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I am maybe the world's most boring Madden player.
During my junior year, a handful of my fraternity brothers and I lived in a house on California Avenue in Urbana. One of the things we did that year was start up Madden franchises and play out full seasons against each other. School? Serious, sure, but we took this seriously.
Most of my opponents played in a similar style -- lots of shotgun on offense, lots of blitzes on defense. All gas, no brakes. Four Verticals on repeat.
I tended to be much more conservative. (At the football video game, that is.) I liked to pound the rock, usually between the tackles. HB Dive. HB Blast. Maybe a HB Counter if I was feeling spicy. First down, second down, third-and-short, I was usually calling a run.
The reasoning was, I prefer to be moving forward. That sounds simplistic, but I never wanted to be behind the sticks. Third-and-three, the whole playbook is open to you. Third-and-nine, less so. So on first and second down, I wanted to pick up yardage to put myself in a spot to convert on third down. Long, grinding drives were basically pornography to me.
I hated so much about Friday night's game, but among the things that troubled me was the playcalling late in the first half. After Brandon Peters found Chase Brown out of the backfield for a 33-yard gain to the Maryland 12-yard line, an offside penalty made it first-and-five from the Maryland seven-yard line. As Robert said in his piece after the game, a series of 1.25-yard runs would have gotten the job done. Put me in, coach, I'm ready to call some plays.
Instead, offensive coordinator Tony Petersen decided to throw ... three straight times. That all three were aimed at Daniel Barker isn't the point; we've been clamoring for them to throw to the tight ends for three straight weeks now. No, the real issue is that the decision didn't work, and Illinois had to settle for three points after first-and-five from the seven-yard line.
That's the problem with going against the grain as a playcaller -- when it works, you're a genius, but when it doesn't work, you're the villain. Through four games, Petersen has been the villain much more often than he's been the genius.
After the UTSA game, I noted that I didn't hate running the ball on first down in obvious passing spots late in the game. Zig when they expect you to zag, etc. Except, those plays didn't work, either. Goodbye genius, hello villain.
Maybe Petersen and the Illinois offense have been unlucky, and moving forward more of those counterintuitive calls will pay off. If Barker is open in the flat on first-and-five, we're not talking about it -- not as a negative, at least -- on Sunday morning.
Perhaps, though, with an offense that's having to work for everything it gets right now, just moving forward, even incrementally, should be the goal.
-If you didn't listen to The Field Pass preview the Maryland game, I wouldn't recommend going back and listening now (sorry, boys), but in it, Mike Dudek and guest Chayce Crouch had interesting things to say about the way Lovie Smith handled the rebuild. Basically, if I can paraphrase, they said that the locker room could tell it wasn't a meritocracy when Lovie played the freshman over the veterans, and that it created a rift in the room.
I was concerned that Bret Bielema playing his guys -- Joshua McCray ahead of some more established running backs, D.J. Johnson ahead of plenty of more veteran special teams types, etc. -- could create a similar issue, but after Friday's game, it's pretty clear that McCray is not a case of nepotism.
Maybe you already knew that. Maybe it took me longer to come around because I wanted to see more before declaring that he was deserving of being in the rotation with guys like Mike Epstein, Reggie Love and Jakari Norwood. I've seen the light, though, and I'm hopeful that whatever sent McCray to the hospital isn't as serious as it sounds. Because Josh McCray is the truth.
-Speaking of coming around too late on players, it's perhaps time to admit that Brandon Peters isn't the savior.
I do still think Peters has his moments. There are some throws he made on Friday that were missing from Artur Sitkowski in the prior two games. When he's comfortable in an offense and behind and offensive line, his career numbers speak for themselves.
Whether because he wasn't comfortable, either with the playbook or behind the offensive line, or because he's still not 100 percent healthy, Peters was a disaster Friday. The 10-for-26 requires some context -- namely, that a handful of those throws were intentionally errant as he was throwing the ball away, and that Illini receivers also dropped a few -- but some throws, like the one that sailed over Luke Ford's head and into the arms of a Maryland defensive back, are indefensible.
More than that, his lack of awareness makes it hard to believe he'll ever truly be the quarterback this team needs. Too many of Maryland's six sacks were on Peters, even as his offensive line crumbed around him. That final drive was a master class in what not to do.
After two straight weeks of Sitkowski, I was convinced that he's not the answer. That's still true. But I don't think Peters is, either. I honestly may join Robert on the Ryan Johnson train. Let's get those movie rights.
-There were positives from Friday, of course.
Before the game, as I was grasping at straws for ways it might go well for Illinois, I posited that perhaps Bielema knew this game would be an important one, more important than non-conference games against UTSA and Virginia, and that as such he held back a lot of the team's defensive identity in weeks one (two?) and two (three?). The thought would be, a Big Ten team should be able to line up and beat a Conference USA opponent without much more than a shell defense, and having scouted Virginia they knew it would be a tall order to leave with a win, so they decided to be very vanilla in both games.
I'll let the tape-technicians like Robert and Craig decide if that's what happened, but this defense was certainly different than the one that showed up the previous two games. Some important personnel decisions -- hello, Seth Coleman -- certainly helped, but an explosive Maryland offense was kept largely in check, at least on the scoreboard, by the Illini defense. Most notably, Illinois came up with three sacks of Taulia Tagovailoa after tallying just one in the previous two games combined.
More of that, please.
-One of my favorite sayings is, "Fortune favors the bold." So, it's not second-guessing to question punting on fourth-and-one at the Maryland 40-yard line with 4:50 left to go in the game. The defense had been playing well, but every Illini fan on the planet knew that the dam was likely going to burst eventually. Fortune ran out.
-Devon Witherspoon is a star.
-Free Luke Ford.
-It's frustrating to think how close this team could be to being 5-1 heading into the Homecoming game against Wisconsin. A catchable ball in the back of the end zone against UTSA, with some good fortune in overtime. Not melting down Friday. Going to Purdue this week and beating a beatable team. Taking care of business against Charlotte.
Of course, that's not how it went. Now, we'll be fortunate to be 3-3 heading into the game, with 2-4 or even 1-5 a more likely scenario. Frustrating.