So, ladies and gentlemen.
What do you want to talk about?
I would like to talk about a hopeful future that won’t always be smooth sailing. So please, if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to talk directly to your hopes and dreams in the wake of the Toledo nail-biter.
It’s not going to get any easier.
Dequan Finn looked like Tecmo Bowl Bo Jackson at times against Illinois.
(Or Michael Vick in Madden if that’s a more time-appropriate reference.)
It’s hard to imagine the amount of adrenaline that the players and coaches had coursing through their bodies last Saturday night. A big crowd showed up and showed out to kick off what looks like a pivotal season for Bret Bielema and Illinois Football.
This was supposed to be a year where the team could set personal records in lifting the weight of expectations.
This was supposed to be a year in which good teams like Toledo would fall to the Illini with the regularity of a metronome.
But a funny thing happened on the way to certainty.
Doubt. We’ve all had it.
More specifically, we’ve all had it as Illinois fans.
It’s what happens when performance falls short of those expectations we’re even afraid to voice that we have.
So what do we have to look forward to?
Aaron Henry needs to right the ship.
Aaron Henry’s debut as a Power Five defensive coordinator didn’t go as planned. The Illini did a poor job containing a talented dual-threat signal caller. The vaunted Illini defensive front got pushed around and gashed for significant gains, particularly on first down.
Adjustments have to be plentiful for a better result. Perhaps the Illini will more successfully employ a spy this week. Because, again, Dequan Finn made some highlight-reel runs against a proud defense that shocked the world last year. Dylan Rosiek and Tarique Barnes in particular have to be more active in making good reads against Jalon Daniels.
Miles Scott can’t single-handedly fill Sydney Brown’s shoes. But wouldn’t it be nice for him to mimic some of Syd’s impact in the box?
Also, there is an All-American defensive tackle who didn’t make a major impact last week. Scheming to get Johnny Newton more pressure inside could also free up Seth Coleman and Gabe Jacas in one-on-one situations. I like their chances.
The secondary rotation seems pretty clear. Demetrius Hill and Elijah Mc-Cantos got quite a bit of run in addition to the starters. They made good adjustments in the second half against Toledo, so let’s see if that improved play continues.
Don’t overlook Kansas because the Penn State game is a statement game.
David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium is not The Phog. It’s not the legendary, insurmountable advantage that Bill Self has masterfully maintained in the post-Roy era. The odds may not be in the Illini’s favor, but this game is not a moon shot.
However, the creeping plague of looking past your opponent could loom in the legend of this weekend. Remember, Fox Big Noon Kickoff is coming to Champaign for the Illinois vs. Penn State game. All eyes will be on Drew Allar, to be sure. But a talented Illini club with its own seeming quarterback coup could bottle and throttle some of that enthusiasm. But in order for that game to have maximum impact from kickoff to the final whistle, Illinois can’t come out flat against the Jayhawks.
And I don’t doubt his position one bit. But coming into that game 2-0 and leaving still undefeated creates a special kind of statement win. Last year’s win over Wisconsin signaled an arrival. The Illini told the Big Ten they came to play, and Bret Bielema didn’t fear the ghost of his football God Daddy Barry Alvarez.
The Iowa win last season sent a clear message that Illinois could get down in the muck with the muckiest team in the country and beat them at their own game. And if they can repeat the feat at Kinnick, that would signal an even larger arrival...
But I’m sure I’ll be talking about that at length later this season.
This game is about what is, but also what could have been.
Illinois and Kansas are quite similar. Both are solid public academic institutions with standout programs. Both are far more known for their basketball prowess than success on the gridiron. Both are traditional Power Five conference schools that don’t have a significant track record of recent football success. Both programs are more known for their big swings and misses with head coaching hires than their successes.
More specifically, Illinois and Kansas were twin bottom feeders. They were among the worst Power 5 football programs in America. They were getting stomped on the field and on the trail by programs with better infrastructure and less reliance on “star” coaches.
And both strongly considered Lance Leipold for their most recent football head coach openings.
Leipold was rumored to be the other finalist for the job when Josh Whitman took a chance on Bret Bielema.
Look, we have no idea what would have happened if Leipold had become the Illinois coach. But he has proven at every level that he is a damn good coach and that winning follows him wherever he goes. He’s a program builder. And man, Illinois needed a new architect. So in spite of my personal clamoring for Brian Hartline, Marcus Freeman, Clark Lea, Josh Heupel, Billy Napier, Luke Fickell, Jim Leonhard, or any other coach I knew Illinois wouldn’t get; I do think the two known finalists were good choices.
If Kansas wins, please don’t second guess the Bielema hire.
Luke Altmyer will be tested. But Barry Lunney will be tested more.
We’re all still really geeked up about Luke Altmyer and his potential.
He is a former 4-star recruit who plays like one. He led the Illini on the ground (which should never, ever happen again) and threw the ball with confidence. Maybe draw up more of those quick slants for Isaiah Williams, please?
This brings us to Coach Lunney. The Illini seemed to start the game on fire offensively. Granted, Jason Candle is no dummy and can make adjustments. But running Josh McCray out of the shotgun didn’t bring a lot of positive results.
Even Matt Millen — the worst talent evaluator in the modern history of football — said the Illini should open up the playbook for Altmyer. Thanks, Matt. How did Joey Harrington work out for you?
Kansas will have a great game plan for the Illini. Altmyer showed great football integrity against Toledo. He shook off a heinous interception and made a fourth down throw that none of us will forget any time soon. He led Illinois on what became a game-winning drive in his first start as an Illini.
So maybe the lull in the offense wasn’t his problem.
Also, some more Aidan Laughery and Kaden Feagin? Please and thank you.
This is a barometer moment.
This game will tell us if Illinois is the kind of team that is ready to compete for the Big Ten West title. They are playing a comparable team at a similar stage of its rebuild in its home stadium under the brightest of Friday Night Lights. Will they exorcize the struggle demons of last week? Will the Law Firm increase its conviction rate? Will there be enough variety in the offensive scheme to keep Kansas off-balance?
Either way, I hope there is some visible orange in the crowd in Lawrence on Friday. Either way, Miles Scott and the Illini defense should be poised for a bounceback week.