Are you in desperate need of some wide receivers? Go to the transfer portal. Need a quarterback? Check out the the transfer portal. Say, do you need an outside linebacker? Has anyone told you about the transfer portal? The first Saturday of the college football season, at least in Champaign, is now known as Transfer Saturday.
Quarterbacking in the spring game was a rough scene. I started to freak out a bit on Twitter, and many responded with "it's just a spring game", which is basically my trigger to freak out even more. I just looked up my Twitter feed from that day and here's where I landed:
MY OFFENSIVE CONCERNS ARE NOW AT DEFCON 2. Really, really scared y'all. https://t.co/8eDSrl1YPI
-- Robert (@ALionEye) April 13, 2019
Without a quarterback, how does any of it work? MJ Rivers, the only QB with experience, transferred a few weeks later and we were left with three quarterbacks: a freshman, a freshman, and a freshman. I hovered over the DEFCON 1 button.
So what do we do? We look at three quarterbacks in the transfer portal (Tommy Stevens, Matt Fink, and Brandon Peters) and land Peters. Today, the transfer calmly led the offense to six fairly easy touchdowns.
That's just at quarterback. And you know the rest. We needed a linebacker so we looked to Washington. We needed receivers so we looked to USC. We needed a tight end so we looked to Georgia. We needed a pass rusher so we looked to USC. We needed a right guard so we looked to Alabama. Every hole we were trying to fill we filled with transfers.
This is not breaking news. You already knew all of this. What none of us knew, I don't think, is how impactful those transfers would be in the first game of the season. The tight end from Georgia is stuck on the sideline this year because his waiver wasn't approved, so we won't see him until next year, but as for the rest of them...
- Brandon Peters, 14-23 for 163 yards, 3 touchdowns, no picks.
- Josh Imatorbhebhe. 2 catches for 34 yards
- Trevon Sidney, 2 catches for 26 yards and a touchdown
- Wole Betiku, 6 tackles (3 for loss), 1.5 sacks, and 2 QB hurries
- Milo Eifler, 2 tackles (1 for loss) including a perfect read and perfect hit on a play Akron never should have tried.
- Richie Petitbon, well, you can't track stats for offensive linemen but the run game was solid and there was only one sack.
Even Donny Navarro, a transfer from Valpo who sat out last year, had a 13-yard punt return to set up the offense with first and ten from the Akron 24. Everywhere you turned, it was a transfer making an impact on the game.
I tweeted "Welcome to Transfer Saturday" after the Betiku sack that pinned Akron at the four. When Navarro returned the punt to the 24, I noted how he was a transfer too. When Brandon Peters rambled in from 20 yards out a few plays later, I went all-caps with TRANSFER SATURDAY.
(Fun side note: The CBS Sports app used to have a feed where they'd add a bunch of Illini tweets. They added mine for a few years. After too much WELCOME TO #$*&%#@ TRANSFER SATURDAY, they removed my tweets from the feed.)
That's pretty much exactly what this was. The passing game was solid because of the Michigan transfer at QB and the two USC transfers at WR. The defense was better partly because of the USC transfer at defensive end and the Washington transfer at linebacker. These were all four-star recruits we brought in - they just didn't play like four-stars at their former schools (or they were buried behind five-stars). In Champaign, today, they looked like four-stars.
Now, we need to note that they looked like four-stars because we were playing Akron. This was a team that lost 12 starters from a 4-win team that fired their coach. I'm pretty sure we'll look them up in November and they'll be something like 1-9. You can't take much from the score today. This is not a defense that will hold opponents to three points and this is not an offense that will put up 42 points in 40 minutes and then put in the backups for the final 20 minutes. It gets just a tiny bit harder from this point forward.
But you can take the look of this team. The shape. This season will primarily be Brandon Peters handing off to Reggie Corbin and throwing it to Barker, Smalling, Sidney, Imatorbhebhe, and Stampley. The defense will rely heavily on Betiku and Eifler to provide much-needed size and speed. Today that meant Illinois gaining 401 yards and Akron being held to 192.
So far, so good.
+ This is three straight years against basically the exact same opponent. Two years ago it was Ball State in Mike Neu's second season as head coach. Illinois needed to block a field goal as time expired to avoid overtime. Last year it was Kent State in Sean Lewis' first game as head coach. Illinois trailed 17-3 at halftime and needed an interception in the endzone with three minutes left to avoid overtime. This year it's Akron in Tom Arth's first game. Illinois... dominated from start to finish and won 42-3 in a game that could have easily been 63-3 if Lovie didn't call off the dogs with 20 minutes to go.
No, that doesn't mean anything. Just because you can now beat a MAC coach in his first year without struggling doesn't mean you're all the way back. It's a step. There's a big set of stairs in front of us, and we just successfully climbed the first one.
Next up, win the road game that we always lose. The last time we won the non-conference road game was... 2007? We won at Syracuse in 2007 but then we lost in St. Louis to Missouri in 2008, 2009, and 2010. We lost at Arizona State in 2012. Lost at Washington in 2014. Lost at North Carolina in 2015. Lost at South Florida in 2017. And now we head to UConn next week.
Yes, they're bad, but... I'm nervous.
+ I think the play of the game was the 20-yard touchdown run by Brandon Peters. By that point, Akron was completely sold out to stopping the run, ignoring the idea that Brandon Peters would ever pull it and run. When he did pull it and run, there was nobody home. With Justice Williams as his lead blocker and Josh Imatorbhebhe completely destroying the cornerback at the five yard line, Peters waltzed in.
OK, he didn't waltz in. And that's kind of the whole point. He showed that he can run. The long scramble earlier in that game + the 20-yard touchdown run showed Akron (and, more importantly, showed upcoming opponents on film) that not only will he run it, he's a little faster and a little more agile than most everyone thought.
That's all he needs to do. Keep people honest. Putting that play on film is such a positive thing for the next few games.
+ Of all the transfers, I think Betiku was the biggest surprise. Yes, Akron OL, but I don't think anyone expected 1.5 sacks, 3 tackles for loss, and 2 QB hurries in basically two and a half quarters of football. He was constantly getting pressure on the Akron QB.
I feel like I have to keep emphasizing - this could have been as simple as one bad offensive tackle on Akron's young line. This might be his best game this season. But seeing that burst off the edge... man, it's hard to not get excited.
+ The same goes for the rushing defense. The front seven held Akron to 64 yards on 38 attempts. Bad Akron line, new offense, new coach, first game, but I still don't think anyone expected that. Hansen, Harding, and Eifler were really good. If the linebackers take a step forward, this whole defense takes a step forward.
Add the two takeaways (both by Jake Hansen) and it's even more exciting. Plus Devon Witherspoon was an inch away from another interception. +2 after one game is something to get excited about.
Yes, I know, I need to take a deep breath. We were always going to beat Akron. We're probably always going to beat UConn. We could be 3-0 in a few weeks and it won't mean much until we win some Big Ten games.
But I'll sleep well tonight. I'll watch this entire game again tomorrow. Transfer Saturday was very good to us.