This column is very different than it was going to be. I’ve been chasing an experience like going to this bowl for a good 15 years or so and I found out less than 24 hours before my flight was supposed to leave that I can’t go. My thoughts are pretty scattered at this point, but I will try and get some core ideas that I’ve been thinking about on the screen!
As I Sit Here Writing This, I’m Watching A Preview Of The Reliaquest Bowl
I’m watching the Fiesta Bowl between Michigan and TCU right now and it was striking before the game how much it resembled our matchups. There’s no opt-outs in this game like there will be in ours, and the teams have a similar level of motivation with the national title on the line, but it’s a very similar stylistic matchup.
Michigan’s similarities to Illinois are pretty clear if you watched the game between the two. Both teams like to control the clock, run the ball and physically wear out the opposing team’s front. They both choose to lean on very good defenses. Michigan’s has more talent across the board, while Illinois’ leverages the outstanding talent they have at a few spots to great effect, but the result is that both teams have a similar preferred game script. They also have a glaring weakness: red zone offense. Michigan has faltered several times inside the TCU 10, which has been a theme all year. Honestly, this game is reminding me of ours against Michigan State for that reason.
You might think it’s TCU’s high flying offense that makes them similar to Mississippi State, but actually their 3-3-5 defense is the biggest thing in common! This is a scheme that can be a bit soft against the run, but stifles even short passing. J.J. McCarthy has struggled to consistently find open throws, and TCU’s quick start took Michigan out of their preferred game script by forcing them to throw when they really want to run.
TCU does of course also feature an air-raid based offense with Sonny Dykes at the helm. Max Duggan doesn’t throw quite as often as Will Rogers, but not by much.
So what does this mean? Well, the game is still in progress. McCarthy just got picked off by Dee Winters and taken to the house. Michigan, like Illinois, is not built to come from behind. The first couple of possessions will be very important for the Illini defense. Mississippi State excels against the pass and has one of the best defensive backs in the country in Emmanuel Forbes. Michigan could still come back in this game, but they have elite offensive playmakers in huge abundance. Illinois’ only “threat to score at any time” is Isaiah Williams. If they fall in an early hole, it’s imperative that Illinois stay calm and run the ball to try to wear out the defense. I do not believe Illinois will win a shootout.
Unleash Big Time Tommy?
As the foremost proponent of “BIG TIME TOMMY” DeVito, I am upset that I won’t be there in person with my #3 jersey for his final game in orange and blue (although he’s played all his college games in those colors!). What I’m curious about is this: between the time he’s had to heal up his ankle, having nothing left to lose and the relaxed atmosphere of a bowl like this, will Barry Lunney, Jr. pull some new things out of the playbook? Chase Brown is not playing, so the offense will already look somewhat different. With DeVito’s waiver denied and his stated desire to prepare for the draft, does the offensive approach for Illinois have some latitude to put some really good NFL film together for Big Time Tommy? It’s a long shot on that front, I know, but he has a very real shot to finish the season with the highest passing efficiency of any Illini quarterback in history!
Bobby Roundtree’s Backyard
The Tampa area (Largo, FL) is where former standout defensive end Bobby Roundtree grew up and played high school ball. The Tampa area is also where he had the freak accident that paralyzed him, and Tampa is where he succumbed to those injuries last summer.
Nothing can make up for the loss, but I’m sure that the senior teammates of his still playing for the Fighting Illini would love to win a game in the big guy’s stomping grounds as a final send-off for their careers.
I’m interested to watch the offense in Brown’s absence and I’m interested to see how well a patchwork secondary with some freshmen in it does against a talented, well-coached and motivated Bulldogs offense. I sure wish I could report from on-site. I wanted to shoot the ultimate Game Recap Shot Video in our big moment. The last time I didn’t make it to a big time bowl game, I said I’d get to the next one. That was for the 2007 Rose Bowl.
Please give me another chance next year!