Smile Politely

Better late than never: Illini come from behind again

Take the good, take the bad, take them both and then you have the Illini.

Illinois beat Western Kentucky 42-34 on Saturday, and Wes Lunt once again had a big day, passing for 456 yards. These are the things everyone is taking away from the win. For good reason: these are good things. But for every good thing Illinois did in this game, there was something equally bad. Which is troubling considering the opposition Illinois has faced so far and the opposition yet to come (Purdue and Northwestern excluded, obviously; please take a moment to laugh at their collective failure before reading on).

Good: Obviously the final outcome is the best part of Saturday’s result. The Illini are 2-0 and that’s all that matters, as Coachin’ Timmy Beckman is quick to remind anyone who asks about the game. Bad: Once again, Illinois were staring at a deficit at halftime and at the end of the third quarter. After getting the fast start they wanted, the Illini floundered and looked like the second-rate team for long stretches of the game.

Good: The defense allowed opposing running back Leon Allen just 2 rushing yards the entire second half. They forced and recovered a fumble in the first half and Taylor Barton had a pick six. Jihad Ward and Duwuane Smoot looked improved over the first week, getting a half sack a piece and playing a role many important stops. Bad: In the first half no one seemed to know how to tackle, letting WKU run rough shod over the field. At times it literally seemed like Brandon Doughty could move the ball at will, either picking a receiver and letting him run through an arm tackle, or handing off to Allen and watching him bounce off defenders on his way to 116 yards and a touchdown in the first half.

Good: Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young each had a touchdown in the win. Bad: Illinois was stopped on the WKU 1-yard line after three straight running plays. The running game only accounted for 64 yards, about half the output of Allen in the first half alone. The offensive line (though fielding some young players because of injury) allowed 6 tackles for a loss, including a sack.

Good: Wes Lunt threw for the second-most yards in Memorial Stadium history; he had 3 touchdowns and was absolutely the catalyst for the big fourth quarter swing. Lunt has an incredibly powerful arm; he’s firing bullets at receivers. Bad: Lunt consistently threw the ball behind or high or way out in front of his receivers, because when you sling it the way he does there’s little room for error. When Prince Charles Iworah (yes, that’s his real name) grabbed an interception in the third quarter, it felt overdue. This was Lunt’s second game, so his timing being off and his skills being less than their best until the fourth quarter is worrying.

Good: Illinois only had to punt once. Bad: Illinois sent two kickoffs out of bounds and Taylor Zalewski missed two field goals (50 and 34 yards). Honestly, there was nothing good about Illinois’ kicking this week and V’Angelo Bentley didn’t have a big game, so there was really nothing good about Illini special teams this week. In some perverse sense of redemption, Western Kentucky’s special teams screwed up on a punt and sent a kickoff out of bounds.

Good: Coachin’ Timmy Beckman and his staff went a second consecutive game without a sideline warning. Bad (for WKU): Jeff Brohm and his staff got warned and then got 2 sideline penalties, with schadenfreude undoubtedly ensuing on the Illini sideline.

When I look over the good and the bad from the Western Kentucky game, it’s hard to pinpoint what is a coaching mistake and what is just a matter of execution. Obviously not making tackles is a matter of execution, but Mason Monheim told me after the game that the defense was not expecting to see so much running from WKU a week after they lit up Bowling Green for more than 500 passing yards. This speaks to their preparation, which of course raises questions about the coaching staff. And this is not the first time Tim Banks has been questionable as a defensive coordinator, so he has earned no benefit of doubt.

Then there’s the missed opportunity for the Illini at the goal line in the first quarter. After getting great field position, Illinois walked away with no points because running the same hand-off to Donovonn Young three times in a row didn’t work any of those times. There’s some accountability here for DY, because the plays rely on his legs churning upfield, but he’s just running the plays as called. Why didn’t Coachin’ Timmy Beckman or Bill Cubit think to mix it up? Why would they put the ball on the ground three straight times when all game Lunt was finding success with his arm (even if the throws weren’t perfect)? Why wouldn’t they use back-up QB Aaron Bailey in this situation after using him (successfully) in the same situation last year?

There’s more to dissect and criticize from the game, but as Coachin’ Timmy Beckman says after every win, “A dubya is a dubya.” And if the dubya’s keep coming, well, we’ll have Coachin’ Timmy Beckman around to tell us that some more.

Player of the Game

I can’t pick just one player from Saturday’s game, because the Illini receivers as a group were truly fantastic. It was obvious coming into the year that this receiving corps would be improved, but the way they played on Saturday was really impressive. There was Geronimo Allison making one handed catches and looking like a stud, Mikey Dudek juking defenders out of their socks to get YAC and falling on a fumble for a touchdown, and the senior leader, Justin Hardee, picking up his first 100-yard game and scoring on a 62-yard route. All in all, the Illini receivers were what made Wes Lunt look good. As I mentioned, he was throwing a lot of balls outside, behind, and above these receivers, but they hauled them in like it was easy, and it was damn impressive.

Name game

Key and Peele have nothing on the Western Kentucky roster. Their top 5 names:

  • 5. Martavius Mimms
  • 4. Nacarious Fant
  • 3. Ge’Monee Brown (pronounced G-Money)
  • 2. Prince Charles Iworah
  • 1. Wonderful Terry

Not so Big Ten

Raise your hand if you expected Illinois, Indiana, Rutgers, Maryland, Minnesota, and Penn State, to have undefeated records at this point, when Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern, Ohio State, and Wisconsin all had losses to their names. Now put your hands down you dirty liars.

Last week was pretty weird for the Big Ten, going 8-5, with big losses by Michigan, MSU, and OSU and less big (but still hilarious) losses from Northwestern and Purdue. It also sets the stage for something even more ridiculous: Illinois being the best team in the Big Ten after week three.

Next week’s opponent, Washington, really struggled with Eastern Washington – more than Illinois struggled with WKU (shocking, I know). They pretty much didn’t play defense, which could work out to Illinois’ advantage, what with Wes Lunt being 5th in the nation in passing yards and touchdowns right now (that’s a real, legit stat, I looked it up). So, while its still a long, long shot, were Illinois to return from Seattle with a third win, it would be right there at the top of the standings with Nebraska looking down on all the peons in the standings below.

Until Saturday there’s your dose of optimism, fans.

Photos courtesy of Travis McDade.

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