The Kent State game was a tale of two halves. The first half demonstrated the Illini are a long way from being competitive in the Big Ten. The second half, however, showed promise for both the offense and the defense. Any win is great but the uneven performance left a bad taste in the mouth of Illini fans. Now, it’s time to sweeten that taste, but, in a game against an FCS school, how exactly do the Illini make their fans feel better about the overall direction of the program?
Keep Feeding the Playmakers
Despite some sloppiness, Game 1 showed that this offense is structurally sound. From the beginning it was evident that offensive coordinator Rod Smith designed an attack that took advantage of quarterback AJ Bush’s athletic ability and distributed the ball in a way to get player makers in the open field. Along those lines, Smith found a core to work with in Bush, Reggie Corbin, Mike Epstein, Ra’Von Bonner, Ricky Smalling, and Mike Dudek.
As luck would have it, Dudek is now lost for the season so Bush loses a highly effective safety valve and all important talented veteran presence in the receiving core. Still, Bush needs to make the correct reads and keep distributing to the play makers in a way that allows them to make plays in the open field.
Replacing Dudek, however, will be a tall task.
Replace Dudek’s Production On and Off the Field
Dudek has been a gravitating presence in the Illini’s locker room and a dynamic presence on the field. The onus is now on Rod Smith to replace both an off-the-field leader and a highly effective safety valve with playing-making ability.
In the leadership role, Mike Epstein might be ready. Epstein could also step into the safety valve role.
As for the slot, the Illini will have to get creative to get production. One idea is to motion Reggie Corbon into the position during pre-snap reads or have him run the routes Dudek would have run but out of the backfield.
Keep building around Hansen and Phillips and spring Roundtree
The Illini defense got shredded by a potentially elite player with blue-chip talent in Woody Barrett. Yeah, we know....it’s Kent State...but Barrett was a highly recruited dual threat quaterback who signed with Auburn but transferred out after one year.
Despite Barrett’s talents, the Illini mostly held him in check in the second half in large to an emerging linebacker core consisting of Jake Hansen and Del’Shawn Phillips. Now, with a highly competent linebacking corps at his disposal, defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson must get the defensive line to play up to its potential. This could be as simple as unleashing defensive end Bobby Roundtree and figuring out ways for him to get after the quarterback.
Luckily, Western Illinois is the perfect opponent at the perfect time because (1) Western Illinois’ sole playmaker on offense, running back Steve McShane, is nowhere near as talented as Barrett; and (2) The Leathernecks run a conventional pro-style attack that will play well into the hands of the Illini defense.
Clean up the Sloppiness
The Illini shot themselves in the foot numerous times in the first half leading to a disheartening 14-point halftime deficit. Once they settled down in the second half, the Illini outscored Kent State, 28-7.
If the Illini can clean up the mental errors and play a crisp first half, then they could put Western Illinois away in the first half. With the easier part of the Illini’s schedule ending after this week, it’s imperative that they figure things out before they face South Florida at Solider Field.
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