Turning Point

Aug 29, 2021

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The starting quarterback is injured on a sack. His backup comes in and is immediately sacked. The drive had reached the 29, but the sacks had pushed it back to the 38 where James McCourt then misses a 55-yard FG. Nebraska takes over, drives right down the field, and scores a touchdown. They miss the extra point, so it's 6-2.

Illinois gets the ball back and goes three-and-out with Sitkowski not attempting a pass. Nebraska again drives right down the field and kicks a field goal. 9-2. There was early momentum after two great Blake Hayes punts (and a safety), but that's gone now. The QB is injured, Nebraska has put together two long drives, and with ten minutes to go in the first half, it feels like we know what's about to happen. Put the brandy barrel on the St. Bernard's collar because here comes the avalanche.

And there it is. After three more runs, there's Sitkowski's first pass, and it falls right into the hands of Nebraska's Cam Taylor-Britt at midfield. That sound you hear is the avalanche gaining steam near the top of the mountain. Don't even try to run because there's nothing you can do once it gets here. 2-0 was fun, but it's about to be 16-2 after Nebraska punches this in.

Wait. What's that yellow piece of fabric on the field?

That yellow piece of fabric has shown up so many times in that situation. I now reflexively check the field on every single Illini touchdown to see if there are any flags about to steal my joy. It's happened too many times to count. Every game pivots on one moment, and it feels like that moment is always "roughing the punter kept the drive alive and that's when they scored the go-ahead touchdown." Seriously, there's no way we don't lead the nation in roughing-the-punter penalties the last 25 years.

This time? This time it was Nebraska providing the turning point. Instead of first down Nebraska at midfield, it's a roughing-the-passer penalty taking away the interception. And not only that, the player who got the roughing the passer penalty (Caleb Tannor) also got an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after the whistle (the daily double!) so there were 30 yards of penalties. First down Nebraska at midfield? No. First down Illinois at the Nebraska 24.

Here's what happens after that:

  • After the penalty moved the ball to the 24, Illinois converts two third-downs and punches it in. Score tied 9-9.
  • Nebraska gets 7 yards and then punts.
  • Illinois puts a drive together but Donny Navarro fumbles.
  • Keith Randolph strip-sacks Adrian Martinez, Calvin Hart scoops it up and scores. 16-9 Illinois.
  • Nebraska runs two plays and it's halftime.
  • Illinois goes on a 14-play, 75-yard drive over 8:04 and Sitkowski throws a TD pass to Luke Ford. 23-9 Illinois.
  • Nebraska loses three yards and punts.
  • Illinois goes 3 plays, 47 yards (1 yard, then 45-yard bomb to Deuce Spann, then 1 yard TD) and it's 30-9 Illinois.

Nebraska has all the momentum, they just picked off a pass, and everyone in the stadium knows it's about to be 16-2. And that tiny little yellow flag - the one that always dashes our hopes - sends Nebraska to a loss. In Champaign. On national TV. As we kick off the Bret Bielema era. With fans back in the stands for the first time in forever.

Somebody go find me a St. Bernard brandy barrel because I need to celebrate.

+ Let's just get to the rotation stuff so we can get it out of the way. Well, not "get it out of the way", but I want to go through everything we learned and I know that some people don't care about that stuff but I care a lot because we learned so much. We knew nothing going in but now we know everything. I feel like I could write about this stuff for the next hour so I need to make sure this section doesn't get out of hand.

I think the best way to do that is maybe go with a numbered list. If I went with bullet points there'd be way more than 10. Here are 10 things we learned about the player rotation and the schemes today.

  1. After all this talk about a 3-4 defense, we basically sat in a 4-2-5 all day. Almost all nickel and a fair bit of dime. The defense we saw in the spring game - five "linemen" including the two OLB's, two linebackers, four defensive backs - was mostly just kept in the chamber.
  2. That's not to say this defense isn't based in that concept. The OLB's were still standing up on the edge for the most part. I'm guessing that we'll see three linemen between them when we play Iowa and Wisconsin, not two. So yes, there's still that change here - I'm just pointing out that this defense was, for the most part, four linemen, two linebackers, two cornerbacks, and three safeties.
  3. The deep safety rotation was by far the biggest surprise for me. If you read the preview you know that I combined the cornerback and safety into one section this year and just called it "defensive backs". And that's more or less what this turned out to be. I think I'm going to need an entire section on this below.
  4. Offensive line was a pretty consistent rotation at right guard. At first I thought Pihlstrom started and was then benched for Badovinac in the second quarter, but those two touchdown drives at the beginning of the third quarter were both Pihlstrom again. So I think the plan was splitting the snaps there.
  5. Brian Hightower wasn't playing so the WR rotation was mostly Donny Navarro, Isaiah Williams, and Casey Washington with a little bit of Carlos Sandy and Khmari Thompson mixed in. And then this #6 guy named Deuce Spann I think?
  6. DEUCE SPANN AND ISAIAH WILLIAMS BOTH AT WIDE RECEIVER CATCHING TOUCHDOWNS. I just had to waste one of the 10 here with that fact. I guess Spann's wasn't a touchdown. But it almost was.
  7. Tight end seemed to mostly be Daniel Barker, Luke Ford, and Tip Reiman. Not sure I saw much more than that. Maybe a few plays from Max Rosenthal?
  8. Running back was easily the biggest surprise on the offense. A five-headed monster? I kept Jakari Norwood in bold in my preview (bold meant "players who will be in the rotation") and I'm glad I did because he was the third (wait, maybe second?) tailback to enter the game.
  9. With all the different looks in the defensive backfield, linebacker seemed quite lame by comparison. There were times when there was only one 'backer on the field (Hansen), but for the most part it was very simple: Hansen and Hart at linebacker with a little Tarique Barnes. After Hart's injury, it was mostly just Hansen and Barnes.
  10. On offense, there was less "three tight ends this play, then splitting four guys wide the next play" than I expected. For the most part, a very basic look with variations spinning off of that. That's not a complaint or anything. I was just expecting a little more "we'll throw this at them and then we'll throw that at them" and it was less that and more "here's what we're going to do - try to stop it."

I'm out of numbers. Let's just get to the defensive backs already.

+ I see it like this. There's linemen and linebackers. They do some stuff up there. Fine, whatever, they can do their thing.

Back here in the defensive backfield there are defensive backs. There are either four, five, or six defensive backs depending on the offensive personnel. For the most part that's two corners and then two or three or four safeties. But can you really even call them safeties at that point?

In dime packages you'd often see Alabama transfer Eddie Smith and redshirt freshman Taz Nicholson come on the field to join four other defensive backs. Were they corners? Safeties? Does it even matter?

That's how I felt about the defensive backfield. Should we just throw out the corner/safety thing and just say "we have six DB's on the field in this dime package". Like, I saw Kionte Curry working with the safeties pregame, and I thought "wonder if he's now a safety?", but now, after the game, I feel like it doesn't really matter. They'll go to a dime, the two outside guys are obviously the "cornerbacks", but the other four guys in the middle are whatever you want to call them. They're four defensive backs being dispatched to stop another team's passing attack.

That, by far, was the biggest difference scheme-wise from last year. I can't ever remember Lovie's defense going to one linebacker and six defensive backs. And today we saw that look a LOT. The whole thing I wrote in the preview about the six safeties and how I had no idea what the rotation would be? The answer was "all of them."

+ When I wrote the Art Sitkowski LLUOI in May I made the comparison to hearing the news that Bret Bielema was hired. The kind of news that grew on you as the days went by. After several days of tilting my head at the Sitkowski transfer, I suddenly began to realize that this move made a ton of sense. If Brandon Peters was the type of QB they wanted in this offense, even though the QB room was full, they probably needed to get another Brandon Peters clone.

So when Peters went down with the injury today, it was quite helpful to put in his clone. If those are the throws the QB in this offense is going to have to make - a simple 12-15 for 124 yards for Sitkowski - then get another tall QB who can make those throws.

Interceptions were always the issue for Sitkowski, and we saw one of those today (taken off the board by a dumb Nebraska penalty), so I'm not settling at "if Peters is out for a long time we're fine with Sitkowski" here. We need to see consistency over several games.

But man, how fortunate are we to have grabbed Sitkowski from Rutgers? That was a very Wisconsin-y "just make the throws and don't make any mistakes" performance today.

+ I do need to pause here to acknowledge the two big injuries we saw (I would say "three" here but Luke Ford came back in the game). If Peters is out for a long time, that's a big deal. If Calvin Hart is out for a long time, that's a big deal. Hart was a revelation today - six tackles, 1.5 TFL's, a sack, a QB hurry, and a 41-yard fumble return for a touchdown all in a game he did not finish - and realizing you really have something and then possibly losing that something immediately after finding out you have it is a bad feeling.

But that's all I want to say about that topic. I need to wrap this up.

+ I don't know where this goes from here. In 2012 we opened the season with a 24-7 win over a Western Michigan team we were scared to face and I made a big declaration that the great defense of 2011 had returned for 2012. And then the very next game was the 45-14 Arizona State debacle. The defense had not returned.

So yes, I don't want to get too deep into one game. Nebraska might just be awful. We'll need to let this all play out (duh).

But I'm not sure I remember feeling like this after an opening win? A Big Ten West opponent, favored by 7, comes into Champaign and loses by 8 to an Illinois team with their backup quarterback. The storyline from the game is how Nebraska made all the dumb mistakes and Illinois played consistent, steady, unwavering football. This wasn't beating Western Michigan in the opener. This was Year One Bret Bielema beating Year Four Scott Frost.

There are a lot of bumps ahead. When Jack Badovinac came into the game today the offensive line was senior, senior, senior, senior, and senior. All teams replacing entire offensive lines have massive growing pains the next season. This is not going to be "and then Bielema showed up and Illinois just started immediately winning, sustaining that for years."

I do think I can say that a performance like this makes me feel good about what it will look like once all those bumps are smoothed out, though. There was a lot of footballing happening out there today, and we've been waiting a long time for consistent footballing. Year after year we'd lose games we should have won and we'd make the worst mistakes at the worst times.

So perhaps some day we'll look back at a this opening win against Nebraska and say the words I've been waiting to say for nearly three decades:

"That, right there, was the turning point."


lucasmeducas on August 29, 2021 @ 01:41 AM

I too was pacing in the stands today at the end of the 3rd quarter on. The end of the game made me feel like Ricky Bobby after winning his first race and not knowing what to do with his hands. After reading your last paragraph I feel like the little kid in the GIF crossing his fingers on both hands with his eyes closed wishing "Please oh please oh PLEEEEEASE!!!!" repeatedly... This felt like a return to competent football that falls in line with what felt like a competent hiring process, offseason, and begin to the recruiting cycle. However, like you I'm an Illini football fan and so I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop. But what if... it doesn't?

HailToTheOrange on August 29, 2021 @ 01:50 AM

That, right there, was the turning point."

Amen. And how refreshing was it to see a competent coaching staff actually making adjustments that had a net positive?! Also, seeing Luke Ford freed on the first play of the day (not to mention his touchdown grab) and One be utilized was a sight for sore eyes.

ATOillini on August 29, 2021 @ 06:34 AM

Fabulous parking lot picture on Twitter with your (much) better half. Smiling Robert outside Memorial Stadium at dusk is a beautiful thing.

NC_OrangeKrush on August 29, 2021 @ 06:41 AM

"Illinois played consistent, steady, unwavering football"

THAT is the change and win or lose this season....that is what we have been looking for...

uilaw71 on August 29, 2021 @ 07:16 AM

Not saying we’re ready to Alabama (plug super freshmen in on the O-line), but we do have road graders in the pipeline, so my guess is that issue will fix itself. Also guessing BP is done, just based on how things looked in real time and Huard’s take. Hopefully Hart is just a sprain. Sit him until Maryland, Virginia only if 100%. Otherwise, this was what 2020 could have been - with one exception: coaching and conditioning. On that score, you were right all along Robert.

GilThorpe on August 29, 2021 @ 07:59 AM

I feel terrible for Peters - seemed like our OLine was not on the same page in the first quarter and he was under pressure from the first time he dropped back to pass.
Do I remember correct that they had 3 sacks (or was that 2) when he went down ? Regardless, hes going to be out awhile and the job is now Art's.

Personally, I want us to RUN THE D@%& BALL more and keep the DLine honest.

Would love to see a game where we have 3 guys all over 80 yards rushing. Do that, and you will be surprised how much time Art will have . Overall, what a great game to watch .

Frenchie on August 29, 2021 @ 11:56 AM

As long as we stay out of 3rd and long situations where the defense can full out attack our o-line.

Joe Edge on August 29, 2021 @ 01:10 PM

I too, would like to 'RUN THE D@%& BALL more'... But I really hate it when I see runs where the hole is already plugged before the Rb gets the ball from the QB, yet he runs into that pile anyway... Can't he see that that hole is plugged already ?

RochIllini on August 29, 2021 @ 08:05 AM

If you listen to the Nebraska coaches post game interview, he said that they had not prepared for the Defensive front that Illinois ran.

Also I did not see Rosenthal‘s name on the participation list

CapitalCityOutlaw50 on August 29, 2021 @ 08:31 AM


Lovie would have let it run and salted it away, hoping for a "draw." Give up no points or only a FG

OUR COACH SHOWED SOME FAITH IN HIS TEAM!!!!!! And he was rewarded by the football Gods.

CapitalCityOutlaw50 on August 29, 2021 @ 08:32 AM

The football Gods and Calvin Hart.

orangejulius on August 29, 2021 @ 12:50 PM

To me, in college football, the head coach makes the most difference of any sport. We saw a well-coached team today. Not only were they well-prepared, but there were also very few dumb errors, and no head-scratching game management decisions. I don't remember any stupid false start or offsides penalties. We actually saw a coach motivating and teaching in real time during the game. What a revelation!

Brave Illini on August 29, 2021 @ 09:41 AM

Coach B's mantra -

Run the football. Stop the run. Cover kicks and punts.

We did all three well, except for allowing one big and a few quarterback scrambles. Their other running backs gained 63 yards.

Brave Illini on August 29, 2021 @ 11:45 AM

Also, based on how we ran the ball against Nebraska, whose defense is supposed to be strong, shouldn't we be able to run against about anyone?

lumpyillini on August 29, 2021 @ 11:59 AM

reykjavik2020 on August 29, 2021 @ 12:04 PM

Regarding labeling the dbs -- reminds me of the Zook years when he would list each year's incoming recruits with positions of just "Back" or "Line". Used to drive Tate crazy...if it wasn't traditional, Tate was agin it! :-)

neale stoner on August 29, 2021 @ 12:27 PM

Great picture Holly!

reykjavik2020 on August 29, 2021 @ 12:46 PM

Ha, just noticed that in that picture, Art is levitating in the background to see the result of the pass.

IlliniJedi on August 29, 2021 @ 01:40 PM

Watching the game yesterday, I saw what I have wanted to see for years; Illinois playing Big Boy, Big Ten football. The 8 minute drive to start the third quarter was glorious. Also, Blake Hayes is a weapon and I have no idea how that punt stopped at the one then went sideways out of bounds. This well coached team is going to win field position and time of possession and as result win a lot of games.

IBFan on August 29, 2021 @ 01:42 PM


IBFan on August 29, 2021 @ 01:42 PM

Game wasn’t flawless but what a difference compared to opener last year. There were some lineup issues but refs weren’t in mid season form, one 5 men in backfield penalty? Also had plays were players in motion did not set properly before snap, no calls. Defense had blown wheel route...Brown? Blown touchdown where two guys open in corner. Other wide opens were picks from what I’ve seen. Thought RBs all showed up. Hope chase gets to 100%. Happy for Mike. Love looks like the real deal, hits hole hard but also showed some nice cuts and vision. Jakari, Hayden looked solid as well, all those carries among all 5 and not once did the ball hit the turf, winning football

Bear8287 on August 29, 2021 @ 04:39 PM

The storyline from the game is how Nebraska made all the dumb mistakes and Illinois played consistent, steady, unwavering football…This was Year One Bret Bielema beating Year Four Scott Frost.

Agreed. The announcers also mentioned that Sitkowski looking very much like a “Wisconsin” quarterback. I can live with that too. At one point TOP was almost 30 minutes Illinois to 15 minutes for Nebraska. On a hot day in Champaign, that’s a nice stat to see going into the 4th Q.

JTDev21 on August 30, 2021 @ 02:36 PM

How about calling timeout when Nebraska had the ball during the final 2 of the first half?!? Not content to go into halftime down 6. The sequence that followed didn't quite play out exactly as expected (thought ultimately successful!), but that kind of confidence in your defense to hold and for your offense to make something happen is wonderfully refreshing!

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