Stalled-out drives. Punts. 50+ yard fields goals. Allowing close to 500 yards of offense. This has been a script that was written over, and over, and over again. Illinois fans have expected this result week in and week out. But this time it was different. It felt different.
I watched the full 25-minute highlight replay, and the whole time, it was a much closer game than what it seemed like. If you looked at Twitter, or Reddit, or even our Facebook page, you would have thought otherwise. Take into account that we were playing with a backup QB, backup running backs (starting Jakari Norwood, an RB that nobody had on their boards), an offensive line that is learning a new running scheme, and a couple of backups on defense, it was a game that was prime for the taking for a very good UTSA team. If the same mistakes keep piling on, Virginia will be an even tougher threat.
Blake Hayes is a GOAT.
Another @IlliniFootball game day, another @hayesblake14 highlight punt. #ForTheBrand pic.twitter.com/w3VZGR6d5j— Illinois on BTN (@IllinoisOnBTN) September 4, 2021
And so is his fellow lad James McCourt
No @IlliniFootball K has hit more 50-yard FGs than @McCourtJ_38.— Illinois on BTN (@IllinoisOnBTN) September 5, 2021
Here is his record-breaking sixth of his career, and second of the night. pic.twitter.com/amWt49wMtW
Isaiah Williams is a gift
There is something special about this kid. Williams led every receiver with 8 receptions for 101 yards. Williams gets open, knows his position on the field, and always moves forward. Lovie landing Williams as a QB is a gift for Bielema, especially since the blue bloods were recruiting him as a WR. Williams is the speedy type of receiver that works in a Bielema system and should continue having a stellar year. With Notre Dame transfer Jafar Armstrong hopefully coming back soon, Illinois will HAVE to be respected down the field. Donny Navarro, Casey Washington, Luke Ford, Daniel Barker (5/74/2 in Game 2) all are viable threats.
Art is doing his job. In two games and just over 7 quarters, he is completing 59.6% of his passes for 390 yards and 5 TDs. Most importantly, he has 0 turnovers. You cannot expect anything less from a backup QB. I’m a big Alex Smith fan, and much like Smith on any NFL team he played for, Art won’t win you games, he sure as hell will keep you in striking distance.
The Art - Duece connection is great, probably comes from all the reps they had on the second team, just a note. It’s also more or less the same play from Week 0.
6⃣ for his first career 6⃣— Illinois on BTN (@IllinoisOnBTN) September 5, 2021
QB-turned-WR @_deuce6 gets @IlliniFootball on the board. pic.twitter.com/RxD5hrafQ6
Sitkowski is the backup for a reason and is doing an excellent job in his role.
What Illinois Needs to Do Better
The Offensive Line
Zero sacks on Saturday. These guys, even with all their starts, are not Bielema’s guys. They are built for a fast-moving, spread offense in Rod Smith’s system, not the 3-4 yard trench battle-winning O-line needed for Bielema’s system. That has been clearly exposed in the last two weeks. Now that is on the wall, I hope to not bring it up again, and it's not their fault.
I feel that it is wrong that I am giving this group a hard time, learning a new scheme and expecting the same success as last year. With the passing game opening up, the running game will start to work sooner rather than later. With some guys back on Saturday and Brandon Peters back at QB (hopefully), I am giving another week for this group to get together. But a tough test against a defense-oriented Virginia awaits.
Is it weird to say that the defense overcorrected? As I said last week, Adrian Martinez missed all the passes and overthrew wide-open receivers up the field. It looked like the Illinois secondary practiced that all week, but forgot that crossing routes exist. Every pass that Frank Harris threw was on a 5-to-10 yard slant. Let's look at this series of plays that led to the first UTSA TD. 3 crossing routes and a run to move 94 yards for a TD.
First a 3rd & 5 slant route to Joshua Cephus for a 15-yard gain.
Literally the next play, Zakhari Franklin goes on the next level for 20 yards. Tony Adams has no chance at making an attempt on the ball and is 5 yards away. Sydney Brown is in the middle of the play, eyes on the QB, with no attention to Franklin coming in on the slant.
Adjustments are made to the Illinois defense during a UTSA time-out. Coming out of this on a 3rd and 7 on the Illinois 33, UTSA runs the SAME EXACT PLAY. But this time, since the corner is now cheating in, Franklin fakes the crossing route and Harris hits him for a 16-yard gain on the outside.
Like I said last week, a QB better than Adrian Martinez can hit an open receiver. Here is the proof, just a week later.
At this point, the Roadrunners are driving the ball and Illinois is all confused as Frank Harris runs in for a TD on an option play that even faked the camera guy.
Derrick Smith (10-yard arrow pointing towards him) has no clue about the play that is happening and once again a DB has his feet stuck in concrete. Khalan Tolson (#45) is frantic and doesn’t know his position. WHAT IS GOING ON. That is just utterly unacceptable in the red zone at home, with a packed Block I right behind you. See for yourself, starting at 2:42.
Illinois gets a road test. It may look like home, but it sure as hell won’t sound like home. The secondary needs to put two and two together and cover the outside and crossing routes at the same time. The offense, if we get our key players back, should keep chugging along, and hopefully start a bit faster.