I was more than prepared to write this article after the first half yesterday. It would have been one letter: F.
And you know, maybe that should still be the post. Yes, Illinois found a way to climb back into the game and win. Yes many players performed well. But that was the worst half of football I have ever seen Illinois play in my life. Ever. It was totally inexcusable, pathetic and shameful.
Even as I sit here this morning, that performance leaves a sour taste that can’t be replaced by the calm and composure the team showed to comeback in the second half. We entered the ‘Heart of Darkness’ in our TCR Slack channel alongside many Illini fans.
But you do have to give credit for the second half. The team did, in fact, not lose. Illinois outscored Kent State in the second half 28-7.
The team and many fans will simply accept the ‘a win’s a win’ attitude, and maybe that’s correct, but for me, I can’t get over that first half and what it may mean for the outlook for the Big Ten schedule. I also know it was the first game under a new offense, and the team had several key suspended players. However, it was Kent State. The Golden Flashes were ranked 127/130 teams in S&P+ preseason analytics. If that’s how Illinois looks against one of the worst teams in college football, how will they look against Wisconsin? Penn State? Hell, Minnesota and Rutgers?
I predicted 3 wins this year, but with how the team looked against what is at best the second worst team on its schedule, I may have been too optimistic. We will see if Illinois can fix its issues in the coming weeks, but for now, let’s do some grades.
AJ Bush: B-
AJ Bush should have started his Illinois career with a touchdown pass to Ricky Smalling, but sadly the ideal start was not to be as the ball went straight through Smalling’s hands.
Bush wasn’t too accurate on the day and his timing with his receivers was off — which is to be expected since he only arrived during fall camp. But, Bush didn’t commit any turnovers and did enough on the ground to keep the Illini offense moving enough to get the victory. His final stat line was 13/23 for 190 yards with 21 rushes for 139 yards.
The limitations in Bush’s game were clear. He lost the Virginia Tech QB job to a true freshman for a reason, but Bush did his job for Illinois yesterday. He gave the Illini a chance to win the game. His calmness at the position even when trailing helped lead the team to a second half comeback.
If Illinois played Cam Thomas or a true freshman like Matt Robinson, it would have lost the game.
Kick/Punt Returning: D-
Illinois’ kick return team had the ball down within their own 10-yard line instead of fair catching it for a touchback or letting it go out of bounds. Not once, but TWICE. Two times. How does this happen?!
Also, Dudek let a ball bounce over his head causing another 15 yards or so for the punt. The only reason this group doesn’t get an F is Dudek did have a decent punt return after his mistake.
Those blunders were inexplicable.
Jake Hansen: A+
Jake Hansen, have a day. The Illini staff were singing Hansen’s praises this offseason after he returned from a season-ending injury and missed 2017.
The hype was very much real. Hansen had 15 tackles on the day alongside 6.0 tackles for a loss. The 6.0 tackles for a loss are already more than any single Illini player had in the entire 2017 season (James Crawford: 5.5).
Hansen is everything you want out of a modern day college football linebacker. He has the speed to defend sideline to sideline and the fantastic instincts to read the play. Hansen also showed fantastic tackling ability, going for textbook leg wraps rather than trying big hits.
Hansen, take a god damned bow.
Offensive Line: F
The first half blocking was horrible, plain and simple. Illinois’ offensive line was being absolutely manhandled by Kent State’s defensive line. There was no pocket. AJ Bush had no time to let plays develop and had to start scrambling as soon as the plays would begin. This was a worse pass blocking performance than any of last season.
The only reason Illinois was able to have some offensive success in the second half was Rod Smith decided to start using two TEs as extra blockers in 12 personnel. The Fighting Illini needed to have seven dedicated blockers to stop a MAC defensive line.
Illinois still has the entire Big Ten schedule to go. This needs to be fixed quickly.
Second Half Adjustments: B+
I already mentioned Rod Smith’s adjustment to start using extra blockers on the offense, but Hardy Nickerson and the defense also made a key adjustment. They started stunting defensive ends to help slow down Woody Barrett QB runs that were shredding the Illini in the first half. Ilinois only allowed 7 second-half points to the Golden Flashes.
Last season, Garrick McGee showed little to no tactical flexibility outside of keeping running the ball up the gut. Rod Smith completely changed up his game plan at halftime in his first game for Illinois.
The changes weren’t perfect, but they allowed Illinois to get back into the game. Gone may be the stubbornness of the offensive game plan of last season. Rod Smith found a way, with an equally terrible offensive line that McGee had, to move the ball and score some points.
Lovie Smith Beard Giveaway: D
These are clearly just Santa Claus beards the Illini Athletic Department bought, and they look nothing like the actual Lovie Smith beard.
Illinois Football Helmet Logo (Orange Stroke on Orange background): F - - - - - - - - - - - -
The uniforms themselves look OK, but a little too “red-orange”, but that helmet logo is so stupid and makes me want to die. Whoever did this needs to go to prison.
Just using a solid blue Block I or use a white stroke! This is easy stuff, but as we’ve seen over the last decade, Illinois often fails at the easy stuff.