Sometimes, we dramatically overestimate things.
Our preternatural obsession with football has led us to make the sport seem like a diabolical maze of twists and turns that can only be navigated by a few select gladiators.
And while the highly-skilled players and coaches who train their whole lives to excel do largely populate the game, at times football can be simple.
Xs and Os matter a great deal. Philosophy can be an advantage. Styles can make fights.
But sometimes, it comes down to the Jimmys and Joes.
It’s physically winning your matchups and scheming your players into positions where they can succeed.
Getting back to .500 is well within Illinois’ grasp this week. And I think it comes down to one simple principle of talent acquisition.
- You gotta get yourself a quarterback.
- You gotta protect that quarterback.
- You gotta get after the other team’s quarterback.
- You gotta be disciplined.
Now I know that Bret Bielema and his staff have been preparing the Illini to win schematically and physically. They are adding wrinkles and tweaking rotations.
Sure, we may see more of Malik Elzy, Kenari Wilcher, Ashton Hollins, Alex Bray, and Kaden Feagin this week. Youthful energy could be served.
But in the end, for Illinois to win, I believe it’s about simplification, not over-complication.
Luke Altmyer, your table is set.
It’s Gunslinger SZN in Champaign-Urbana. While Luke Altmyer’s talent is immense and his potential is tantalizing, he’s got to capitalize.
He looks like he could be a dude. A multi-year starter with star upside is a prospect Illinois fans have desired for a long time.
Brandon Peters was a guy like that. But the upside was never truly reached.
Tommy DeVito could have been that guy by NCAA…waiver…Illini…yada yada yada.
But Luke Altmyer is the guy for now, and hopefully the guy for the future.
But he has to limit the turnovers.
But with his ability to make plays with his legs and hit deep balls, this isn’t the time to lose confidence in him. Offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. will earn his salary by unlocking the offense to allow his quarterback to be a star.
The offensive line has to impose its will.
Protecting the quarterback has been a weakness of the Illini this season. Sure, Altmyer’s decision-making has been less than stellar on multiple occasions. But when you have to run for your life on frequent occasions, it’s hard to get into a rhythm. And Lunney’s “temppro” offense requires a consistent cadence pre- and post-snap.
Isaiah Adams in particular has to step up in pass protection. It’s not just about his performances on Saturday, it’s about his future on Sunday. While he flashed some left tackle potential last season, this year he’s kicked out to right tackle as well as moving inside to guard. This versatility will serve him well as a draft prospect, but only if he produces. There are justifiable high expectations on him. He has to step up.
Furthermore, young players like Josh Gesky and Hunter Whitenack have to play their roles as members of this rotation. Florida Atlantic isn’t as scary as Iowa or Penn State. So this is a time for the young dudes to solidify their places in the rotation.
The Illini have to get pressure.
I mean, Johnny F. Newton.
But also, Gabe Jacas and Seth Coleman. Illinois has to live in the Casey Thompson-less FAU backfield all day. Clearly, they have the super athletes who can make that necessity a reality.
This is the simplest of the four pillars of success. The personnel is readily equipped to wreck the game. Newton wrecked the vaunted Penn State front. So it will be fun to see how Terrance Jamison, Charlie Bullen, and Aaron Henry gameplan for destruction.
Discipline is the way.
On his debut solo album Kiss Tha Game Goodbye, Jadakiss recorded a song called Show Discipline. That is an exact statement of what Illinois has to do on Saturday.
Turnovers and penalties can beat you on a good day. So the Penn State and Toledo games were not good days that were crushed by these unforced errors.
To quote Jim Mora, “It doesn’t matter who you play.” You have to win the battle of your own mind. Playing sound, solid football sounds simple. It most assuredly is not.
It’s the most important thing the Illini can do for the remainder of the season. The potential for a turnaround is entirely plausible.
Jalon Daniels may be the best quarterback Illinois plays all season.
Penn State may be the best team Illinois plays all season.
That means there is some legitimate blue sky. There are some winnable games and some solid toss-ups.
But if you don’t protect the rock and protect the house against Florida Atlantic, those winnable games could become must-win games.