SOC - Eastern Michigan
I'm writing this SOC a few miles from where I wrote the last SOC. Last week I had just landed in Hartford before the game. This week I'm at an airport hotel in Hartford, ready to fly to St. Louis first thing in the morning. We land at 8:00 and then I will drive the 2.65 hours to Champaign and try to make it by kickoff. (I won't make it by kickoff. But I might make it by kickoff?)
Here's the big thing about winning a road game last Saturday, as ugly as it was: there are still six home games remaining. Find a way to go 4-2 and you can bowl without even winning a Big Ten road game. Win a Big Ten road game? Sneak one out at Minnesota or Purdue? Then you can go 3-3 and get to a bowl.
This is why, when the Big Ten went to nine game conference schedules while asking schools to schedule home-and-homes with P5 opponents, we picked the weakest P5 opponents we could pick. Actually it wasn't "Power 5" at the time - the Big East was still one of the six major conferences when some of these games were scheduled. Which is how we shoe-horned UConn and South Florida into being "major conference opponents".
The plan: schedule the P5 road game for the seasons where we have five Big Ten home games and then schedule the home game for the years with four Big Ten home games. This is a 5 home/4 away year, so we scheduled UConn on the road, and despite all of our efforts trying to throw it away, we came away with a win. In the arena of "how crappy teams get to bowls", that opens the door for "go 3-6 in the conference and still go to a bowl" IF you can win your third non-conference game at home. That's tomorrow.
Why am I back to talking about eking out six wins when I predicted 7-5? Mostly because of how things looked last Saturday. As I said in the postgame, it was basically the score I expected, and a lot of that was the mistakes, but we also struggled to run the ball on UConn while letting a true freshman QB throw for a lot of yards. Had we mistake'd our way to 31-23 win, I would have accepted it. But UConn matched us mistake for mistake, meaning we should have pulled away, but we didn't pull away because A) we struggled to run the ball and B) we struggled to shut down what will certainly be the worst passing offense we face all season. So... we're behind where I thought we'd be after two games.
Which is whatever. Everything is still out there for the taking. It's about time we saw an Illinois team that was much better in November than September, so I'll still hope for seven wins. My only point: after two games, we're behind.
OK, so, Eastern Michigan. There is no question in my mind that interceptions will decide the game tomorrow. Why? Because for the last seven years, I've tracked all NCAA interceptions each summer. And for those seven seasons, we've mostly been battling with Eastern Michigan for the last place spot (as in, fewest interceptions in all of FBS football). As of today, we've put FOUR teams between us on my ten year rolling interception average (Eastern Michigan is still dead last, but now UTEP, Rice, New Mexico, and UNLV are next on the list. Illinois is "only" the fifth-worst in the nation.
So obviously, someone is grabbing three interceptions tomorrow and putting the game away early. And I think it's us. I think both Nate Hobbs and Quan Martin are due for interceptions soon, and what better game than against a MAC opponent? They're going to throw it early and often I think (they average 76 yards per game on the ground through two games), and we need to put ourselves in position to grab three of those passes. Just three and it's no longer a game.
I do think they'll put up a lot of yards through the air. EMU's QB has completed 72% of his passes so far this season so he'll probably love our soft zone. But as long as those yards are between the 20's and we're forcing field goals instead of giving up touchdowns, that will hopefully just be a recipe for "they had to throw so many times they had to know all the interceptions were coming".
Offensively, if Reggie is back (Reggie will be back, right?), I feel good about the running game getting back on track. Kentucky ran for 239 on Eastern Michigan last week, and I'm hoping we top it. I'm OK with the running game looking a little rough when Corbin and Epstein are injured in the first game, but in the third game, with Reggie hopefully back, I'm looking for a big performance.
So as I head to bed here in Hartford, I feel positive about tomorrow. If it finishes straight up in the turnover battle and I'm thinking this is way too close for comfort. But I think we win the turnover battle and put up a solid performance.
Illinois 38, Eastern Michigan 20