Happy Sunday to fans of the first place team in the Big Ten West, the Illinois Fighting Illini!
Many things were different about these Illini than previous editions, but the biggest difference so far between the Bret Bielema Illini and their predecessors is also the biggest reason they won the season opener.
Illinois simply executed the basics of football correctly more often than not.
If you’ve seen any of my comments on Bret Bielema’s offseason on my Twitter or over on Off Tackle Empire, one phrase I’ve repeated about his tenure to date exemplifies this game: coloring inside the lines.
The defense in the first quarter was striking, as the Illini blanketed the Nebraska receivers with man coverage and got pressure on Adrian Martinez. They forced one turnover, which they turned into a touchdown. Their one big mistake evened that out, as a blown assignment allowed Martinez to go 73 yards to the house, but as a fan you can live with one such play.
Where the defense really sealed the game in my opinion was on Nebraska’s last touchdown drive. While they eventually did give up a touchdown to make it a one-possession game, they kept everything in front of them, limited their losses, kept everything in bounds and ultimately drained the clock from over nine and a half minutes when the drive started to just 2:41 when they scored.
This is what I mean by “coloring inside the lines.” They didn’t force a turnover, they didn’t stuff them for many big losses, and they did concede yards, but they still kept control of the game by playing defense well enough to burn the clock. Martinez ran for more than 100 yards, but the rest of the team combined for 63 yards on the ground.
The offense was a similar story after some hiccups in the first half. The right side of the line performed poorly in the early going, but the coaching staff made an adjustment (!!!), pulling Alex Pihlstrom for Jake Badovinac at right guard. A second-half adjustment is something you expect a competent college staff to do, and yet something that’s been absent at Illinois. The coaches simply colored inside the lines here, and it woke up the line as the run game became much more consistent.
Illinois only had one run of more than 15 yards, but the top four rushers finished with an average of at least 3.8 yards per carry. That’s just over the 3.4 ypc threshold needed to move the chains in three downs, and that steady movement was on display during the 16-play, 8-minute scoring drive in the third quarter. That drive is the kind of drive you see from teams that control their games against us like Iowa and Wisconsin. It was reminiscent of Michigan State’s epic game winning drive in the 2015 Big Ten Championship Game that consumed nearly the entire fourth quarter.
Artur Sitkowski was perhaps the best example of what I’m talking about. He completed 10 of his first 11 en route to a 12-for-15 day with two touchdowns and no picks. He had one bad mistake early, but was bailed out of it by Nebraska’s lack of discipline. There was one spectacular throw down the sideline to Deuce Spann, but for the most part he was simply standing in the pocket and making timely and accurate throws to open receivers. That’s all he needed to do to keep the chains moving and score.
Outside of the long touchdown by Martinez, all of the mistakes in the game were made by our opponent. The aforementioned late hit on Sitkowski negated an interception, then drove them back even deeper with a taunting penalty. That’s not what you do when you’re in control of the game.
Three penalties for 40 yards is a pretty good figure, but not totally out of character considering the experience on the roster. The most telling stat of the game was time of possession: 35 minutes for Illinois, 25 for Nebraska.
Besides punting god Blake Hayes, the Illini didn’t have many spectacular plays. What they did was control the game, sit back and let a less disciplined team self-destruct across the field from them.
Having been on the other side of that equation so often over the last
5 8 25 years, I’m feeling very optimistic that this coaching staff can change our long-running narratives around this football program.