Smile Politely

Not as advertised: Lunt and Illini start the season weakly

Illinois played a team called the Penguins on Saturday and did not blow them out of the water. If you put as much stock in arbitrary things like this as I do, this was an extremely poor game. But even if you’re more interested in numbers and facts this game was a disappointment.

Disappointment is too mild a term, in fact. History is going to remember this game more fondly than I do because Illinois won 28-17, and Wes Lunt threw for four touchdowns and 285 yards (which are the most ever for an Illini quarterback in his debut). But at the start of the fourth quarter, Illinois was trailing a FCS team 9-7.

Sure, the final 15 minutes were a real romp for Illinois, but the first 45 were hot garbage. Anyone who watched surely felt the same way I did:

The problem with the Illini was obvious from the start of the game. After getting the kickoff, the Illini tried out Lunt’s arm on three straight plays and gained a total of 6 yards. For those of us who have been around for a few years this looked way, way too much like the Ron Zook-era Illini who tried to win the Rose Bowl by repeatedly running screen passes, which USC immediately stopped for short gains or no gain at all. When Illinois kept at that strategy on its second and third drive… well, I for one felt like screaming.

After the game, offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said he called conservatively in the beginning because of the inexperience of the young receiving corp. That begs the question, if you strategy to go conservative is failing, why not at least try to fail spectacularly? What good did letting these kids mess up short routes do for their confidence that dropping a deep ball would change? For that matter, what good did shelving Josh Feguson and Donovonn Young do? The backfield duo didn’t see two consecutive running plays called until less than five minutes remained in the first half. What did that do to their confidence?

For a team all about starting fast — Beckman played videos of dragsters the week before the game, apparently to instill the fast start idea (clearly an effective and smart strategy) — Illinois failed on all fronts. Part of it was play calling, part of it was youth and inexperience, but the stats are ugly regardless.

When you look at the breakdown of stats by quarter you see what the game should have been like from the start there in the fourth quarter, and then the miserable suck fest that occurred before that. If you’re looking for bad omens for the rest of the Illini season, well, it’s all there, especially in time of possession (that should NEVER be that lopsided, to ANY competition).

If you want to be optimistic, however (maybe there’s a few of you out there somewhere), consider that, before Saturday, Lunt hadn’t played a competitive football game since November 3rd, 2012 (I’m not going to count his 3 passing attempts in the Heart of Dallas Bowl that season as real game experience): that’s 664 days. In other words, taking three quarters to figure his shit out at game speed isn’t really that long. Another reason to be optimistic, the YSU defensive line was big. No really, BIG. There’s a stereotype about FCS schools having undersized kids on their lines, but it’s a stereotype the Penguins don’t conform to. Their D-line matched the Illini in size, clocking in at 6’1” 250, 6’0” 300, 6’2” 280, and 6’3” 255 (vs. 6’6” 250, 6’2” 290, 6’3” 305, and 6’3” 255 for Illinois). This kinda sorta maybe explains the team’s hesitancy to run.

Also, the defense, though struggling to limit time of possession, did a really good job of keeping Illinois in the game. Imagine saying that last year…or doing much complimenting the defense at all. Earnest Thomas looked like the senior leader you want on the field, the second-stringers filled in real well for Kenny Nelson and Paul James III (injured), especially Joe Fotu, who wasn’t even on the depth chart. Things could have been better — Mason Monheim dropped a pick-six thrown right to him and several times YSU quarterback Dante Nania just walked through the middle of the field when a play broke down – but overall the defense grades much better than the offense in this one.

So while there’s plenty to be upset and skeptical about, there’s also no reason to start beating the drum for Coachin’ Timmy Beckman’s head just yet. Ask me about that after next week, though.

Player of the Game

I wasn’t going to go through this whole thing without mentioning V’Angelo Bentley. The junior, who missed much of last season with injury, reminded fans exactly how good he is at returning kicks early in the game with a 67-yard return in the second quarter, setting up Lunt’s first career touchdown at Illinois, an 8-yard strike to Jon Davis.

Bentley also had one of the few highlight moments on defense. Though most of the defense played well, they did so without many “wow” moments. When Bentley broke up a pass guarding Andrew Williams late in the first quarter he helped put a stop to a good drive for YSU, which was emblematic of how the defense did all day.

Based on his numbers, Lunt could’ve easily been the POTW, but unless he’s consistently what he was in the fourth quarter, he’s not going to get that title. If I had a runner-up, it would be freshman wideout Mike Dudek. After dropping a surefire touchdown pass he rebounded by hauling in a terrific 49-yard catch and adding a TD for good measure, finishing his first game with 61 yards.

Illini Rebrand Thoughts

In their first appearance outside of a stage at Krannert, the new Illini uniforms looked awfully sharp. The white-orange-white combo is probably my second favorite out of the 27 possible configurations of helmet-jersey-pants (assuming there’s one each of orange, blue, and white for those items). My only gripe, and it probably extends to all the uniforms, is that the (super cool, really interesting) detail on the jerseys to recall the uniforms worn by Red Grange were indistinguishable, even when I was down at field level. This is a shame, because that’s the best part of the jerseys.

The other problem I have with the rebrand is not with the jerseys but with the consistency of the new logos. There are two high-profile instances of the old block I showing up at Memorial Stadium: right a midfield, where it’s stitched into the turf and above the scoreboard where it’s built in. I know these things can’t be easily or cheaply fixed, but it bugs me the same. I’m hypersensitive to this, maybe its my version of OCD, but I also noticed a few graphics with the old block I (lazy designers, get your shit together) and the dance team’s uniforms still showing off the old logo (though the cheerleaders were updated, favoritism?). One final inconsistency I noted was with the numbers on the field at Memorial Stadium. These are likely stitched in, too, but it would be real nice for them to replace the ugly block-stencil numbers with the slick set of numbers designed as part of the new Illini font.

I don’t blame you for not coming

Saturday’s attendance was reported to be 36,234. I’m pretty sure that’s how many tickets they sold and not how many people walked through the gate. Either way, this was the worst attended home opener for the Illini since 2000 against Middle Tennessee (35,032). It’s sad, but I wouldn’t spend my money to watch this team, either. Maybe if they win a few more and in a better fashion.

I do blame students for not coming

I can’t say that I feel the same for students. What else are you doing on Saturday mornings and how much are student tickets, they can’t be that expensive. Illinois basketball had likely the top 2015 point guard in the nation at the game on Saturday in Jalen Brunson and he saw a half-empty student section. Either that depressed the shit out of him or made him think this is a basketball school and he can be the greatest damn thing on campus if he comes here. Here’s hoping for the latter and hoping U of I students remember they have a great place to hang out on Saturdays, the kind of place some of us who went to smaller schools never got to enjoy (end bitter ISU graduate rant).

Photos courtesy of Travis McDade.

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