Spotlights


Robert
Oct 24, 2021
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15 Comments

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My brain is still going in a thousand directions. It's 1:10 am, I'm on the train in Pittsburgh, it was supposed to leave the station at midnight but we're still here, I have no idea when we're getting to Chicago or when I'm going to get back to Champaign, and I don't care. Might just stay up for hours scrolling through Twitter.

Maybe the best way to write here is to just shine the spotlight on certain players. I haven't posted the interview with the offensive line yet. I have some things I want to say about a few other players. So maybe I'll just fire up the spotlight and shine it around the room.

The Offensive Line

Let's start with the interview I conducted with six of the offensive linemen. Actually, let me start by saying this.

When you interview six people at once, it's best to do it as video. Because if it's just audio, and your audience doesn't know everyone's voices, then your audience is going to spend the entire five minutes wondering which player is answering which question.

But the moment presented today itself and I had to do it. We're interviewing individual players (and by "we" I mean the three Illini media members there, a few Penn State media members, and a few others recording videos with fancy cameras) and while most are interviewing other players, the entire offensive line arrives. Some guys start interviewing Palcho, so I ask if I can interview the rest all at once. I get the go-ahead, so I gather up the five linemen who hadn't been interviewed yet. I ask if I can interview them all together, and in true offensive line fashion, they say they want Palcho to be part of it.

Once Palcho is done I start interviewing the six of them. Six because Vederian Lowe was injured during the game and the other five finished out the game (with Alex Pihlstrom moving to left tackle in place of Lowe). As I'm standing there in the middle of the circle, I sense the other media finishing other interviews and coming over to film this one.

So now it's weird. Me interviewing six guys (without video), standing like a choir director at the center point of an arc, and then other media members filming the interview (which, because of the huge group, is just them filming me talking to the players). I was fully aware of this the entire time and it was weird.

(The train just started moving. Leaving the station an hour and 36 minutes late. I don't have any connections I'm going to miss, so I don't care. Let's take a wrong turn and end up in Canada. I'm having fun.)

Here's the cheat sheet for this interview:

  • The audio starts with Doug Kramer saying he wants to wait for Palcho to finish the other interview so all six can be interviewed together.
  • I ask if they want to talk about Palcho before he gets there and they kinda refuse. Julian Pearl (as we're standing there waiting for Palcho to finish) has some good words about everything he and Palch have been through.
  • The first question goes to Palcho.
  • The next question (about the Barge package) is answered by Vederian Lowe.
  • The Pihlstrom question is answered by Pihlstrom (duh). He references V, so Vederian follows up the question.
  • Vederian also takes the next question.
  • Then the question about Palcho and Julian flipping guard/tackle this week is answered by Julian Pearl.
  • The next question (when did you sense it?) is Doug Kramer.
  • The two point conversion question is taken by Jack Badovinac.
  • Then Doug Kramer takes over like the captain he is.

ALL OF THAT just so you can listen to this interview. Here it is:

Still blows my mind what these guys just pulled off. 357 rushing yards against the #7 team in the country (365 if you don't look at Sitkowski's -8 yards). Just decided that they would dictate how this game would go.

Amazing.

Tailon Leitzsey

End of regulation, Penn State punts, and Donny Navarro muffs the punt. Who is there to jump on it? Tailon Leitzsey. Let's back up.

You probably heard Tailon Leitzsey's story when he was put on scholarship last spring. Was at Missouri Baptist in St. Louis. Wanted a shot at a walkon spot at a Big Ten school so he drove to Champaign, slept in his car, and finally got someone's attention in the football offices. He walked on, a few years later he's on scholarship, and now he's out there preventing Penn State from being able to kick the game-winning field goal as time expired.

I mean, just think about it. Navarro muffs the punt. Penn State recovers at our 10. They either score a touchdown or they run it down to 3 seconds left and kick the game-winning chip shot. That's how today almost ended.

But Tailon Leitzsey jumped on the fumble, Illinois kept the ball, the game went to overtime, and Illinois won. When Tailon Leitzsey wonders if it was all worth it, he can look to this single play.

Think about that. Say he decides to play out his career at Missouri Baptist (NAIA). Has a nice little career at a tiny college tucked in behind CBC High School in St. Louis. Maybe he's even All Conference. And then someone else is on punt return with 30 seconds left on the road at #7 Penn State on October 23, 2021. Does that player grab the muffed punt? Maybe. Maybe not. Don't really know.

But Leitzsey decided to give Big Ten football a shot. And he was there on the field. And he made the fumble recovery. And Illinois won.

Khalan Tolson and Tarique Barnes

Both had injuries last season. Both sat all spring. Both were limited in fall camp as they slowly worked back in after the injuries. Both were on the sideline as Jake Hansen and Calvin Hart started the opener.

And both were starters today, making huge play after huge play on a defense that held #7 Penn State to 227 yards. The Tolson PBU on Penn State's try in the 9th OT was the defensive play of the game.

Both starting linebackers were lost for the season and then the 3rd and 4th guys lead the team to a road win at Penn State.

Chase Brown and Josh McCray

How can I properly frame this? Let's try this:

The most rushing yards given up by Penn State's defense this year: 182 (Auburn). Josh McCray had 142 yards all by himself, so only 40 yards short of what Auburn produced. AND HIS TEAMMATE HAD 223 YARDS ON TOP OF ALL THAT.

Everyone's offseason darling the Indiana Hoosiers came into Happy Valley a few weeks ago and lost 24-0 with 69 total rushing yards. Chase Brown and Josh McCray combined for 365 today. I only wish that their uniform numbers were 24 and 7 so I could make a "24/7/365" t-shirt.

Chase Brown missed the UTSA and Purdue games with an injury. And the injuries limited him to 12 total carries in the Nebraska and Virginia games. So he's more or less played in half the games. And he has 637 rushing yards so far this season. For comparison, Reggie Corbin was the leading rushing in the 2019 season. He had 675 yards.

Oh, and Josh McCray has 476 yards rushing this season. The leading rusher in 2017 (Mike Epstein) had 346 yards on the entire season. 1,113 rushing yards through eight games (with McCray missing one and Brown more or less missing four). And this is on an offense that has, by nearly every metric, wildly underperformed. How many yards would they have if we were stronger offensively?

OK, I need to force myself to go to sleep. I can't just stay up all night looking at this stuff. I need to go to bed.

So that I can get up in the morning and look at more of this stuff.

Comments

Efremwinters84 on October 24, 2021 @ 04:58 AM

So we did both:

(1) We got the bad turnover game out of the way, and

(2) We rebounded in a humungus way after the Wisconsin debacle & subsequent BYE week. And we did it all with a tougher-than-nails effort on the road, against #7 PSU, without several key starters, and on national TV.

Way to go Robert! You pretty much nailed this one!!!!

MarchingIllini on October 24, 2021 @ 06:22 AM

I can’t recall Illinois ever coming back from a Bye-Week and actually playing better. It seems in prior years after a week off, the team would regress. Procedure penalties, everything out of sync similar to a first game of the year type of performance. Can it actually be true that we have a coaching staff that knows how to coach up the players to a higher level?? Also, Maybe Bielema was misinterpreted with his offensive line comments on Monday, but he sure used the Twitter storm to his advantage and pull this team together. Gotta run-promised God I would go to Mass this morning if we won around the 5th OT. Not gonna welsh in that promise. Wearing my Illini jacket for sure!!

reykjavik2020 on October 24, 2021 @ 08:09 AM

And how bout this -- Casey Washington transfers to WF in the offseason, changes his mind, and catches the winning pass at Happy, Happy, Happy Valley? Up to that point, maybe he wished he had stuck with a currently unbeaten, ranked WF team but AFTER that catch?! :-)

uilaw71 on October 24, 2021 @ 08:12 AM

Great piece, Robert. Happy for these kids!

Any idea on V going forward? He looks fine in the picture, but that tells us nothing.

Domillini87 on October 24, 2021 @ 09:05 AM

If you go back to the main page picture you can see he's wearing a boot. hopefully nothing season ending.

EastSide105 on October 24, 2021 @ 10:17 AM

I would say my defensive play of the game was Keith Randolph's goal line stop of the PSU runner at the goal line the OT period right before the 9th. Watch the replay of that. Incredible Terry Hawthorne like effort! So proud of the guys.

AGig21 on October 24, 2021 @ 10:45 AM

Just took a morning shot of the kool-aid and just think, Shoulda beat UTSA, and the Maryland and Purdue games were so winnable, especially Purdue So, one more shot of kook-aid….. We could very easily be 5-3 Wait, one more shot, make it a double, we could be 6-2. Course we’re not but....damn that kool-aid is good....

Brave Illini on October 24, 2021 @ 12:38 PM

It is hard to understand how we were able to run so effectively against Penn State after gaining nearly nothing running against Wisconsin. More specifically, how our O-line was able to and did block so much better this game than in that game. What were the differences between those two games that could account for the stark difference? Was it that the linemen got into the Proper State of Mind? If so, how? Our O-line has taken their share of shots this year, but here they are, outplaying Penn State's defensive front nearly the entire game. I hope the coaches can help maintain that level of performance. If so, I don't see any remaining games on our schedule that we can't win.

skibdaddy on October 24, 2021 @ 02:22 PM

It all comes down to preventing 3 and outs and controlling the ball. Against Wisconsin we couldn't buy a first down, but vs. PSU we controlled the ball and thus the clock and thus kept our D fresh for 9 OT's, all while making their D line stay out there all game and getting them tired.

3 and outs are terrible for cohesion and morale too.

iluvrt on October 24, 2021 @ 09:33 PM

It was the barge package.

IBFan on October 24, 2021 @ 02:31 PM

Kramer healthy

Rested

Position switches

Different scheme in the trenches, I believe they went tight from what I could tell

More OL, many more power sets

Game plan Was completely different than opening with 109 straight passes against Wisconsin

Coaching,motivation

GilThorpe on October 24, 2021 @ 02:50 PM

when we ended the game 10-10 , to me it was a moral victory . I never in 100 years thought we could win in OT there.

then Found out about the OT rule changes on the radio , as I had to go see my 86 year old mom & help her with some stuff .

was totally surprised that the initial winner of the coin toss at the start of 1st OT maintains that luxury forever . that was very nice .

not sure what the best answer is regarding OT format . The high school format of 4 downs from the 10 might be better . I just don’t like the concept of one mandatory two point conversion attempt play deciding the game .

anyone besides me think that it was going to be silly to spend the rest of the day being up or down on the basis of one two point conversion attempt ? Me , I enjoyed waking up this morning knowing we won. just not at all convinced that one play by itself is worth awarding a W .

In hockey , shootouts are 3 trys. in soccer , it’s 5 trys . college football needs to figure a better solution

NC_OrangeKrush on October 24, 2021 @ 03:55 PM

It is interesting that 2 unexpected dominant wins was Nebraska with weeks to prepare and PSU with a bye week. Says a lot to me about this staff being able to game plan at another level with extra time.

Extra time has not helped previous coaching staffs.

And going all in on the one trick you are good at (running) takes guts... And smarts... To make that a winning plan... All in with 7 OL and 2TE.... Wow.

Giovantischixstripz on October 25, 2021 @ 03:53 PM

I have a different defensive play of the game. No disrespect to Tolson's play, but Keith Randolph's tackle on an interior run earlier in the OT (5th? 6th? 7th? It all blurs together) was absolutely incredible. Shed the block, grab hold of the RB with one arm and completely stopped his momentum cold so he couldn't fall forward into the endzone. I was sure it was ending there and he stoned them.

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