While the result was ultimately disappointing, the areas of improvement were undeniable in week three against the South Florida Bulls.
Again, missing several pieces, the lack of depth and experience caught up to the Illini late. No reputable professor would issue marks based on anything less than a full semester, so we have no choice but to grade the Illini on the full 60 minutes of football.
M.J. Rivers: B-
Full disclosure, class, we grade on a curve of a fair selection of your peers. M.J. Rivers deserves the luxury of being graded as such, as a true freshman quarterback, with shaky pass protection and limited receiving options downfield.
Look, he is clearly not going through any meaningful read progression right now, and his internal pocket clock needs a ton of tuning. But he hit 20 of 29 passes, didn’t turn the ball over, and regularly evaded big yardage losses in the backfield.
He’s still one-route oriented on straight pass plays, but his accuracy is encouraging, as well as his confidence. He worked a fairly successful two-minute drill at the end of the game, though failed to give a receiver a chance on the final overthrow. Keep up the good work, M.J., and the grades will be there in the near future.
We know they have a doctor’s note for this one, but this is a results-oriented business, and the numbers speak for themselves. The Bulls racked up 411 yards in the air, despite an underwhelming individual performance by Blake Barnett. While the secondary came up big on both interceptions, which were crucial in building and maintaining a lead, the late coverage breakdowns were devastating.
Three and a half quarters of bend-but-don’t-break coverage worked out well enough, with Chase McLaughlin continually striking from deep. But this secondary will need 60 minutes of big play prevention to close out tight games.
Hopefully this unit will return to full strength shortly, which should instantly erase some of the glaring mistakes and late game exhaustion. We don’t relish issuing such a poor mark, but we know this group can achieve much better with a full deck.
Epstein/Corbin Tandem: A
We cannot hide our excitement and pride, here. This would have been an A+, save a single fumble lost. Mike Epstein and Reggie Corbin showed high running acumen and patience, following blocks on multiple levels, combining for 211 yards on the ground. Both demonstrated great hands, though Epstein separated himself as the offensive player of the game, leading the team in both rushing and receiving yardage.
The Illini have a legitimate, upper echelon running back duo on their hands, as both backs displayed speed, athleticism, and toughness. It would be surprising to see Ra’Von Bonner continue to get consistent touches going forward with the impressive efforts of Epstein and Corbin piling up.
Illinois will need to dominate on the ground to mask a still developing passing game, and to keep a thin defense off the field going forward.
Kicking Game: A+
Hey, what teacher doesn’t like giving out more good grades than bad? The loss was heartbreaking, no doubt, but the takeaway is largely positive, so we are going to dish out the high marks today.
Chase McLaughlin and Blake Hayes make the Dean’s List once again, with performances worthy of the NFL venue.
McLaughlin constituted the whole of the Illinois offense after the early touchdown, and was automatic from both hashes, including a 53-yard bomb that would have been good from 60. While Hayes has been garnering the professional attention, thus far, McLaughlin’s effort will certainly get some scouts in the seats the rest of the way.
Blake Hayes forced the Bulls into frequent long field drives, winning the field position game for the Orange and Blue. A 46-yard average with a long of 62 are stats we’re used to seeing at the next level.
Sure, we hear a lot of jokes about the kicking game being the strength of Illinois football, but these guys most definitely put the Illini in the position to win this one, and will continue to do so in a worse than advertised Big Ten West.
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