Remember Week 1? The Illini left us flush with optimism following their blowout 42-3 win against Akron. Last week, Illinois was a three-touchdown favorite ON THE ROAD against the Connecticut Huskies, and our expectations crashed back down to earth a bit (some dope on this site said to bet your grandmother’s inheritance money on the Illini covering the spread, though I can’t remember who).
An early pick-six by Brandon Peters, iffy playcalling, poor protection by the offensive line, and the secondary getting gashed by a true freshman QB (whom we didn’t even know was starting until right before the game) almost resulted in one of the most disappointing losses of the Lovie Smith era. However, the Illini did just enough to win, and now have their sights set on Eastern Michigan.
Here’s what Illinois needs to do to finish its non-league schedule with another W.
Keep Establishing The Run
Reports are that Reggie Corbin will be back this Saturday after missing the UConn game with a hip pointer. If he’s good to go, expect him to get a heavy workload. Thankfully, the Illini can also deploy a combination of Ra’Von Bonner, Dre Brown, Jakari Norwood and Kenyon Sims to keep Eastern Michigan guessing. Bonner had a poor game overall, rushing for only 19 yards on 10 attempts, but did have a receiving TD against UConn.
Naturally, the run sets up the pass — the more successful the ground game is the more you can use the passing game to keep the opposing defense off-balance. Josh Imatorbhebhe had two nice touchdown grabs last week. Ricky Smalling has 11 catches through two games. Peters has tossed at least three scores in each of his first two starts. The Illini have the edge if they can dictate the pace of the game.
It’s worth pointing out that in order to do so the offensive line needs to put forth a much better showing. Illinois was absolutely dominant up front in the win against Akron, but regressed last week. Offensive coordinator Rod Smith said after the game that the Illini “need to be able to play four quarters, not two quarters.”
Thwart Mike Glass III
Eastern Michigan quarterback Mike Glass showed out last week in a loss at Kentucky, completing 34 of 53 passes for 337 yards. However, EMU was never really in the game, losing 38-17, so those numbers were mainly cosmetic. Through two games, Glass has 525 yards passing, five touchdowns, and a 72% completion rate. Glass also spreads the ball around, finding eight different receivers against Coastal Carolina and nine against Kentucky. He’s without a doubt the Eagles’ best offensive player and can give the linebackers and secondary trouble if he’s able to get loose and run. If the Illini pass rush — specifically Wole Betiku, who leads Division I in sacks entering this week — can keep pressure on the Glass it could be a long afternoon for EMU.
Now...about that secondary. UConn freshmen QB Jack Zergiotis threw for 275 yards in relief of an injured Mike Beaudry, who was expected to start until, oh, about noon on Saturday. Perhaps you can blame the secondary’s shaky performance on the fact that they simply didn’t study Zergiotis because they had no idea he’d be on the field. Nonetheless, they can’t afford to regress for a second straight game. Sydney Brown is expected back after not traveling with the team last week due to injury.
After a you-can-live-with-that five penalties for 36 yards versus Akron, Illinois was flagged nine times for 98 yards against the Huskies. Cornerback Stanley Green was ejected in the first half following a targeting penalty. Kerby Joseph missed the first half of the UConn game after being ejected for targeting against Akron. Brandon Peters had an interception that turned into a defensive touchdown and lost a fumble in the red zone. Missed assignments, lack of focus, committing turnovers. Each one of these things kill/extend drives and undermine a team’s progress. The most successful teams are those that are fundamentally sound.
If Illinois hopes to improve to 3-0, it must clean up these key areas. Eastern Michigan will be on the road for a third straight week, but will be undaunted heading to Champaign.