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I love a good ground game.
My junior year of school, I was living with a group of guys in a house on West California Street in Urbana. As college-aged guys are wont to do, one of the things we quickly organized was a Madden league.
Unlike my friends, who threw early and often -- one guy only called the same handful of plays on offense -- I always had a preference for establishing the run. Whereas my opponents were operating out of shotgun on most plays, my favorites to call were basic running plays -- HB Dive, HB Counter, HB Stretch. I-formation? Even better.
I think I always just preferred modest gains, third-and-manageables, to incomplete passes; the risk just outweighed the reward for me. I understand why Rod Smith might want to call a quick slant on third-and-two, but if it was me I'd be calling my best three-yard run. Live to fight another down.
Staying in those manageable situations, which opens the door to go in a variety of directions on second and third down, seems to be key for Smith and company to thrive, and it was one of the biggest reasons the offense was so successful Saturday. The running game routinely delivering gains on first down allowed Smith to open up his playbook and use his stable of weapons to attack Nebraska on later downs. Without knowing where the next attack would come from, the Huskers had few answers for the multi-faceted offense.
It really was the most complete offensive showing the team has had in years. The 490 yards of total offense were, statistically, the most since the AJ Bush-led offense compiled 509 yards against the Huskers in a 54-35 loss in 2018, but even more than that it just felt like a complete effort unlike many we've seen in recent memory.
And it all started with a good rushing attack.
-After the Rutgers game last week I described the defensive philosophy as, "keep everything in front of you, make them sustain a drive and pray to god they make a mistake."
It worked last week, and it worked again Saturday. Luke McCaffrey looked very much the part of an inexperienced redshirt freshman and the Illini, to their credit, capitalized, racking up five turnovers on the afternoon.
There were still times where the strategy, if we're calling it a strategy, was hard to defend, though. After the opening play lateral-fumble thing and ensuing Illini touchdown, McCaffrey and the Nebraska offense moved down the field without much resistance to answer, carving up the Illini defense with a 12-play, 71-yard touchdown drive. They needed a goal-line stand to keep Nebraska from making it a 21-14 game midway through the second quarter.
It still feels like an unsustainable strategy over a full schedule, but these past two games we've at least gotten a reminder of what it looks like when Lovie ball works.
-I can't remember the last time the officiating was going so clearly in the direction of the Illini, not in a nefarious way, but just in a, "everything is coming up Illini" way. Even if the McCaffrey lateral wasn't a forward pass, the Brandon Peters "fumble" on the next play was pretty clearly not a fumble, so the Illini just got an extra, like, 10 yards closer to the goal line for no reason.
Penalties, decisions, everything -- it was refreshing to feel like we were the ones catching some breaks for a change.
-Without looking at the box score, who led the Illini in rushing Saturday? I'd have guessed Chase Brown and that it wasn't particularly close.
Brown did get the lion's share of the work, earning half of the team's 52 rushing attempts, but it was actually Mike Epstein who led the way with 113 yards to Brown's 110. Brown scored twice and Epstein just once, but Epstein's 58-yard run helped him take the top spot. Another testament to the diversity of options in this Illinois offense when things are going well.
-I feel like I don't have a great track record of taking stances in this space -- in the same post-Michigan Postscript last year I started talking about moving on from Lovie Smith (maybe fine?) and my belief that Matt Robinson should start against Wisconsin (decidedly not fine) -- so it's nice to be able to chalk up "Brandon Peters is the only quarterback ... who currently gives the Illini a competent, two-dimensional offense" as a win.
In a game dominated by Epstein and Brown, it was Peters who was the difference. He was brilliant in what was one of his best Illini performances to date, going 18-for-25 for 205 yards. The touchdown throw to Josh Imatorbhebhe was maybe the best throw he's made in his Illini career? Everything was working for Peters on Saturday.
-Before the season, we were hard-pressed to say who would step in -- or even if we could point to a name on a depth chart, how he would perform -- for an injured Alex Palczewski, but Julian Pearl has been more than anyone could have hoped for through a game-plus of action.
As is custom with offensive linemen, it's a good thing if you don't hear their name called during a broadcast. Pearl was notably absent from Saturday's conversation, and in the aftermath he was identified by Pro Football Focus as the Illini's best offensive lineman in the contest. The offensive line in general was very, very good Saturday.
With Palczewski potentially missing considerable time, we should get a chance to see more of what Pearl can do on that line -- quietly, hopefully -- going forward.
-I hope Tarique Barnes is OK, because I've never been more convinced the trio of Barnes, Jake Hansen and Khalan Tolson is the best group the Illini have.
-I don't even think we should call the Blake Hayes run a "fake punt" so much as it was him running an option by himself. A few times in recent weeks he's had daylight but has chosen to punt the ball.
It's pretty clear that Saturday was another such case where this time he pulled it and ran, but not because it was a fake by design. In fact, none of the fakes on that play -- neither the fake punt nor the fakes he was putting on absolutely nobody in the open field -- seemed intentional.
-This doesn't mean much, but it's always fun to look at the betting lines to see what Vegas thinks of the upcoming game, and it's worth noting that the Illini opened as a 30-point underdog to Ohio State a week after the Buckeyes were 21-point favorites against ninth-ranked Indiana. As of Sunday evening, the line was around 28 points, meaning early money was on the Illini to cover.
That bettors think we're within roughly a touchdown of what a top-10 team did against Ohio State is interesting. Worth anything? Probably not. As we saw on Saturday, sometimes lines are way off. Interesting nonetheless, though.