Postscript, Kent State

Sep 02, 2018

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.


deadguy on September 02 @ 07:46 PM CDT

I heard on the post game show that AJ went to Lovie at halftime and assured him that he would lead Illinois to victory. Have to love a kid with this much confidence in his abilities. Not sure how he still has this much confidence in himself now that he's at his fourth school in five years, but he clearly does and he rose to the occasion yesterday.

I'm not sure if Lovie was ever going to pull AJ, but I did see Cam warming up on the sidelines.

Overall, I thought AJ did fine. I wasn't even questioning his ability at halftime as much as the play calling. The low percentage deep pass plays in the first half were puzzling, even if Smalling should have come down with one of them. I wasn't seeing the high octane, RPO offense that I was expecting to see.

He only had one TO in the first half and once they put him in situations where he could get the ball to play makers in space, we saw him succeed. He also converted a number of 3rd and long plays which I have not been accustomed to seeing in the past couple of years. He can scramble and create plays when defenders get into the backfield. He's really what this offense needed this year.

The defense, on the other hand, is a much bigger problem.

ktal on September 02 @ 09:39 PM CDT

This defense will be completely different when we get Jamal, Tito (i.e. our top two DTs), Bennett and Nate (top safety and CB) back on the field. I'm betting it will seem like night and day, even as the competition improves. Each of them are very disruptive and rock solid reliable.

Groundhogday on September 02 @ 11:52 PM CDT

We won’t be getting Tito back. He transferred. Hopefully we get Milan back but he has had perpetual injury issues. Wish Avery was in better shape.

Boneyard Surfer on September 02 @ 10:57 PM CDT

FWIW, even if they look like Syracuse uniforms of old, my wife kept commenting on how good the Illini uniforms looked (she doesn't know they're recycled Syracuse unis).

I have to agree with her. Simple, classic, looked good on the players. (I still hate our numeric font.)

If the team had played as good as they looked, they would have covered the spread.

Eagle on September 02 @ 11:45 PM CDT

Even when the players return to action, they will be a game or two behind where they should have been. That can't happen again. It affects the whole team.

Punting was phenomenal and the kickoffs were great too. When you eliminate kickoff returns, you significantly reduce risk.

Groundhogday on September 03 @ 09:26 AM CDT

I feel similarly about the defense. I get that the secondary was full of freshmen, but I don’t understand the poor play up front. This is year three under the coaching of a defense-minded head coach. The front 6 should be making plays, and other than Hansen they weren’t.

mrozny on September 03 @ 02:31 PM CDT

We are missing 3 DLs(2 to injuries and 1 to suspension) and Robert said when Milan went down with his injury Lere Oladipo was running with the 1s as his replacement. My take away there is that we were forced to play our 3rd string DT or what I think the coaches did was shuffle a some players into less ideal roles(net 3rd string DT) to cover the holes. This and a run happy QB is what make the DL look very very rough especially when we lack depth. I sure hope that we get Milan and Oladipo back soon, no rush this week but they will be needed in every game afterwards.

jfinsocal on September 03 @ 04:18 PM CDT

I watched Kendrick Green on several plays - he stood up pretty well for a first game RS frosh. Hope he can continue to develop and become a 48 game starter on the OL.

Speak Your Mind

Please login or register to post comments on the IlliniBoard.