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There is, and perhaps rightly so, a preoccupation with a football team's "identity."
Heck, I know I've written about it in years past. I'd imagine Robert, in his years of writing about Illinois football, has touched on it as well.
It makes sense. I'm sure coaches like being able to say, "We're (state school), and this is what we do at (state school)." We hear that, and we say, "Ah, yes, identity," and then we look at our favorite team and say, "OK, so what's our identity?"
Illinois teams in recent years have had identities -- or, should I say, units of Illinois teams have had identities. The 2019 bowl team had a defense whose identity was takeaways. "We're Illinois, and turnovers are what we do at Illinois." Plenty of teams in recent memory -- notably last year's group and the 2018 team, among others -- have hung their hat on an effective rushing offense. "We're Illinois, and running the ball well is what we do at Illinois."
That's all fine and well, and I certainly don't think it's a bad thing to be especially good in one area of the game, but they're just pieces of the puzzle. That 2019 team needed a lot of things to go right for them to get to six wins and a bowl. The 2018 team was dreadful defensively. Last year's team couldn't move the ball through the air.
Units? Good. Team? Meh.
This thought occurred to me Saturday as I was watching the Virginia game. The thought was, "Man, it's nice to just have confidence in a team." As they did against Indiana, the offense was able to move the ball, even if they struggled to hold onto it or turn it into points. And defensively, little more needs to be said.
I just think that's been absent from this fanbase's vernacular since ... 2014? Longer?
And look, I'm not saying everything is perfect or this is a finished product. This team is still going to have to fight to finish the season with a winning record, let alone achieve higher heights. I'm just saying, when Illinois starts a drive at its own 4-yard line and marches 95.5 yards in eight plays using a combination runs and passes, as they did early in the second quarter, that's an offense whose identity is quickly becoming, simply, "competent."
"We're Illinois, and playing good, competitive, well-rounded football is what we do at Illinois."
It doesn't have the same ring to it, but I like it a lot more than some of the past iterations.
-A lot of the focus will understandably be on the turnovers and the corresponding lack of scoring, but I'm just having a hard time getting too worked up over it.
Luke Ford tucks the ball away and an Indiana defender puts a shoulder on it. Chase Brown gets destroyed on a lateral because Ford missed a block. Brown puts the ball on the ground when a defender again gets a shoulder on it. A defender gets around a clearly-compromised Julian Pearl and hits Tommy DeVito on his blind side. Pat Bryant has the ball stripped as he's fighting to get to the goal line.
If it becomes a theme? Sure, let's talk about it. But I'm inclined to think these are all one-offs until proven otherwise.
The one area that's worth being mildly concerned about is DeVito's interceptions, and near-interceptions. Some, like the first pass of the game, are bad throws. Others, like the throw DeVito made on the second-and-seven from the 13-yard line midway through the third quarter that the defender dropped only because there's a reason he plays defense, are bad decisions. Neither is great, but the decision-making is what's most concerning.
If we're going to talk about DeVito, though, we also have to talk about the good. I've noticed on more than one occasion that his pre-snap reads have led to easy throws. I mentioned his read of the corner blitz that led to Brian Hightower's easy touchdown last week. On Michael Marchese's touchdown against Virginia, you can see DeVito lock in on Marchese from the play's outset. I think his experience and awareness have been huge benefits thus far.
And then there's the legs. He didn't run as much, or at least as notably, as in the Indiana game, but that designed run on second-and-22 deep in their own territory was a good example of his abilities. We liked that Brandon Peters had at least a modicum of running ability. DeVito's an even better athlete, and that aspect of his game should continue to come in handy.
-The areas in which I'm getting repetitive, and we're only three games into the season:
*Chase Brown is ridiculous.
*Isaiah Williams is electric.
*The defensive line is bookended by monster.
-After two games, I noted that Seth Coleman hadn't really made his impact felt in either game. It was an indictment of Coleman, for whom many of us had high hopes coming into the season, but it was also a reflection of the outside linebacker group as a whole. Coleman was perhaps the poster boy, but none of Coleman, Ezekiel Holmes or Alec Bryant had done much in the way of rushing the passer.
Enter Gabe Jacas.
Jacas had two sacks on Saturday, part of the team's five overall, and after Holmes' unfortunate injury that appears destined to sideline him for weeks if not months, it seems like Jacas is just getting started. There will surely be some bumps once they get into Big Ten play -- Virginia's offensive line wasn't providing much resistance to anything Illini defenders wanted to do, and it's not hard to imagine Chattanooga also being an easy target -- but of the freshman on a course to make an immediate impact, few are higher on the list than Jacas right now.
-One guy who is: Matthew Bailey. But I'll leave the excessive gushing to Robert.
-The kicking game is a mess, but the reality is -- fortunately or unfortunately -- there's basically nothing to be done about it. Caleb Griffin has been a member of the team since 2018. He's been groomed to be the James McCourt replacement since McCourt took over the job in 2019. They've brought in other guys, but none have really challenged Griffin for the title. The 2022 kicking job has always been Griffin's.
I say "fortunately" because teams with murky kicker situations rarely fare well. The grass usually isn't greener. And in this case, I do expect Griffin to improve as the season goes on. So, the sooner he gets some good field goals under his belt, the better.
-I will not overlook the Mocs, because WIFAWCBT, but if we do emerge victorious on that Thursday night, I'm really excited by the prospect of heading into October 3-1. It's a gauntlet -- at Wisconsin, followed by Iowa and Minnesota at home, likely the three best teams in the Big Ten West when all is said and done -- but everything shown to me by the Illini and those opponents so far tells me all three should be competitive games.
We're Illinois. Let's see if continuing to play good, competitive, well-rounded football is something we can do.