Fighting Illini squandered every opportunity to run away with an easy win, instead come away with a frustrating loss. In one of the weirdest games I have seen in a while Illinois managed to dominate both sides of the ball and still managed to lose in heart breaking fashion. A short week and the team being a little too juiced on national television led to some less than desirable moments. I will get to the officiating later. Yes I am going to be that guy today, but only because it was that bad. If you were a fan of either team it was a frustrating night to say the least. We will start with the good though because I’m a glass half full kind of guy.
Hard-nosed Defense Is Fighting Illini’s Calling Card
The Illini opened up the game on the defensive side of the ball just how you draw it up. Flying around to the ball like mad men, and a monster hit by Devon Witherspoon set the tone. There were several hits like this throughout the game from both sides and that aspect of the game was a blast. The one good thing I will say about the officials is they let boys play ball and that’s all players and fans want to see.
Illinois held Indiana to 287 total yards and only 70 second half yards before their 75 yard game winning drive. The defense showed out in a big way under the Friday night lights. A couple mental lapses in the first half led to a long touch down and a late field goal before halftime. After the break they cleaned it up and got after it. Indiana crossed into plus territory just one time before the final drive and turned it over twice.
The largest disparity were the rushing yard totals. Illini dominated the trenches totaling over 250 yards on the ground. Indiana had a measly 32 yards, their longest chunk being a 12 yard scamper by quarterback Connor Bazelak. The Illini front seven dismantled the Indiana front and suffocated their run game. The game-plan was to shut running back Shaun Sivers down and force Bazelak to beat them through the air. The plan worked to perfection, only problem is Illinois’ offense didn’t hold up their end of the bargain. If you are a Chicago Bears fan like myself, you have watched that exact game your whole life. Defense is holding on with no support all game long until they breakdown in the closing minutes. Despite expecting it every time, they trick you by creating new ways to break your heart.
Hard To Win If You Don’t Punch It In
Chase Brown had another monster game despite what the play-by-play announcers would have led you to believe. 36 carries for 199 yards is pretty damn good in my book, especially when Indiana had the same defensive gameplan our Illini deployed. It is scary to think what this offense would look like without him, I am sure I’m not the only who’s heart sank when he went down on that ‘backward” swing pass in the fourth quarter. Thankfully he came back and ripped off a couple big runs that put Illinois into perfect position to seal the game! Except they failed to score, multiple times from inside IU’s 30 yard line.
Bad play calling, poor execution, or Indiana bowing their necks. Whatever you want to call it, it wasn’t acceptable. You have to come away with points when you are that deep in plus territory. Offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. called a creative game between the 20s, but when a defense is daring you to throw the ball sometimes you must oblige. You can’t bang your head against a wall, if they want to recklessly stack the box you must make them pay on the back end. On the flip side, you must know your personnel and their limitations.
Lunney knows he has a weak tight end room and it proved to be the achilles heel. Multiple dropped passes and missed/lazy execution of blocking assignments all night long killed nearly every drive. Tight ends are suppose to be the ultimate utility man for an offense, a jack of all trades if you will. They are the quarterback’s safety valve and an extension of the offensive line. Outside of quarterback it is the hardest position to learn. Several dropped passes, a fumble, countless missed blocking assignments, and holding calls derailed the offense in the most pivotal times. If Illinois is going to make a push for a bowl game the tight end room will have to do some soul searching.
I just have to say, nobody appreciates a good punter until you have a bad one. Illinois has to figure out the kicking situation. Close games come down to minute details, one of which being the punting game. It is imperative if the offense can’t move the ball they have to flip the field. Punting for 12 and 23 yards on consecutive drives is not going to cut it.
Quarterback Tommy Devito had a solid outing going 21-35, 235 yards and tossing two touchdowns. Adding to his game he ran for three first downs. That mobility on top of efficient passing is so valuable and almost necessary in today’s game. His receivers didn’t do him any favors by dropping a handful of wide open passes. Even so, he improved on the YPA I mentioned in my article leading into the game by pushing the ball down field. Isaiah Williams wasn’t immune to the case of dropsies, but he had himself a ballgame and punished Indiana’s defense. Lunney knew just how to incorporate his #1 receiver into the gameplan to the tune of nine catches for 112 yards and a touchdown. Williams within two weeks proved to be a weapon every team has to plan for.
At What Point Do Officials Get Held Accountable?
Alright, this is going to sound like a homer Illini fan griping about the zebras, but I mean come on. How many times does a receiver need to catch the ball in one play before you count it? Brian Hightower made an incredible, and I mean incredible catch on a near perfect throw by DeVito. It not only robbed him of a second touchdown for the night, but ultimately cost Illinois the game. If you don’t know what play I’m talking about check it out here. That is two catches in one play in which Hightower was credited for neither of. Now, more than just that contributed to Illinois’ loss. They shot themselves in the foot more times than I can count. Even with my public education I’m smart enough to know it was a lot.
Jokes aside, I know last night was this crew’s first game of the season as well, but it was a mess. On several occasions the officials looked lost. Those looks became more apparent as the game tightened and wound down to the final minutes. It was not a good look for the Big Ten who employs these officials and it needs to be addressed. Both teams and fanbases suffered because of this crew’s ineptitude. All in all it was an ugly game for everybody involved. Sometimes you just have to mentally throw a game away and look forward to the next one. Such is the life of an Illini fan, but hey at least we didn’t lose to Old Dominion