It’s not the NCAA Tournament, but I feel “Survive and Advance” is an apt description of Week 1 against Ball State. If you didn’t believe the preseason hype, it was written in Orange and Blue throughout the home opener: Illinois is incredibly young and is going to have some growing pains this year. I don’t expect there will be a ton more wins on the schedule, so getting the easiest one on the slate was imperative, even if it wasn’t backed up by a ton of style points.
This weekly feature is to make sure we keep things in perspective amongst our fandom and being impatient, which I’ve seen both in person and on social media. It’s going to be a season of a lot of deleted tweets, so let me take a breather, then shake out some overarching themes that’ll matter to future games...and future years.
1. The field is littered with freshmen, and in two years, we Illini fans are going to be happy about that. I like to think that I’m an Illini fan with some additional perspective because I grew up in New Jersey and didn’t start my Illini experience with any prior expectations. That includes trying to avoid an insane amount of hyperbole. But, I don’t recall ever seeing so many true freshmen on the field at any one time, especially not for a home opener. This was truly incredible in two respects: 1) Lovie Smith and co. did an amazing job finding players that are able to contribute early in their careers; 2) Tim Beckman did an incredible job at leaving absolutely nothing to prevent them from needing to.
Some of these freshmen really flashed on Saturday. Mike Epstein of course owned a couple drives single-handedly, and showed why power programs were coming in late trying to steal him away. His ability to get small through the hole and then change speed quickly allows him to skate down the field, exactly as the play is designed. Bobby Roundtree is going to be a special defensive lineman at Illinois -- there were two handfuls of plays where the 6-6 end came a foot away from a big sack or a quarterback strip, so maybe later in the year he gets six inches closer, and in future seasons he’s going to be feet ahead and special. The last freshman I want to highlight is Tony Adams, who is less than a year from an ACL tear, and starting as a true freshman. I made a conscious effort to watch Nate Hobbs and Tony Adams, and both held their own; Adams with more preseason seasoning looked very good. The Ball State quarterback (who was also pretty good) knew where the freshman was early, then stopped going that direction after seeing some imaging on the sideline. The pictures he saw had Adams right on the schemed mismatch that never was.
A total of nine other true freshmen saw the field for Illinois, and that didn’t include another three or four that I anticipate will see action before the Big Ten slate. If this group stays close, and is the engine that drives future classes to work to their level, they have the ability to be the group that lifts this program.
2. If Illinois is going to win games, Chayce Crouch has to be a better passer, and the line needs to learn to pick up a blitz. Honestly, after watching a lot of Big Ten football this weekend, I’m not sure any team has a better wide receiver combo than Malik Turner and Mike Dudek. The two were running free all day long, especially Turner over the top, and touchdowns were taken off the board by bad throws and poor line play. Crouch has to find a balance between using his legs as a weapon, but also knowing when it’s an opportunity to plant that back foot and fire an accurate pass. Part of that balance for Crouch is trusting that he can go through his progressions and not get killed. This was Ball State, and even on the first drive they were sending linebackers through the A-Gap without resistance. The line was decent against four-man fronts, but they broke down like a Pepcid when more men were sent from different assignments.
When he was given time, Crouch’s main passing miscue tended to be throwing Turner back into the defender on deep routes after no. 11 had already dusted off the corner or safety tasked with checking him. Turner’s deep post is going to be a weapon all year off the play-action, and when the safety is forced to play up for the run, Turner’s not only got a step on the corner but 60% of the field to work with on a deep throw. By not putting the ball out there and to the field, the receiver is forced to work back into the defense he already torched, but then also try and relocate the ball to an angle that’s hard to track.
3. Lovie isn’t going to let discipline derail this program build. There wasn’t an explanation for why several players sat out, or came into the game late, but knowing the head coach it was probably due to something silly during game week. Maybe someone was late to practice, maybe they skipped class, maybe they were late for curfew on Friday night. These are all things that could be glanced over, but it sets a bad tone for a program that needs so much work. The young kids on this team have real potential to right the ship and give Illinois a winner, but not without attention to detail. As I continue to preach patience, Lovie is reinforcing the notion. He’s willing to sacrifice this year in order to establish the culture he needs.