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I've walked out of openers saying "are we the best team on the planet?" (Kent State comes to mind) and I've walked out of season openers that left me saying "what in the world was THAT?" (Youngstown State comes to mind). I'm not much of a gambler, but it's like walking out of a casino with your pockets full of cash vs. walking out of the casino with your pockets inside out like some old cartoon.
This game? I broke even. Was playing blackjack, won the first three hands and figured I was going to be rich, then went on a cold streak, then got hot again and finished strong, and when I went to cash out my stack of chips equaled the cash I had when I walked in.
And the interesting thing about that? It feels pretty good. Winning feels great, losing feels awful, breaking even feels... pretty good as well? You enjoyed yourself and it didn't drain any money from your pocket.
Football seems like it would follow this pretty much exactly down the line (wins feel good, losses feel awful, nothing in between), but that's not the case. It's weighted. The Youngstown State example above was a win, but it was a win where we were trailing in the 4th quarter to an FCS team, so it felt awful. We pulled it out, but man, that was so close to an embarrassing loss. There can be wins where you feel awful and there can be losses where you feel pretty good.
And there can be games that feel perfectly fine because you broke even. You saw what you were expecting to see. You're not "wow, we are so much better than I thought", you're not "oh man, that's so concerning", it's just... right down the middle. You walked into the casino with $200, you walked out of the casino with $200.
Sometimes, when playing poker with friends, if we're wrapping things up and I note that I'm up $3.00 from what I came in with, I'd try to bet that $3.00 (yeah, we play for MASSIVE stakes) on the final hand. For whatever reason, walking out with the exact same amount you started with feels better than winning $3.00.
That was today. Exactly what I expected to see and that felt pretty good. Wasn't overly exciting (there were concerns, especially in the final 20 minutes of the first half). Wasn't devastating at all (plenty of good which we'll get to in a minute). Walked in with $200, walked out with $200. Solid day.
Maybe the best way to write about this is to make three lists. The good, the bad, and the ugly doesn't fit here. Maybe I'll just go with the Seinfeld episode where George was up, Elaine was down, and Jerry just continued to break even. A George list, an Elaine list, and a Jerry list.
- Quan Martin was fantastic. I cannot get over it. I recorded the Spaces with the Field Pass guys after the game and I went on a three minute rant about how Quan in this game was about as good as I've seen an Illini defender in a single game in several years. I need to write an entire post about him in this game. Saved two touchdowns by cleaning up everyone else's mess (not just once - two times). Made big tackle after big tackle from all over the field. I didn't have access to stats (wasn't in the pressbox, data wasn't working on my phone), so I got home to see that he led the team in tackles and had three, count 'em, three passes broken up. An absolute monster. PFF needs to give him a grade of 99.9.
- Chase Brown was equally fantastic. I sent a text to someone during the game saying that if I were to re-rank my 90 Illini based on this first game, I'd have Chase 1 and Quan 2 (I had Chase 1 but Quan 7). 19 carries for 151 yards and two touchdowns. Yards per carry: 7.9. He would have been well over 200 yards if this was a close game late, but there was no need for him in the fourth quarter.
- Pat Bryant was also great. Led the team in receiving yards. And that catch down the sideline - over the corner and under the safety - was so good. We've been missing a receiver with the speed and body control to make that catch. It's not easy to twist to make the catch when the window is that tiny before the safety arrives. I was making the point last week that Bryant was battling to hold onto the third receiver spot, and in this game it felt like Pat Bryant was #2 with Brian Hightower and Casey Washington battling to be the third guy.
- Wyoming is bad (because they're so incredibly young), so it's hard to get a full read, but I liked the debut for Barry Lunney Jr.'s offense. 40 passes, 41 rushing attempts. 5.9 yards per play. Had the Wyoming defenders confused with some of those bunch formations with a tight end. You'd think there's a run play and suddenly they split five wide. I feel like I can sense some wrinkles they're going to throw at Indiana and Virginia (but I'm not going to tell you, Coach Allen or Coach Elliott).
- Our 29 year-old Australian cop has a LEG, y'all.
- If this game was against Minnesota or Purdue, we would have walked out so upset at the penalties. First game, yes, but these were some killer penalties. More or less stalled two touchdown drives, plus the interception was pushed back 15 yards for a celebration penalty and the first kickoff was from the 20 because of another celebration penalty. Good teams will absolutely punish those moments. If this was a 50/50 game (I think Minnesota and Purdue will both be those kinds of games this season), then we would have lost by seven and right now I'd be writing "we gave them 3 free points by kicking off from the 20, then we turned 7 into 3 with the illegal block on the play where IW got to the 5 (which was the second time we turned 7 into 3). 3 points plus 4 points plus 4 points means we should have had 11 more points in a game we lost by 7. Did everything else right and penalties cost us 11 points."
- Position-wise, I found myself concerned with the linebackers and the interior of the offensive line. Maybe the linebackers were the most concerning? Wyoming had 5.9 yards per carry, and it felt like missed tackles were a big part it. I guess not really "missed tackles" - more like "missed spots." I'm watching the game and I see a gap that the tailback bursts through and I think "why isn't there a linebacker waiting to clean up that gap?" Got home and saw the tackle totals for the main three linebackers: Darkangelo 4, Hart 3, Barnes 2. When the top four tacklers are Quan Martin plus three defensive linemen (Newton, Randolph, and Avery), that can be viewed as a linebacker issue in that game.
- Similarly, the interior of the offensive line was a bit rough. As I tweeted during the game (one of the few times I had a signal in the stands), I thought Jordyn Slaughter provided a real spark when he entered the game in the second quarter. The drive I'm thinking of was the Chase Brown's second TD. Slaughter was in for that drive at right guard and we finally got the run game back on track after several rough drives. But there's a lot to work on here. Wyoming's defensive line will either be the 11th or 12th-best DL we face this season. Need the interior of the OL to make huge strides.
- I'll have more on this in another article, but after writing my "Eyeballs and Butts" article this summer, the worst possible thing happened: the fan experience was awful. Lines were incredibly long to get in (the Grange Grove entrance, with the gates up by the statue, was backed up across 1st Street when I walked by). There was no wifi I could find in the stands. The concession lines were ridiculously long. And that's with the paid attendance only 37,832, with many of those people not showing up (what would we do if there were 60,000 people there?). Someone told me after that all three were related to the same issue - ticket scanners couldn't connect to a network so they couldn't scan tickets, credit cards at concession stands had the same issue - so... I guess I'll just save this rant for another article. But let's just say that when an internet-pioneering University which struggles to get fans to attend a game has, to quote Andy Dwyer, "network connectivity problems", there had better be the ugliest meeting in the history of the DIA at 8:00 Monday morning.
- 1 for 3 on field goals is fine against Wyoming. 1 for 3 on field goals against Indiana and we might lose because of it.
- I thought Tommy DeVito hit the mark. Some real struggles there late-first, early-second with a lot of "my arm is strong enough - I don't need footwork for this throw" throws, but he finally settled down and had a solid stat line: 27-37 for 194 yards and two touchdowns. And he had that one big Isaiah Williams play taken off the board because of an illegal block. Only 5.4 passing yards per attempt (when your passing yards per attempt is less than your rushing yards per attempt, you might be dinking and dunking), but this was the first game. We're making a Jerry list here, and DeVito was just fine.
- Defense was fine. Maybe I should say "defensive positives balanced out the defensive negatives." The most concerning thing: 1 single tackle for loss. Had eight TFLs in November against Northwestern and one in this game. The most encouraging thing: completely shut down any semblance of a passing game from Wyoming. 30 yards passing, longest passing play nine yards, Wyoming quarterback was 5 for 20.
- Let's check in with the Turnover Fairy. Everything was... pretty much even. Muffed two punts but got them back, so that's pretty lucky. Had a few deflected passes we could have picked off but they just didn't fall right (that's unlucky). We did drop two interceptions, but those have nothing to do with the Turnover Fairy. Those are great defensive plays that are no longer great defensive plays because of the drop. Final ruling: even.
- Overall, I was equally frustrated and excited, I think. Felt very uneasy at halftime with what should have been a much bigger lead. Had some "man, we're not going to let this slip away, are we?" feelings on the Wyoming field goal drive to start the second half (had that ended with a touchdown to make it 17-10, I would have moved past "uneasy"). But then the last 25 minutes were total Illini domination and I felt completely fine again. A very "as it should be" finish to the game.
So all of that leaves me dead even. Walking out with the same amount I came in with. Ready to try this again at Indiana. We seem to lose every first road game ever, so I don't have much hope right now, but I'm still ready to gamble.
Hoping for a really big win.