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Editor's Note: This is your yearly reminder that it's time to check the bylines. In the offseason, nearly everything is written by me (Robert). During the season, articles might be written by Craig, or Tyler, or Ben, or Detlef.
Or Nathan. Sundays are generally a day with my wife - recharge my brain, go for a hike, plant some mums, or yesterday, binge the entire series Clickbait on Netflix - and so while I'm doing that, Nate is writing Postscript. That will publish every Sunday night/Monday morning during football season just like the last four years.
So please check those bylines. There will be comments saying "totally agree with this paragraph, Robert" and I'll have to hop on and say "not Robert - Nate" a bunch of times. The season is here (yay), so several people will be contributing. Hey, just like what we saw on the field on Saturday....
The Lovie Smith Era in Champaign came firing out of the gate.
Despite being named the head coach in March 2016, Lovie had already secured his first big recruiting commitment by late April when Ricky Smalling pledged to kick off the 2017 class. That class, ranked No. 46 in the country by 247, was deep and diverse and had a local flavor. Many of the players in that class, guys like Owen Carney, Tony Adams, Mike Epstein, Vederian Lowe and Alex Palczewski among others, will be, for better or worse, the foundation of this year's team.
On the field, the team produced early fireworks as well. One of the most memorable moments in recent Illini football memory was Ke'Shawn Vaughn taking the first handoff of the game to the house to give the Illini the lead against North Carolina under the lights. Vaughn was ushering in the Lovie era, and with it a new era of Illinois football.
We remember how that went. That impressive first recruiting class, which had 10 Illinois recruits, was as close as Lovie would come to closing the border. The 65-yard touchdown run was electric, but the team wasn't able to sustain that level of performance for 60 minutes and North Carolina pulled away. Fast starts only count for so much.
On Saturday, I found myself comparing and contrasting the beginning of Lovie Smith's Illinois career to that of Bret Bielema's. The bright lights were on the Illini once again, but this time there was no lightning. Midway through the second quarter, the only points Illinois had scored came by way of a self-inflicted Nebraska injury.
Instead, Bielema's team stayed the course. A sustained drive tied the game in the second quarter. A scoop-and-score, reminiscent of Lovie himself, gave them the halftime lead. And they held on in the second half with mistake-free football and just enough offense to get the job done.
It's not a perfect metaphor -- as though Lovie knew Vaughn was going to sprint down the right sideline and into the end zone when they called the play, or Bielema meant to go an hour without scoring an offensive point -- but it's hard to miss. Lovie entered with much fanfare and came out of the starting block well, but could never build on whatever success his team did find, on or off the field. Bielema's first game started slow but the team held steady and got where it wanted to be.
Time will tell whether his tenure will do the same.
-The most important drive in Sunday's game was one that ended with a Nebraska touchdown.
Surely nobody in Memorial Stadium felt comfortable when the Huskers got the ball back with 9:15 left in the fourth quarter trailing by two touchdowns. Still fresh in everyone's mind, after all, was Adrian Martinez breaking loose and scampering 75 yards for a one-play touchdown drive that breathed life into an otherwise lifeless Nebraska offense.
A similar result would have made the game's waning minutes even more tense than they ended up being, which is why the Illini forcing Martinez and company to march down the field for a 91-yard, 19-play, 6:42 touchdown drive was essentially what won them the game. Even though Nebraska punched it in on fourth down on their 19th play of the drive, there remained only 2:41 in the game by the time they had to kick off and hope to get the ball back. The clock eventually ran out on their comeback attempt.
If you'll forgive another comparison, it was a defensive drive reminiscent of what Lovie aimed to do -- keep everything in front of you, force your opponent to continually execute, and wait for a mistake. (The only thing that would have been more Lovie is if Seth Coleman had fallen on the ball that was snapped over Martinez's head.) Making Nebraska earn every inch of those 91 yards was the difference between a hurried and ultimately stunted game-tying drive attempt and one that could have been much more stressful for Illini fans.
-One thing that wasn't reminiscent of Lovie's regime: the rush defense.
The FOX Sports broadcast showed a graphic early in the game that highlighted how woeful the team's defense was in 2020. That included the Illini being last in the Big Ten in rushing yards allowed per game, and total yards allowed.
On Saturday, Nebraska rushed 39 times for 160 yards, or 4.1 yards per attempt. Of course, 75 yards of that came on one broken play. Also, that takes into account the five sacks recorded by the Illini defense, and the 14-yard loss on the bad snap. Still, the defense was routinely stout at the point of attack, led by Rod Perry in the middle of the line. What a welcome change, even if just for one game.
-As expected, the most impressive quarterback-turned-receiver was ... Deuce Spann?
-Speaking of Isaiah Williams, seeing him making plays as a receiver was a welcome reminder that he was recruited like a world-class receiving prospect out of high school.
It's actually kind of amazing to think of the odds in 2019 that Williams would be in orange and blue catching passes and juking Nebraska defenders in 2021. The things that needed to happen exactly as they did: Lovie and Illinois being one of the few schools to earnestly recruit him as a quarterback rather than as a receiver; Williams choosing Illinois instead of going to an Alabama or Clemson; Williams getting a chance to earn the starting quarterback job but not overtaking Brandon Peters; Williams choosing to stay despite the opportunity to leave after the coaching change; and finally, Williams going to the new coaching staff in spring and requesting to move on his own volition.
The odds of all those things happening are, what, 5 percent? Illinois had pocket aces but was drawing to a third ace (a Lil Uno, if you will) to win the hand, and it hit on the river. And now we get to enjoy it on Saturdays for the foreseeable future.
-Blake Hayes. Put some respect on his name, punter awards.
-Impressive first impressions, in no particular order: Calvin Hart, Tahveon Nicholson, Artur Sitkowski, and Wide Receiver Deuce Spann.
-Luke Ford: freed.
-With little known about Chase Brown's absence for much of Saturday's game, I started to wonder whether it was intentional on the part of the coaching staff to save him for late-game situations, kind of a thunder-and-lightning approach taken by the Giants with Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw. (Brown, for the record, would be the "lightning" in this scenario.)
As it turned out, Brown was apparently limited from the jump, but the thought exercise was interesting. With basically five running backs in the rotation, Illinois should be able to wear down opposing defenses while throwing fresh backs at the opponent all game long. It's similar to Bielema's Wisconsin days, when his teams often had lead backs but cycled multiple guys in for non-negligible workloads. Obviously, that kind of production is the ideal.
Also of note was the fact that it was Reggie Love, not senior Mike Epstein or bruiser Chase Hayden, who was on the field for the final drive in which Illinois attempted to ice the game on the ground. I don't know what that says about anything, but it was interesting if nothing else.
-If Illinois had gotten gashed on the ground, I would likely be very nervous about Sincere McCormick and the UTSA rushing attack coming to Champaign this weekend.
With the display on Saturday, those fears are on the back-burner for now. Perry and that defensive line were hard to move, and both the linebackers and defensive backs were effective in coming up to stop the run.
Sydney Brown, after having basically a lost season in 2020, was especially noticeable in the run game. It showed up in the box score, too, as he finished with nine tackles. Only Tony Adams had more for Illinois.
So, hopefully that's a sign of things to come this weekend. I Sincere-ly hope I'm writing about a 2-0 Illini team at this time next week. (I am also sorry for making that joke. Sincere-ly.) Until then, Hail to the Orange.