There was a lot of good that happened on Saturday. This Illinois team was different than what we saw in the past and for 60 minutes it looked like growth in the right direction. After reviewing the tape, there is room for improvement as this team looks to prepare for Week 1.
Whether it was making substitutions, making halftime adjustments, or executing an 8-minute, 14-play, 75-yard TD drive, Illinois was a different team than what we saw under Lovie Smith. In the first quarter, Illinois was abysmal running the ball. Take away Mike Epstein's 45-yard run, Illinois had -15 yards on the ground and 35 passing yards in the first quarter. A lot of that can due to a new coach, scheme, and first-game jitters. But there's a lot that can be said about what happened next.
The team saw adversity, fought through it, commanded the clock, and played one of the most complete games I have seen since I was a student during Tim Beckmans first year. Competent coaching is something that Illini teams in the last decade have desired, and I think we saw a glimpse of what is to come. Friends and family that went to Wisconsin would disagree, but after never seeing a winning season, this is progress. But can Bielema and his staff stack wins?
Blake Hayes had two punts land inside the 1, one of which ended in a safety. #ForTheBrand
PERFECTION FROM BLAKE HAYES #ForTheBrand— Pat McAfee (@PatMcAfeeShow) August 28, 2021
Let’s GOOOOOO pic.twitter.com/P4PcYWbwaE
‘The defense is good’ was something I would never say in the last 8 years. There were times when the defense played well, but they never were good.
But Nebraska QB Adrian Martinez was stuffed the entire time and panicked under a collapsing pocket. Throw after throw sailed over open receivers heads. Five different Illini players recorded a sack, Tony Adams recorded 10 solo tackles, and of course, the scoop and score to put an exclamation point on the first half of the game.
SCOOP AND SCORE @IlliniFootball forces the fumble and takes the lead just before the end of the first half! pic.twitter.com/2CqWdw4qe8— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) August 28, 2021
There is nothing I love more than seeing a packed Block I. As a student, I went to every game while on campus. I was there, front row, on the left side of Block I for four straight years, three of them with Tim Beckman as head coach.
If this is the level of football Bielema will bring each Saturday, every student should buy a ticket.
THE opening kickoff of College Football in 2021— Brad Repplinger (@TCRBrad) August 30, 2021
Shooter (thanks Fox Sports) vs. The Shot: pic.twitter.com/JMWl2XNZ0g
With as many starts as the O-line has, there is no reason Saturday should have gone the way it did. Yes, you need time to gel and time to understand the new shifts and the new offense, but that’s not where they were getting beat. Every play, the pocket was collapsing and the Nebraska line was outmuscling the Illinois line and making its way to the QB.
Luckily, we saw a change in the second half and Illinois was able to get the run game going and offered a bit more protection for Art Sitkowski. This has all to do with coaching. Skill and technique will overtake brute strength as this line learns to play as one. Epstein’s 1-yard TD is a perfect example:
Every guy does his job. 72 roots out DT. 63 and 54 wash down D and 82 keeps the door open. 26 finishes strong. Good football. pic.twitter.com/FO095pniHQ— Martin O'Donnell (@MartinOD64) August 29, 2021
As well as the D-line played all game, there was a consistent issue and broken coverage in the secondary. Big Ten quarterbacks — Graham Mertz (Wisconsin), Tanner Morgan (Minnesota), and Taulia Tagovailoa (Maryland) — all make these throws.
Vintage Adrian Martinez overthrowing a 6’9 target #NEBvsILL pic.twitter.com/HTtLVyZfzM— Dylan Lowe (@DylanLoweNFL) August 28, 2021
If not a TD with one man to beat... pic.twitter.com/cKrkLPcxZt— Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer) August 28, 2021
The same broken coverage is also what led to a 75-yard TD by Martinez. Both times were on the left side of the field. In a 4-2-5, with 2 corners and 3 safeties, and at times with 6 DBs, this shouldn’t happen with that level of frequency. In the last Nebraska touchdown, after Illinois defense bled 6:42 from the game clock, it broke down and two receivers were open in the endzone.
1⃣ possession game! pic.twitter.com/mK1KaolJio— Nebraska On BTN (@NebraskaOnBTN) August 28, 2021
Illinois got bailed out time and again with overthrows from Martinez. This is an issue that needs to be addressed before we play teams with a better offensive line, better quarterbacks, and faster receivers.
Stat of the Game
.@hayesblake14 kicking off the szn #ForTheBrand with some HEAT— Illinois on BTN (@IllinoisOnBTN) August 28, 2021
CC: @PatMcAfeeShow @IlliniFootball pic.twitter.com/o3yfp4KNqB
Hayes outgained every player on the field.
Play of the Game
Absolute dot from Sitkowski to converted QB Duece Spann.
Art dart @artursitkowski4 // @IlliniFootball pic.twitter.com/e6MGPQ52um— Illinois on BTN (@IllinoisOnBTN) August 28, 2021
We witnessed a complete game from the Illini on Saturday. There is a lot to look forward to in Year One of the Bielema era, and the kinks in the offense and defense will be fixed over time.