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Illinois’ Week 1 win was its best in years

I think I speak for many of us when I say, “That game didn’t make me miserable.”

NCAA Football: Akron at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

The season opener for Illinois finally — for the first time in several years — did not leave me with a pit in my stomach. It appears that this team (and Lovie) is determined to not barely beat a horrible Kent State team or need a blocked field goal to avoid going to overtime against Ball State.

What did we learn from this game? Quite a bit, but we also need to keep in mind that Illinois played a bad Akron team. This isn’t even the same 4-8 team that managed to beat Northwestern last year. This is a two, maybe three win team. Still, Illini fans certainly saw some encouraging things on the field.

The defense looks (somewhat) improved.

The opening drive rightfully drove me crazy, with a few wide open passes and a couple long runs that the defense gave up. Still, Akron only managed a field goal on the opening drive after some classic “bend, but don’t break” Lovie defense.

Jake Hansen had an exceptional strip and fumble recovery, and Milo Eifler had a huge (also, I must emphasize, legal) hit on a screen pass.

I have to agree with Bob here. I miss Nate Bussey so much. Eifler might finally be filling an athletic void we haven’t had in a while.

Nate Hobbs had a scary play, but luckily he appears to be okay. Secondary play was... suspect, but again, it was Week 1. They certainly benefitted from some dropped passes.

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the defense was the front seven. We talked about Eifler and Hansen, but Oluwale Betiku had himself a day. Owen Carney and Lere Oladipo showed up, too. Let’s not forget about football Ayo (Shogbonyo).

Here’s to you, Ayo.

Thank you, transfers.

Peters, Imatorbhebe, Betiku, Sidney and Eifler all made a significant impact on the game. These former blue chip-type players didn’t pan out at their old institutions, and Lovie and the coaching staff welcomed them with open arms. Eifler had a huge hit and showed his athleticism. Peters managed the game well. Betiku made the offensive line uncomfortable. Sidney had a TD catch, and Imatorbhebe had some good conversions.

I think I speak for everyone when I say: Thank you, transfers. You are going to make a big impact this year and next.

(And Luke, once you’re #free.)

Brandon Peters knows how to lead a receiver.

It has been several years since we had a quarterback that actually knew how to throw a pass. AJ Bush improved over the course of last season, but was always a run-first threat. Chayce Crouch wasn’t by any sense of the word a prolific passer. Cam Thomas — well, you get the idea. We’d have to go back to Nate Scheelhaase or Wes Lunt for guys that could play the position that well.

Brandon Peters does not get an “A” for his performance on Saturday. He finished 14-for-23 passing with 163 yards and fours TDs, including one rushing. Kind of a nice surprise, eh?

He appears to be less of a statue than Wes Lunt. Nice.

I would say Peters’ first performance in Orange and Blue was solid, but he has room to grow. He had some great throws to Imatorbhebe, Smalling and Sidney, but he definitely had some passes that sailed on him. Still, the talent is there. Let’s have Rod improve him, and who knows how his season will go?

Ricky Smalling is not messing around.

I have always liked Ricky. He was Lovie’s first recruit — a four-star out of Brother Rice — and had a great freshman season. Last year, he had quite a few drops. To be fair, so did several receivers. Rumor was that Smalling was not totally healthy. I buy that, because he looked totally back to form on Saturday.

Smalling finished the game with four receptions for 54 yards. I wouldn’t be surprised if he finished darn close to 1,000 yards this year, assuming both he and Peters stay healthy. It appears they have a good relationship, and I am excited to see how it progresses.

I feel so bad for Mike Epstein.

The rumor is that Mikey has a torn ACL. It’s almost like we are getting Mike Dudek 2.0, which breaks my heart as I’m sure it does yours. Epstein was an underrated recruit out of Broward County (St. Thomas Aquinas High School) in Florida and stuck with Illinois (post-Beckman) even with offers from the likes of Michigan, even with the coaching turnover and program turmoil. He, like Dudek, deserves so much more than this.

This team still has a lot to prove.

The fact of the matter is Akron is bad. Period. They might even be worse than Kent State was last year, which means this game should not get us too excited.

However, it’s hard not to love going from a 31-24 win against Kent State to an easy 42-3 drubbing of Akron. It was such an easy win that the second stringers were already seeing plenty of time by the time the third quarter rolled around. Peters can pass, the transfers made quite the impact, and the defense appears well-prepared to apply pressure. Corbin, Bonner and Dre Brown looked good on offense. The defense doesn’t look quite as porous.

42-3 is exactly the outcome we should’ve seen last year against Kent State and the year previous against Ball State. This team is clearly improved, but we won’t really know who they are until we play Nebraska on Sept. 21.

I’ll be at the game, and I am excited to see how legitimate this team actually is.