Well, that was close.
Illinois finally woke up in the second half and put up points in a 31-24 victory over the Kent State Golden Flashes on Saturday. To say it was ugly for stretches would be an understatement. The home fans booing their team at halftime tells you all you need to know. Let's start with the bright spots.
Jake Hansen: When Lovie Smith and Hardy Nickerson waxed hyperbolic regarding Jake Hansen's skill set, many took it as coach speak bluster. Well, we saw exactly what they were raving about on Saturday. Hansen was easily the best, most consistent defender on the field for Illinois. Besides one blown coverage — which was incomplete anyways — Hansen was everywhere. Six tackles for loss, a single game team record. A near interception in dropback coverage. A team-high 15 tackles, where he was constantly in the right place, flying to the ball.
We talk about lack of depth at linebacker (rightfully so) but Hansen and Phillips are two excellent starters at the position.
Getting the ball to the playmakers: Rod Smith was no doubt frustrated with the first half output of his unit. So he did what any good coordinator does. He adjusted. Feed the studs should have been the second half mantra. It worked. Reggie Corbin, Ricky Smalling and Mikey Dudek got more touches and all of a sudden the offense started to open up. Ricky Smalling and Mikey Dudek in space are lethal. Corbin has an elusiveness you just can't teach, such as his 17 yard touchdown scamper. Get the ball to those guys, Mike Epstein, Sam Mays, etc., and the Illini will win games this year.
Blake Hayes: He was the first half MVP. That's what you can take away from the beginning of the game. He averaged 54 yards per punt, including a 70(!) yarder — one of three punts downed inside the 20. He's a weapon on special teams. The best punter the Illini have had since Steve Weatherford.
AJ Bush: This should not be read as a complete indictment of the transfer quarterback’s play. He obviously made several plays with his arm and feet, especially in the second half. He is so much better than what Illinois had at the position last year. That's not saying much, however.
His first game as a starter was a little rocky. He left several throws on the field, many of which were timed just a little too late. His mechanical flaws were on full display as well, as there were far too many jump throws and happy feet in the pocket. When he sets his feet, he can be a dynamic passer. Too many times he missed open targets and didn't read his progressions correctly due to his bad footwork or his elongated delivery.
Bush is an obvious upgrade over the quarterback play last year, and he will get better. How much better will determine the course of this season.
Defensive line play: No offense to Kent State, but this offensive line is one of the worst Illinois will see all year. If they can't generate more of a pass rush going forward, this defense will struggle all year. Even when Kent State left no extra blockers in (running backs, tight ends, etc.) the defensive front couldn't get pressure on Barrett. There were some flashes, and the second half rush defense was rock solid led by Tymir Oliver and Jake Hansen. The Illini defensive ends need to be better, though. That means you, Bobby Roundtree.
Suspensions/Injuries: The biggest issue with Illinois against Kent State was how many starters Illinois was missing. Bennett Williams, Nate Hobbs, Lou Dorsey, Carmoni Green and Larry Boyd were all suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules (that's all you're going to get out of Lovie), and Jamal Milan, Tony Adams, Jimmy Marchese Michael Marchese, and Dre Brown were dealing with a variety of injuries. That's a lot of talent and depth missing from the two deep. That's three fifths of your starting defensive backfield, a starting defensive tackle, your best tight end, a top-five wide receiver, top-five offensive lineman, etc. Not to mention the injury to Shaedon Meadors in the summer. That's a lot of attrition to deal with. Illinois could have used many of those players on Saturday, and it might not have been as close.
The entire first half: Besides Blake Hayes, let's just throw that tape out. Set it on fire. For every facet of the team. Ligashesky needs to teach these players when to and when not to field a kick.
Editor’s Correction: An earlier version of this story said Jimmy Marchese was suspended indefinitely. Marchese was among those injured during Saturday’s season opener. The Champaign Room regrets this mistake.
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