After its 20-7 win over Western Kentucky on Saturday night at Memorial Stadium, Professor Bourbon is back with his grades, and this will be the report card to show off to the parents if you’re on Illinois. As for Western Kentucky, Big Red and Co. will go back to what I can only assume is the top of a hill disappointed.
Let’s get to it.
Another ho-hum game for Chayce Crouch in his second start of 2017. He was 14-of-25 for 107 yards through the air and added 12 carries for 44 yards and a touchdown. Crouch gets dinged here for a really bad interception that set up the Hilltoppers with excellent field position for their only touchdown of the night. There were also two fumbled snaps out of shotgun, one of which was actually a good snap that Crouch just dropped. But overall, the junior was steady, didn’t do too much and handed the ball off an awful lot.
Mike Epstein was at it again, racking up 111 yards on 21 carries to pace the Illini rushing attack. Fellow freshman Ra’Von Bonner earned 25 yards on 12 carries, while Kendrick Foster chipped in three carries for 11 yards. Illinois piled up 193 yards on the ground for the day and was able to control the clock for nearly 38 minutes of the game. That’s a winning formula every time.
The wideouts were plagued by a case of the drops that could’ve been big plays but overall didn’t get too many chances to shine. Mikey Dudek led the team with six catches for 46 yards while Malik Turner had three receptions for 22. Louis Dorsey — a dude the professor has his eye on as a potential future star — added a 20-yard catch in the second half, and freshman Ricky Smalling recorded his first career grab.
Despite a shuffling from last week and having two true freshmen starting directly next to each other, the o-line’s performance as a whole was a vast improvement over its season debut. There were still missed assignments occasionally, but it wasn’t a mass chaos situation up front like it was against Ball State. I quite literally laughed out loud on a particularly brutal pancake from Nick Allegretti in the second half.
It wasn’t just one guy who played well Saturday — it was damn near every guy along the line who made plays. Bobby Roundtree had two sacks and a forced fumble, Jamal Milan recovered a fumble, Isaiah Gay was impactful drawing penalties and getting pressure — in addition making plays in the running game — Tymir Oliver plugged up the middle, etc., etc., etc. Western Kentucky rushed for just six yards, and a defensive line that is almost exclusively freshmen and sophomores had everything to do with it.
Julian Jones gets top marks for what will undoubtedly be the easiest touchdown of his career on a 10-yard pick-six, and Del’Shawn Phillips led the Illini in tackles. Tre’ Watson was ejected for targeting just before halftime, and the professor will stay professional and say it was, ahem, questionable. Props to Dele Harding for stepping in for Watson — not an easy task in terms of playcalling as well as on-field responsibilities — and the defense didn’t miss a beat.
Everyone knows that the Hilltoppers want to sling the ball all over the field, and Western Kentucky quarterback Mike White never looked comfortable Saturday. To hold a guy that passed for 4,363 yards last season to just 238 yards Saturday is a huge win for the Illinois defense. Nate Hobbs (a former WKU commit) bounced back from a tough first game to have six tackles and a pass breakup and Amari Hayes added a forced fumble. Patrick Nelson had possibly the biggest hit of the night when he flipped a Hilltopper running back to shut down a drive.
Blake Hayes got a lot of work, punting seven times and averaging 34.7 yards per boot. He had a long of 52 yards and two punts landed inside the 20. Nothing flashy, but also he avoided absolutely shanking the ball, which his Western Kentucky counterpart Jake Collins struggled with. Chase McLaughlin made both of his field goal attempts and Western Kentucky actively avoided punting to Mikey Dudek, which usually set up the Illini in good field position.