No trap was sprung in Champaign today. Illinois showed no signs of overlooking the Jackrabbits of South Dakota State, winning handily for a 2–0 season start. The final tally was 56 to 3, but it was actually worse of a shellacking than that figure indicates, if you can believe it.
But what does it tell us that Illinois played backups and still hung a half a hundred on their opponent? As we reported earlier in our game preview, South Dakota State is in a lower division of football than Illinois, and lower even than Illinois’ first opponent, Arkansas State. So judging the team based on this performance is dicey. But Illinois fans should have seen lots to make them cautiously optimistic going into next week.
One thing is for certain: Illinois looked sharp. All around and in almost every facet of the game, Illinois looked polished and ready for a bigger challenge. Sure, there were some negatives. A few avoidable penalties on the offense in a single series due to miscommunication. The first offensive drive looked sluggish. A few of the flag girls were out of synch during the halftime salute to the armed forces. It was that kind of day: you have to dig pretty deep to find negatives, and even then they were qualified.
The offense took an interesting step towards a running-back-by-committee approach, with lots of touches distributed amongst Troy Pollard and freshmen Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson, in addition to the stalwart Jason Ford. In post-game interviews, offensive coordinator Paul Petrino stated that this was not simply a product of Illinois capitalizing on a comfortable lead by getting snaps to backups to rest the starters. Petrino indicated a desire to get a lot of backs involved throughout the game, keep everyone fresh, and then to rely heavily on whomever has the hot hand (or foot, as it were) in the fourth quarter. This should be interesting to watch, as all four backs showed flashes of brilliance, especially Pollard.
Nathan Scheelhaase looked fantastic, with tight and on-target throws and (even more impressively) shifty running that was littered with leather-helmet-era stiffarms of prospective tacklers. And the offense showed good things coming down the pipe, especially backup QB Reilly O’Toole’s 9 for 9 passing.
I will call myself out and say that my prediction was wrong. I opined that Illinois would dominate this game by going to the skies. In actuality, there was very little passing, mostly because the run game was so dominant it was not necessary to risk a turnover by airing out the ball.
The defense was outstanding as well, holding their opponent to 96 total yards. Not for one player: the entire team only had 96 yards of offense. Run defense was terrific, giving up only 25 yards for the game. Trulon Henry shone, returning an interception 27 yards for a score, in addition to some clutch tackles, including an early stop in a 3rd and short situation that prevented the Jackrabbits from notching their first third-down conversion, which set the tone for the defense early. Following Mr. Henry’s lead, Illinois kept their opponents to nothing but 3 and outs, and entirely off the Illinois side of the field until well into the second quarter.
As intimated in the opening paragraph, Illinois actually played even better than these stats indicate. With the game securely in hand very, very early, the coaches rotated in loads of names from the depth chart. So quite a few of South Dakota State’s six total first downs came against the second unit defense: they had only 2 first downs through the third quarter.
One area of the Illinois game that continues to be a large question mark is the punting. Because of the stellar offensive production today, we saw very few dropkicks from the francophonically named true freshman Justin DuVernois (rhymes with the way that really pretentious guy you know pronounces “croissant”). What we did see was okay, but not where you would like it to be. Ron Zook stated as much in the post-game Q&A, rating the punting situation “not great” but “not bad,” chalking it to inexperience. Zook shared that DuVernois admitted hurrying into his first punt, and reported confidence that the punting will come along as DuVernois gains poise . Zook note that in practice DuVernois has demonstrated an ability to “boom it,” something that has yet to be seen between the collonades on Saturdays. (It should be noted that South Dakota State did not struggle whatsoever in this regard: their punter Jason Schlautman was exploding gorgeous, arcing punts all day. We should’ve recruited that guy.)
But what does this dominant win tell us? Allow me to state again: this was a weaker team than we saw last week, and is MUCH weaker team than we’ll see next week. So it is tough to compare. Caveats aside, overall the Illini looked to have improved considerably week over week. This upward trend bodes well for a strong performance next week, when the first true test of the Orange and Blue rolls in to town in Arizona State, coming off an overtime win against Missouri (a ranked team) in a national-stage ESPN game.
Check back often this week with Smile Politely. Later in the week we’ll have a comprehensive preview of Illinois’ upcoming night-time, prime-time matchup, and while you’re here, read something non-sports related. It’ll make you a well rounded individual. Next Saturday’s atmosphere will be electric. You’ll want to attend in person. And you’ll want a full preview before you go, in case you get really drunk before the 6 p.m. kickoff, and have trouble following the game. We’re more than happy to oblige.
Photos by T McDade