Postscript, Kent State
Insulting someone usually isn't the way to open a conversation.
That's the predicament in which I found myself about a year ago. I'd been a long-time reader of IlliniBoard, but a first time caller on Robert, trying to suggest, softly, that his copy could use some editing. He was on his way to writing 25,346 words about a 2-10 football team, after all, and if he was going to put that much of his soul into it, it deserved to look nice, too.
So I shot him an email. Shoot your shot, as the kids say. Being Robert, not only was he not offended by my suggestion that while open parentheses and punctuation outside of quotation marks could be seen as endearing they're also fairly easy fixes, but he took me up on the offer to edit last year's preview. And when this year rolled around, he reached out again, and I was happy to oblige.
If it was a conversation starter, it also served as a foot in the door. I've been thinking about writing about Illinois athletics for years, but haven't found the right time and forum. The forum, obviously, is perfect. The time might be as well.
At least, I think it is. Or, I thought it was before halftime of Saturday's game. Camp is always exciting -- "Wes Lunt can make all the throws! Chayce Crouch is a leader of men!" -- but it felt like this time was different. Like, here's an exciting, inventive offense with a quarterback who can move it, and a defense that returns most of its starters. The last few years have been dark, but it's dawn now.
And then that first half happened. I'm fascinated by so many aspects of that halftime, and what followed. Let's talk about it all:
-I texted my buddy AJ at halftime wondering how quick Lovie's hook would be with AJ Bush. Through the first two years and one half of one game of his third season, there have been few pivotal decisions he's had to make. Bench all the upperclassmen to play freshmen? His job will still be there.
But this felt like the first time where it mattered. If he got blown out of the water in the season opener by a bad MAC team with a first-year head coach, those hot seat columns would only become more prevalent. (USA Today columnist Dan Wolken was among those almost giddy to tweet at halftime, "Tell me more, Illinois fans, about how Lovie Smith has total job security.") This had the feeling of the first big, potentially job security-altering decision.
To his credit, and surely to the chagrin of Wolken and others, he made the right choice. He stuck with Bush, who was undeniably shaky in the first half of his first college start, and Bush improved dramatically in the second half. If he'd stuck with Bush and the offense continued to stall, or if he'd made the move to Cam Thomas or Matt Robinson and they proved equally inept, it's a different conversation we'd be having today. It was a high-stakes test, one that he shouldn't have had to pass in the first place, but he passed it.
-Bush passed the test, too. His passes will never look like Lunt's when they're in the air, but he got the job done. The Big Ten Network dug up a stat that Bush became the first Big Ten player with at least 190 passing yards and 139 rushing yards in a game since J.T. Barrett in 2014.
He knows, too, that a narrow escape wasn't reason to celebrate for too long. Shortly after the game, Bush tweeted, "1-0 now let's clean it up."
-In hindsight, we were also probably being too hard on the offense for that halftime score. You see that a team has three points at halftime and your instinct is to assume the offense was just completely helpless. But one drive, on which the team was likely to get at least three points, ended with a strip sack on third down. Another ended with a missed field goal. And one drive started on the three-yard line. 17-9, or especially 17-13, feels less bleak. At the risk of doing some Tim Beckman math, it was just a few plays that were the difference there.
-Chris Berman was born to narrate Reggie Corbin highlights.
-My biggest negative takeaway was the defense. I don't know its identity. I know what Lovie says it is, in coach-speak -- single-high safety, one-gap, assignment football, etc. And I know what that means, in layman's terms -- if everyone does their job and only their job on a given play, it will be successful. But I don't think we've seen the successful implementation of that system yet.
How much of that is being without your Freshman All-American safety, starting upperclassman defensive tackle and budding star cornerback? It certainly doesn't help. It sounds like, if AJ Bush's postgame comments are any indication, the suspended players will be back in time for the Penn State game under the lights. But if the assignments don't get cleaned up before then, South Florida will take advantage of the same breakdowns that allowed Kent State to produce eight plays of 20-plus yards.
-With a day to process what we saw, I'm feeling better about everything. Slow starts were widespread around college football, and the Big Ten in particular; it wasn't just limited to Illinois. Penn State needed overtime to edge Appalachian State. Utah State took Sparty to the brink.
Even the teams that didn't suffer a scare needed a few quarters to get it going. Wisconsin only led Western Kentucky 10-0 with four minutes left to go before half. Minnesota was actually trailing New Mexico State early in the second quarter. Judging the first half of the first game of the season maybe requires us to recalibrate our expectations a bit.
-I'm a really bad judge of jerseys -- there's not much that I take offense to -- but I thought the uniforms looked great in action. Simple, bold, classic. I dig it.
A win is a win is a win, and the offense really showed out in the second half. That's tangible progress. The defense will need to improve to avoid more games with eight -- eight! -- plays of 20-plus yards allowed, but Western Illinois should provide another tuneup before the real test in South Florida. For now, victory, Illinois, varsity.
Hail to the Orange.