalties on punt coverage and returns. Thankfully Murray State was the opponent, as that won't be able to fly against Power 5 teams.
Lovie-ball looks really, really good in Orange and Blue. And while this was not a perfect game by the Illini by any means, the coaching staff had them prepared to isolate Racers playmakers and take them out of the game. Next week's matchup with North Carolina will be the first true benchmark in the 2016 season, and it could give an early indication of whether or not this team is bound for a bowl game.