You have currently viewed 1 story this month.
IlliniBoard now offers two free stories per month, for more please subscribe.
Like Robert, I grew up on the Illinois side of St. Louis. I was naturally a Rams fan.
The Rams moved to St. Louis in 1995, when I was nine. They moved because they weren't very good at the time, and they weren't drawing much in the way of attendance in Los Angeles. So, it wasn't a huge shock when, upon arrival in St. Louis, they were still bad.
The lasting memory of those early struggles -- before the Greatest Show on Turf came to town -- is a clip of 49ers defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield declaring, amid a blowout win at Busch Stadium in 1995, that they were the "same ol' sorry-ass Rams." It was Stubblefield's reminder that you can move halfway across the country, but you're still the same franchise. Sorry then, sorry now.
As Friday night's game progressed, the thing that didn't creep into my mind was, "same ol' sorry-ass Illini."
I had a vasectomy Thursday morning. (Two kids is plenty.) You're told to take it easy for the next few days -- avoid any heavy lifting, no strenuous activity, etc. So a buddy, knowing that, jokingly texted me Friday night, "Ya know, it's not good to be yelling and screaming like that right after a surgical procedure." And I replied, "I'm cool as a cucumber, man. I'm so pleased with how this game has gone so far."
That was in the third quarter, with the Illini leading by one. During the commercial break before the fourth quarter, I thought about my level of concern that they might lose the game and settled pretty quickly on the fact that it was about a 2 out of 10. The offense was moving with relative ease, and more importantly, the defense had ground Indiana's offense to a halt.
Even after the field goal pushed the lead to four and gave the ball back to Indiana for that fateful final drive, I wasn't thinking about Purdue last season or expecting the worst. I was instead thinking about Dele Harding intercepting the UConn freshman quarterback to seal the win in 2019, and Tanner Morgan sailing a ball right to Kerby Joseph, and, weirdly, the Patriots-Seahawks Super Bowl from a few years ago. I was thinking about all the times that that final gasp falls short, and it often does.
I believed the Illini would win that game until the final 23 seconds. And yeah, it hurts, and yeah, it's a lot like Lucy with the football. We're familiar with that feeling.
The belief I had, though -- the honest conviction -- that felt different. These don't feel like the same ol' sorry-ass Illini.
-I still see no reason to ever believe Isaiah Williams will be tackled.
-Why don't they build the entire plane out of Chase Brown?
I wasn't watching the offensive line closely, so it was only on the sack on the second-to-last play of the game that I noticed that Isaiah Adams was playing left tackle instead of Julian Pearl. Upon further review, a couple Illini beat writers noted just before the game that Pearl was a late scratch. It helped explain, to me at least, the offensive line's struggles in the second half when Indiana could key on the run.
It also highlighted what an absolute cheat code Brown is. If you need further evidence, look no further than the line produced by four-and-one-quarter Tom Cruises running back Reggie Love: five carries for seven yards. That's no slight to Love, either -- there was nowhere for him or Chase Hayden to run. There was nowhere for Brown to run, either, he just did it anyway, to the tune of 199 yards rushing.
Even in this, a full appreciation of his abilities, I still feel as though I'm taking him for granted. He's special.
-There aren't enough words to describe how well the defensive line played Friday.
26 carries for 32 yards doesn't encompass it.
The fact that Indiana's longest run was a 12-yard scramble by Bazelak doesn't encompass it.
Johnny Newton's five tackles, one sack, 1.5 TFL and three quarterback hurries doesn't even encompass it.
They were dominant. They rendered a Big Ten East offense incapacitated.
(If you're looking for the exact moment Indiana admitted it had no shot of actually converting a third down, it's the third-and-seven with 9:19 left in the fourth quarter when they ran a read-option with Bazelak from their own seven-yard line. We've seen that move. We know that move. It's the move of an offense that has surrendered.)
-Tommy DeVito's strengths and flaws were on full display Friday, but one thing that has pleasantly surprised me through two games is his awareness.
On four separate third-down plays, DeVito escaped the pocket and used his legs to pick up the first down and extend a drive. In other instances, it was something as simple as climbing the pocket to dodge pressure before making a throw. The touchdown pass to Brian Hightower was a case of DeVito seeing the corner blitz and firing it out to Hightower, knowing he was uncovered.
Maybe it's selective memory, but I don't recall a lot of that from Illini quarterbacks in recent years. It's likely why I noticed it Friday. Either way, it's a welcome addition.
-I liked it better when Luke Ford was noticeably absent from the box score.
-Hank Beatty: two catches, two first downs.
-If there's been a disappointment on the otherwise tremendous defensive side of the ball, it's been the lack of a pass rush from the edge rushers. Notably, Seth Coleman has just six tackles and no tackles for a loss. The only one who's really made his presence felt through two games is Alec Bryant, who got a hit on Bazelak late in Friday's game.
The unit is already playing well. If those edge rushers can get going, it will be an even scarier group. If not, better offenses will do more than Indiana did Friday.
-I'm writing this late Saturday, just a few hours after Virginia doubled up Richmond, so there's not yet a line on next Saturday's game. I'll be honest, though -- I think Illinois should be a slight favorite.
That's almost laughable after what the Hoos did to the Illini in Charlottesville last year, but a lot has changed since then. Virginia has an entirely new coaching staff. This year's game will be in Champaign. And most importantly, Ryan Walters' defense isn't the same one that Brennan Armstrong shredded last season.
Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I was too encouraged by the 59 minutes and 37 seconds from Friday night's game. Maybe Virginia is still the better team. But I'm looking forward to next Saturday to find out.