Postscript, Western Illinois

Sep 10, 2018

I closed last week's Postscript by saying "a win is a win is a win."

We all know that's not true.

There are games you win that still leave a bad taste in your mouth. There are games you lose that you come out of feeling OK about yourself. Context matters.

On paper, Saturday's win was fine. A 20-point victory. No turnovers allowed, three turnovers generated. A special teams touchdown, and nearly a defensive touchdown as well. Another game in which the Rod Smith-led offense scored more points (granted, with a special teams touchdown and a short field following Michael Marchese's interception return) than the team did in any game in 2017.

But I don't feel better today than I did a week ago. I feel worse, actually. Kent State was a sluggish first half in the season opener followed by a representative offensive effort in the second half. Right or wrong, it wasn't hard to convince yourself that the sequence made sense -- new offense takes a while to get rolling, then gets rolling and doesn't look back.

There were no such takeaways from Western Illinois. Or at least, the takeaways are harder to find, and less inspiring than the Kent State finish. Let's get into them:

-It's shaping up to be two weeks, two fascinating quarterback decisions for Lovie and company.

Lovie indicated after the game that Bush's leg injury, which forced him from the game in the first half, kept him out the rest of the game, despite Bush later warming up on the sideline and standing near the field with his helmet on. Lovie said they'll know more about Bush's availability after Monday.

So we have to do some assuming here, but assuming Bush is declared good to go, it will be interesting to see who opens behind center against South Florida next weekend. Bush failed to move the offense in his two drives, but it's a chicken-and-egg situation -- did the offense improve because MJ Rivers took over, or was Rivers just the beneficiary of Big Ten athletes deciding to assert their Big Ten athleticism over an FCS opponent?

It's not hard decision for me -- if Bush is available, he should be in there. Rivers did a lot of good things during his time, but 9-for-16 passing for 105 yards (and, to be fair, two touchdowns), and nine rushes for 36 yards -- a 4.0 yards-per-carry average -- are not beyond reproach. And as Robert said, it only gets harder from here. It was promising to see Rivers perform well, regardless of opponent, and lead the offense to three touchdowns, but it's not yet time to turn over the keys.

-I may have been singing a different tune about Rivers' favorite target, Edwin Carter.

Carter looked very good catching his two touchdowns and, with the offense already without Mike Dudek and, for the WIU game, Ricky Smalling, I was ready to see the freshman get more run in the coming weeks. He certainly earned it.

While nothing has been confirmed, it seems as though his progress will have to wait until 2019. The knee injury on his second touchdown -- it'd be amazing if that was the only thing he hurt on that play -- sure looked like a season-ender. Here's to hoping it wasn't. I'm here for more Edwin Carter.

-The prevalence of, and impact made by, the walk-ons is a double-edged sword of sorts.

On one hand, it's a great selling tool -- "Did you see Michael Marchese and Nolan Bernat and Jordan Holmes running around out there making plays? That could be you" -- but what are we supposed to read into "Michael Marchese, starting safety"? Is he just that good that he commanded the start ahead of the numerous safeties on scholarship, many of whom also deserved it? Or was he the best of a batch of subpar options?

The former is clearly the preferred answer, but I'm not sure it's not the latter, or some of each and some of, as Robert noted, this is freaking WIU we're talking about and Michael Marchese should still have the WIU quarterback's number. If Marchese or Bernat or Holmes is still playing meaningful minutes in late October with the expected starters back and no major injuries, it's likely because the Illini really have something in their walk-on program. I just don't think that's what was at play Saturday.

-One aspect of the season's first two games that has been mentioned but maybe hasn't been focused on enough is the running game. Like the statistic about points scored, in both games this year the offense has amassed more total rushing yards than any single game last season. Against Kent State, they rushed for 284 yards as a team; this past Saturday, they ran for 238 yards. Last year, their highest single-game total was 200 yards against Iowa.

I don't know what to make of that, but it's something. Rod Smith said running the ball was a major part of his offense, and through two games that's been the case.

-I don't bet on sports, but I've been interested in the lines for the first three games of the year. Illinois -18 against Kent State made sense at the time, but Illinois -7.5 against an FCS team was eye-opening.

So when the line for next Saturday's game at Soldier Field opened at South Florida -9.5 it was a shock. It wasn't clear to oddsmakers that Illinois would beat Western Illinois by more than a touchdown, but a legitimate Power 5 team, which just hung 49 points on Georgia Tech, will struggle, relatively speaking, to put them away? What do they know that we don't?

If we're to believe AJ Bush's words after the Kent State game, the suspended players won't be back until the Penn State game at the earliest. There's been no indication Jamal Milan is close to a return.

Did South Florida sustain injuries to key players in the Georgia Tech game? Are they expecting Soldier Field to make a difference? Do they think Illinois has some cards they haven't yet shown? Are they just drunk? I don't know, but consider me intrigued.

Until then, Hail to the Orange.


HiggsBoson on September 10 @ 06:23 PM CDT

Re: walk-ons:

One word "Fej".

I'm getting the feeling that the generally negative, and at times nasty, tone of Nathan's columns could make a disappointing season even worse.

Nathan on September 10 @ 09:09 PM CDT

What's funny is, I actually try to avoid being overly negative about the teams I root for, because what's the fun in that? I'm not out here trying to catch someone's eye with my sports #takes these days. I promise you, I'll find a way to convince myself by Saturday that we'll beat USF. It's what we do.

I appreciate you reading and your feedback, sir.

16th&mission on September 10 @ 08:14 PM CDT

I didn't think it was particularly negative. I for one have appreciated both of Nathan's posts and look forward to his perspective in the future.

Nathan on September 10 @ 09:00 PM CDT

Your check is in the mail, my friend.

Dr. Chim Richalds on September 10 @ 09:01 PM CDT

Agreed, I think both posts have been balanced and are a welcome addition since Back & Forth went away. I'm sure it would be fun to come in with a rosy attitude towards everything no matter what, but when you're writing about a team that is 8-42 in conference under the past 3 head coaches, and so far this season has been even in total yards against the bottom of the MAC and an FCS team, unfortunately an objective view is likely to lack a bit in optimism.

uilaw71 on September 11 @ 12:35 PM CDT

A little perspective from Tampa Bay on what the oddsmakers know that Nathan doesn’t. (Been spending more time on the USF campus than I’d like, owing to a family medical situation.)

USF losing to UCF planted a seed of doubt, and the Tech performance didn’t help. Take away the TD runbacks by Horne, and they lose to a triple-option team. Their saving grace was that Tech made two really bad plays on offense in the 4th quarter.

And while Blake Barnett performed capably, he is not Flowers. Plus, the oddsmakers have no idea whether our key guys will be back on Saturday.

Then there is the Soldier Field/Lovie intangible, which Charlie Strong understands - not to mention this in fact being a trap game for USF.

That said, their team speed is where we dream of being, and should carry the day - provided they can stop our offense.

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