Postscript, South Florida
Saturday was a day of firsts for me this Illini football season.
When Chase McLaughlin hit that field goal at the end of the first half, I did my first vigorous fist pump of the year. I could feel how big that was, to go into the half leading by more than a score in a game they weren't supposed to win. It merited a vigorous fist pump.
It could have been a day of more firsts for not just me, but for the Lovie Era. A win over South Florida would have easily been the biggest win in his two-plus years here, not hard to do when it would have been just his eighth win overall.
It didn't happen, and it's hard not to default to the common refrain, "It didn't happen because things like that don't happen to Illinois." But there's no reason things like that can't happen to Illinois.
We know why it didn't happen to Illinois on this day. Because the freshman quarterback making his first-ever start looked like a freshman quarterback making his first-ever start. Because the defensive line is still generating zero pass rush. Because a defensive secondary without two of its stars finally broke after three quarters of bending.
Whether or not it was a spirit win depends on the eye of the beholder. As Robert noted, most days that's not a six-point loss, is a 26-point loss. But if MJ Rivers had connected with Ricky Smalling in the back of the end zone on that final play, or if Michael Marchese had broken up the deep bomb and the Bulls had failed to convert on fourth-and-forever, we'd be celebrating it like they went toe to toe with a legitimate FBS team and prevailed. One play goes differently and our perception of the other 58 minutes is changed.
Let's get into it.
-I think Rivers' final line is deceptive. A 69 percent completion percentage, going 20-for-29 without a turnover, looks like a good day for the freshman.
A closer inspection of the game tells a slightly different story. First, 64 of his 168 yards, and seven of his 20 completions, came on the final drive, when South Florida's first objective was to keep everything in front of them. A number of the completed passes before that final drive were also high-percentage throws, designed, surely, to protect Rivers from any bad mistakes.
Alternatively, a handful of catchable passes were dropped by his receivers, depriving him of a potentially better day passing. The return of Lou Dorsey should help, whoever the quarterback is, but it's incumbent upon the receiving corps to start making some plays to help their QB, not dropping catchable passes.
-For freshmen quarterbacks, it's almost damned if you do, damned if you don't.
If Rivers had looked skittish in the pocket, taking off to run after his first read or dropping his eyes too often, he'd have been accused of hearing footsteps, getting spooked. To his credit, one of Rivers' biggest strengths, as far as I've been concerned, has been his insistence on keeping his eyes downfield.
But too much poise can become a lack of awareness, and it hurt him and the Illini a few times Saturday. Many of those five South Florida sacks were coverage sacks, situations where he should have thrown it away. Other times he appeared to hesitate a bit too long, missing an open window on a receiver.
Rivers looked good against Western Illinois, but against a real defense he looked like he was swimming a bit. Here's to hoping AJ Bush is healthy for Friday night's game.
-In that vein, I would have liked to see what Matthew Robinson could do in that fourth quarter. As they were trying to run out the clock, Rivers didn't bring much to the table as a runner, or as a threat to run. That allowed South Florida to key on the backs.
A better runner, like Robinson, might have opened up some lanes with the read option. I can maybe understand the thought process -- the Illini weren't losing until the last two minutes of the game, when they then needed to throw the ball to win, so going away from Rivers with the lead would have opened them up to being second-guessed -- but seeing how stagnant the offense became when they started playing not to lose, a Robinson series or two would have been welcome. Oh well.
-Even with its late-game struggles, the rushing attack once again looked impressive on the whole. Epstein and Corbin is a formidable one-two punch, and when Bush returns he'll add another component, and open up another part of the playbook, to that offense.
-If there's a most disappointing player through the first three games, it's Bobby Roundtree. Wherefore art thou, Bobby?
It's hard to imagine so many people were wrong just a few weeks ago. Anyone who saw Roundtree in camp came away saying he was going to be a game-changer. Robert said the thought crossed his mind that Roundtree might be the first player to leave early for the NFL Draft since Corey Liuget. Isaac Trotter of Illini Inquirer was driving the Bobby Roundtree Bandwagon. This was supposed to be his breakout year.
It has not. Roundtree has one sack, last week against Western Illinois, and has 13 tackles through three games. That's fine, but not the kind of game-changing monster he was believed to be.
In fact, his biggest contribution Saturday was in deflecting two passes at the line. It was indicative of what seemed to be some sort of strategy by the Illini defensive linemen -- as though they were less concerned with generating a pass rush as they were with keeping Blake Barnett in the pocket. Woody Barrett? Fine. Trace McSorley? Sure. But I'll take my chances with Barnett scrambling if it means he feels less comfortable in the pocket for the majority of the game.
-I know the crowd was a little over 21,000, but I was encouraged by the Soldier Field atmosphere. Late in the game, as South Florida came alive, the USF fans could be heard, but most of the game it was a pro-Illini crowd that multiple times helped effect false start penalties by Bulls offensive linemen.
-Saturday wasn't just the first fist pump for me this season.
As I was watching the final drive, I was nervous. My blood was pumping. When they got to the 20-yard line with 13 seconds left, I made the note, "my heart is about to explode."
That adrenaline was a first for me this year as well. And that's a positive takeaway. We'll win those games sooner than later, but having a sweat was more than we could say about the USF game last year. That's something.
Until next weekend, Hail to the Orange.