Trailing No. 10 Penn State 28-24 entering the fourth quarter, I — and many long-suffering Illinois fans — found myself believing in the potential for one of the biggest upsets in recent memory. What followed in the fourth quarter can only be classified as an absolute heartbreak as the Illini were outscored 35-0 in the closing frame.
All was not lost, however. There were numerous reasons for optimism following the defeat to the Nittany Lions, and Illini fans should still be able to hope for improvement in 2018.
A Coherent Offensive Game Plan
After years under Garrick McGee, Illinois has lacked an offensive identity. In fact, what seemed like a mere three separate plays that were run in 2016 and 2017 set the bar fairly low for new offensive coordinator Rod Smith. What transpired Friday night can only be classified as a modern miracle in Champaign.
With a solid rushing attack and MJ Rivers looking serviceable under center and showing flashes of being a competent Big Ten quarterback, Rod Smith’s game plan looked to be on point.
With 245 yards on the ground, the Illini showed that Reggie Corbin and Mike Epstein can run the ball against some of the best defenses in the conference. Both were able to make moves out of small holes behind a still improving offensive line.
While Rivers still showed some freshman mistakes, there were times where he looked the part of a Big Ten quarterback. Rivers made some great plays under center, both in the air and with his feet. The passing game is light years ahead of where this team was last season.
The Illini defense has been something of a head scratcher this season. There have been moments of brilliance, even if USF’s late long touchdown pass and Penn State’s fourth quarter stick out in your mind.
A good portion of the Penn State fourth quarter route can likely be attributed to the defense being gassed, as the Lions’ offense ran all over the Illini in the second half. Although the time of possession favored Illinois, the physicality with which the Penn State offense plays played a large part in the exhaustion.
With the return of Bennett Williams, and Nate Hobbs and Lou Dorsey, Illinois will continue to see improvement on both sides of the ball. Understanding that, Williams, Hobbs and Dorsey will have limited impact until they get more game reps following a lengthy suspension, but that should not alleviate some expectations from fans.
Hey, We Can Score
For only the third time in the last 20 games, the Illini scored 24 points against a Big Ten opponent. In 2017, 24 points were scored against Rutgers in a loss. With an average of just over 13 points per Big Ten game in 2017, Illinois already looks the part of a Big Ten team.
The biggest question will be how will the Illini fare in two weeks against a Rutgers team that looks beatable? Time will tell.
Still, it’s a loss.
Look, I get it. All that matters is wins and losses. It is no surprise that fans only see improvement based on wins and losses. I feel the same way. For now, this rebuilding process has shown fruits. Not everything will turn around instantly. There are growing pains.
Yet, for now, there is substantive, visible improvement and proof that the Illini, while possibly not bowling, should still see improvement in all aspects of the game.