It’s Week One, and the Illinois football team escaped with a victory in the first game of the 2017 campaign.
A more in-depth look at how each position group played might offer better insight on how the Illini improved to 1-0 to start the 2017 football season.
Analysis:; Chayce Crouch wasn’t entirely ineffective in his first start of the new season by completing 10 of 19 passes for 145 yards and one touchdown and one interception that deflected off of two Illinois wide receivers before falling into the Cardinals’ hands. Crouch wasn’t able to use his legs for much effect as he finished the day with 11 carries for a total of 2 yards, including sacks. Crouch has plenty of room to improve, including on his accuracy and decision-making process as a starting quarterback going forward.
Mike Epstein was a revelation in all phases as he filled in for the backup running back spot behind Kendrick Foster. Only the true freshman received a team-high 11 carries for 54 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including the go-ahead score with just over two minutes remaining in the game. The Illini backfield looks ready to produce for years to come.
Only five players caught passes on the day, and two were running backs in Epstein and Nathan Echard. Mikey Dudek caught a pair of passes for 47 yards and a touchdown in his first live game action in two years, while Malik Turner hauled in four passes for 48 yards. The Illini passing offense will need to be better in the future as the Illini’s schedule increases in difficulty.
Against a clearly inferior Ball State team, the Illinois offensive line failed to protect Crouch consistently, as well as its inability to open up running lanes on the ground. Christian DiLauro served a one quarter suspension for some reason, but the Illini should have been able to dominate the line of scrimmage today against an inferior team. That didn’t happen and should raise red flags going forward.
The most inexperienced position group on the roster racked up three sacks and just five tackles for loss overall while letting the Cardinals to rush for 171 yards on 51 carries. True freshman Isaiah Gay (listed at 215 lbs. as a high school prospect) was a pleasant surprise applying pressure, and was rewarded with his first career sack and a quarterback hurry for his trouble.
Transfer Del’Shawn Phillips led the team with 16 tackles and 0.5 sacks on the day, followed by veteran Tre Watson’s 12 tackles. Watson also added an interception, which he returned for 21 yards on the play. The Illini didn’t have three linebackers on the field often against Ball State, but Illinois’ third starting linebacker, Julian Jones, was limited to just four tackles on the day.
Riley Miller (7 catches for 86 yards) was able to get loose but the Illini were able to survive despite having true freshmen Bennett Williams, Tony Adams and Nate Hobbs play major minutes in their NCAA debuts. Ball State outgained Illinois 375-216, and the Cardinals held the position advantage for over 36 minutes. The Illini were lucky that Ball State put up only 21 points for the game.
This grade is only so high because of Jamal Milan’s block of the potential game-tying field goal as time expired in the fourth quarter. Mikey Dudek made an impact with a 52-yard return off a punt, while Mike Epstien handled kick returns. Kicker Chase McLaughlin missed a field goal but Illinois averaged 44.2 yards per punt as a team for the game.