Much like the first game of the season, Illinois struggled out of the gate against Western Illinois. The Illini looked much better in the second half, but injuries and suspensions to key players made it a much closer game than many thought it should be. This week, Illinois will travel up I-57 to meet one of the best non-Power 5 teams in the country at Soldier Field in Chicago.
Here’s what I want to see in that game.
Establish an Identity
Rod Smith has kept his cards close to the vest when it comes to rolling out his playbook. The Illini have relied upon ‘superior’ depth and athleticism to overcome Kent State and Western Illinois, but USF brings considerably more talent to the table than Illinois’ previous two opponents.
Beating the Bulls will require creative play calling, as Rod Smith will need to use the element of surprise to catch USF unprepared for what he will run. Both Kent State and Western Illinois had first-year head coaches, and seemed to catch the Illini off-guard in the first half of their respective games. Now Illinois must turn the table by packing some surprises on offense and, more importantly, expanding the playbook.
Presumably, the offense will revolve around the abilities of AJ Bush or MJ Rivers to make plays with his arms and feet, but I look forward to seeing whatever Rod Smith has in store.
Feed Mike Epstein
Last season, Mike Epstein finished as the team’s leading rusher despite not even playing after the halfway point of the season. The Western Illinois game was a bit of a microcosm of that situation, as Epstein had eight rushes for 105 yards, while the next leading rusher was Reggie Corbin with 15 rushes for 67 yards.
Clearly, this offense moves with Epstein, and he needs touches to make that happen. Given his injury history last season, I understand the need to limit his touches in a game against an FCS opponent, but there’s simply no excuse for him to be out-touched by Corbin and Ra’Von Bonner against USF.
Play Assignment Sound Football
Few position groups have been hit as hard by injuries and suspensions as the secondary. Losing Cam Watkins for the first half against USF is a crucial blow, as the defensive backfield was forced to make considerable use of walk-ons Michael Marchese, Nolan Bernat, and Christian Bobak during the second half against Western Illinois. These three will likely still see considerable playing time against the Bulls on Saturday.
Against Western Illinois, this trio of walk-on DBs looked great. But against a more athletic team in USF, it is critical for them to know their assignments and play them to the letter. The margin for error is very thin against more athletic opponents, and this also applies to the rest of the defense as well.
Control the Point of Attack
The defensive line was pushed around way too much against Illinois’ first two opponents, and it doesn’t get any easier this week. The defensive line also has its share of missing pieces, with Jamal Milan being most notable.
But as the position group that still has many of the most talented players on the team, including Bobby Roundtree, Isaiah Gay, and Jamal Woods, they need to step up and control the run game. Bulls quarterback Blake Barnett will be difficult to contain, but players like Owen Carney have shown that they could be up to the challenge.
Nice pass rush technique by Carney here. Knocks LT back to force him to reset hands, keeps one arm free, uses other to create distance. Probably holds on a bit too long as he could have disengaged and swiped down a bit earlier to release but overall solid work. #Trenches pic.twitter.com/nkVHY8rCTv— IllinoisFootballBreakdown (@ILLFBBreakdown) September 12, 2018
Overall, we need to see that Illinois can look competitive against a talented opponent. Lovie Smith does not want to repeat his 2016 matchup with Western Michigan, which resulted in PJ Fleck dominating the Illini in Memorial Stadium.
Even though USF may not play in a Power 5 conference, the Bulls still have talent commensurate with many of Illinois’ upcoming opponents. This game should be a litmus test for the season ahead.
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