Well, how about that? The Fighting Illini took an underdog spread and turned it into a motivational nastiness that suffocated what was expected to be one of the better offenses in the country. Two games in, there is plenty of evidence to deduce that Western Kentucky took a major schematic and talent step back from 2016. But we’re not splitting hairs for Illinois opponents, we’re taking a long hard look at the health of Lovie’s Illinois rebuild and how it’s pacing towards success.
1. How could anyone write or talk about Saturday night without first mentioning the Toast of Champaign?! Bobby Roundtree and Isaiah Gay are 18 and 17 years old, respectively, but are somehow out there dominating FBS competition early in the 2017 season. As the offensive lines of Ball State and Western Kentucky morph into those of Iowa and Wisconsin, the road is going to get tougher, but the future is blindingly bright for these two freshmen. The narrative has changed for Roundtree and Gay -- it used to focus on what they could be in the next couple seasons, and suddenly, and without much warning, it’s turned into what they can do on the next possession.
Gay hunts down opposing tailbacks behind the line with a rarely seen explosive first step and a bizarre wiry strength for his 210-pound body. Tackles have to salivate with anticipation, and just how far they can drive block a kid so small, only to have a brief moment of panic as Gay flies upfield and then a compounding confusion based on the fact they they can’t stop his momentum toward the ball carrier. One of Gay’s impacts won’t show up on a stat sheet, and that’s how many offensive holds he’s already incurred. His quickness is a weapon that offensive lines have not yet been able to recover from, and it’s forced them to grab him rather than have a backside sack-strip-fumble from the youngster.
Roundtree is similar but different in that he’s equally as ridiculous a prospect for the future, but owns a rangy 6-6 frame and is already 250 pounds. He’s already notched three sacks, but he impacts the game immeasurably with his condor wingspan deflecting passes and the quarterback’s view downfield. Watching the class of 2017 grow up on the field is so fulfilling!
2. The offensive playcalling is frustrating. For the same reason that Mike Dudek, Illinois’ most electric but surgically repaired player, should be returning punts, Garrick McGee needs to set Chayce Crouch free. You can’t play scared, so don’t coach scared either. Put your players in the best position to succeed according to their skill sets and let the health chips fall where they may.
I don’t think it’s too early in Crouch’s career to call a spade a spade and give him a pass for never being a polished passer with great arm strength or accuracy. It’s frustrating that the wide receivers could be the strongest unit on the team, and it almost feels like Malik Turner’s and Mike Dudek’s veteran talents are being squandered. But Crouch is a moose out there, and needs to be set free to use his legs and physicality to move the football. The Illinois offense is ranked dead last in yards per game, and they haven’t even played a Power-5 defense yet. Part of that is the shuffling of the offensive line, but I think more so it’s because Crouch has been expected to be a pocket passer. Just let Crouch be a beast and run the football! I fully understand that if Crouch got hurt it would be a major step down, but the training-wheels approach is crippling the potential of the offense.
3. It’s early, but we’re starting to see Lovie Smith’s handprint on this team. Punting on 4th and 4 from inside the 40 is going to drive people nuts, but, how did you like that defense that flies around and has fun swarming the ball? It’s a conservative approach to calling a game, and a lot of the time it feels like the approach is allowing a wounded opponent to hang around longer than necessary, but you can’t argue with the results.
From last year to this you can already see the gains made in defensive assignment football. And as those young players gain more and more experience, and add muscle and confidence in the weight room, they’re going to be a scary force. Then we’ll be pulling our hair out against Big Ten opponents instead of Western Kentucky, but that’s the progression and us Big Ten beggars shouldn’t start to be choosers if Ws are accompanying the 4th and 4 decisions.
4. Bonus: Reggie Corbin will make an impact for this offense. Corbin is the only back on the roster that can make people miss in space, and with a young and shuffling offensive line, that skill is sorely needed.