So far it has been a tale of two halves for Illinois this season.
Against Kent State and Western Illinois, it was the second half where Illinois found its stride. In this game yesterday, it was a fast start that allowed the Illini to stake their lead going into the fourth quarter.
If only they could figure out how to play a complete game.
Illinois looked much more competitive against South Florida this year, but it still wasn't enough. Let's dive in with the positives first.
Illinois can compete with similar Power 5 teams.
It wasn't pretty at the end and many of the suspended/injured players would have made a huge difference. However, Illinois proved that, even short-handed, they can compete with teams on their level of competitiveness. South Florida has more talent on both sides of the ball, and they outgained Illinois by over 300 yards (mainly due to Blake Barnett's 411 passing yards).
Illinois gave the Bulls all they could handle for three quarters. The defense created turnovers, the special teams were phenomenal and the offense ran roughshod over the Bulls’ suspect run defense.
It was a typical Lovie Smith team effort, for good and for bad. The linebackers were especially active defensively, with both interceptions and the lone sack contributed to the position group. A better fourth quarter (or for that matter, just one touchdown after the first. Just. One. Damn. Touchdown) would have won the game for the Illini.
Games upcoming for Illinois include Rutgers (bad loss to Kansas), Maryland (even worse loss to Temple), Purdue (good offense, lousy defense), Northwestern (mediocre showing through three weeks), and even Nebraska (loss to Troy) look like, at worst, a toss-up for Illinois going forward. Five wins are very much attainable.
Mike Epstein was finally unleashed, and he's a star.
Epstein has been on a pitch count so far this season through the first two games. On Saturday, that pitch count widened and Mike Epstein showed what he means to this team. Starting with this 48-yard touchdown scamper (second play from scrimmage).
He ran around, through, and over this defense. He looked smooth, fast and, most importantly, healthy. He cruised to 119 rushing yards and added five catches for 56 yards and the lone Illini touchdown. Illinois' offensive line's run blocking is far ahead of its pass protection. They looked encouraging on several of Epstein's and Reggie Corbin long gainers. Pull blocking looked exceptional. Epstein and Corbin did the rest.
The Illini need to figure out how to throw the ball vertically because their running game is Big Ten caliber. Unless teams load the box because they don't fear the passing game. Which happened Saturday.
The passing game is going to be rough to start.
MJ Rivers looks the part. A legit 6-foot-5, he dwarfs several players on the team. He's mobile, and he has a nice delivery when he sets his feet and has time. That wasn't the case on Saturday.
The line play on passing downs was rough, allowing five sacks and constant pressure all day. Rivers made some tremendous throws under duress and he has a bright future. He's very young and inexperienced, however, and that was on full display. He was jittery. He didn't have trust in his receivers (for good reason). He held the ball too long. All par for the course for a freshman starting his first collegiate game.
The receiver corps and play calling didn't help much, either. Too many drops and no separation for anybody not named Ricky Smalling. Only five targets for your best receiver. Missed chances defined this game.
Illinois’ biggest miss was not scheming to get the ball in one of your best playmakers hands. Smalling showed off his skills on the few catches he did make. He's a stud. Five targets and three catches is inexcusable for a stud. Carmoni Green, your table is set in the slot. Lou Dorsey, you have been sorely missed
There are winnable games left on the schedule. Illinois needs to get healthy and the suspended players need to have those suspensions lifted. If Illinois is at full strength, they can win three more games. It's just going to take an all four quarters type game. Start to finish.
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