Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Illinois: 1-0 (3-1)

Finally, for the first time in just less than 15 years, the Illini football team won a Big Ten opener. And what a great feeling that was! However, I am a bit cautious in my excitement.

I agree with Mark Tupper's assessment of Juice. The kid is talented, and he has an incredible arm. He can throw the football, but can he pass? In Tupper's words:
"I'm still not convinced Juice Williams can pass the football.

"I love the kid, especially his toughness and the dilemma he presents defenses while running the option. But when it comes time to throw the ball downfield, it's still an uncertain adventure, and Saturday was no exception. He missed two wide-open touchdown chances (one to Joe Morgan, one to Brian Gamble), and there will come a time when those failed chances will cost Illinois a game.

"I realize he's not a finished product, and he did make two excellent throws over the middle to Rejus Benn on one Illini touchdown drive. He also had a couple of drops, but those shouldn't affect his other throws."

The offense was a bit sloppy, and the Illini are -3 in turnover margin. Better than last year, but even though the Big Ten is a weak conference this year, we need to protect the ball better against higher quality opponents -- like Penn State and Wisconsin.

The defense did lots of really good things, and Leman leads the Big Ten in tackles, with 11 more than Penn State's Dan Connor. They racked up 7 sacks, contained Thigpen and Hardy, and capitalized on the Hoosiers many mistakes. However, Indiana did seem to be able to move down the field fairly almost at will much of the game, and Illinois is 10th in the Conference in Red Zone defense. Indiana hurt themselves with penalties and turnovers that gave Leman & co. the energy to make a stand. The defense showed that it "would bend but not break" as Brian Barnhart said almost constantly during the radio broadcast. That worked well against Indiana and what appeared to be a very weak Syracuse team (congrats to the Orange on their upset of Louisville! Makes me feel much better about our decisive win), and I would expect similar results against Minnesota and Northwestern. But I think they will need to step it up a notch for the stronger Big Ten teams.

The most dramatic improvement over last year, in my opinion, is on special teams. I felt less inclined to wince every time we punted, and the blocked Indiana punt was a huge plus.

Dare the Illini start thinking Bowl? We only need 3 wins to be eligible. Penn State and Wisconsin would be huge upsets, and Iowa on the road won't be easy. Zook and his staff will have a wide variety of film to figure out how to beat Michigan, although the Wolverines are improving. Ball State should be a W for homecoming, but I'm a bit nervous since they nearly upset Nebraska in Lincoln. Minnesota is struggling, so that is a realistic place to win on the road. Ohio State at the Horseshoe will be very, very tough, but we finish the season with Northwestern at home (the team that let Duke beat them in Evanston -- did you know Duke had a football team?). We should be able to get at least 3 of those games, with a realistic chance for an upset in nearly-sold-out Memorial Stadium. My biggest concern is the attitude of this young team. The next couple weeks will be hard, but if they can remember how to win, we have a shot...Go Illini!

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