Five Thoughts About Illinois’ 2-0 Start by Your College Basketball Co-Correspondent Who Afterwards Will Mostly Stick With Hoops Unless They Win Friday In Which Case You’re Going To Have To Read This Again Next Week.
Editor’s Note: This week, Will takes a break from his usual Craggs & Leitch contributions to talk Illini Football. It’s all good though, Tommy and Will are gonna be back soon, together as one, to talk Illini Hoops.
1. Was the Western Kentucky win the best win since 2010 Northwestern Wrigley Field game?
Seriously. Legit question. I’m willing to hear arguments for the home win over Arizona State in 2011 — take that, Brock Osweiler — and maybe the final game of 2014, when they put up 47 on Northwestern to keep them out of a bowl and put us in one — but I’d argue that no win has made me feel better about Illinois football since the One Way Endzone game. What’s impressive is not that Illinois beat Western Kentucky, though it is an impressive win; this is a team that has dominated its conference for a half decade now. It’s that they did it by so thoroughly defusing WKU’s strength: Their passing game. Mike White — no, no, not that one — led his team to 44.5 points per game last year. We probably should have shut them out. For the first time that I can remember, Illinois was obviously, profoundly, unquestionably the best team on the field against a legit eight-or-nine-win team. Illinois looked so much better than their opponents that it never felt like much of a match. When’s the last time that happened? Wrigley, right?
2. Even better: It was a huge improvement on Week One.
On The News-Gazette Sports Page radio show this week — it’s available in podcast form, and it’s highly recommended listening — Jack Trudeau and David Williams, heroes of my youth of Illinois football, were this week’s guests. They had some outdated (and rather unfortunate, particularly from Trudeau’s perspective) views on concussions and youth football, but one thing they keyed on was how in your first game ever in college football, you spend most of your time lost and confused and a little worried that you’ve stepped up to a level you’re not ready for. It’s the second game when you find out who you are. And holy crap, did you see those two freshman — true freshman! — defensive ends, Isaiah Gay and Bobby Roundtree? They’re so awesome! They look ferocious and hungry and like they were the best players on the field, even though they were both eight year olds when Ron Zook was hired. Roundtree is the physical specimen, but I was even more impressed by Gay. He looks like he understands, instinctively, what to do on a football field. And he’s 18. He might have already surpassed Mikey Dudek as my favorite player.
3. This is only going to get better.
And that’s the fun part, right? It’s total lunacy that Lovie Smith is starting too many freshmen this year. Robert at Illiniboard — a guy whose work I read so religiously that I might be happier for him when/if Illinois break through than I will be for myself or just about anyone else I know on the planet — has been banging this drum for months now, but seriously, it’s absurd how young this team is. Here’s my favorite tidbit:
And the defense is the strength! That defense just shut down an experienced, 40-plus-point scoring team with the sort of quarterback that usually destroys us. More to the point: They did it after looking downright skittish against Ball State. How exciting is that? Even the good moments the last few years all felt fleeting, rare respites from the slow, then fast, downward spiral. But this feels… this feels sustainable. There will be bumps. Many. But this feels like something that can hold.
4. This should alter expectations this year, but only slightly.
We’ll get to South Florida in a second, but now that Illinois has a win no one expected it to, you’re starting to hear some bowl talk. Easy. It’s still difficult to find three more wins on the schedule, let alone four. Rutgers should be a win. At Purdue is possible. Home against Northwestern and Minnesota are possible. Maybe. But more than that? Unless Nebraska goes splat, I don’t see it. Lovie Smith surely looked at this schedule before the year and thought, “Well, we’re not going to a bowl game, so I’m just playing the kids and making sure we kill it in recruiting.” That shouldn’t change. This win was a blast. But let’s not get carried away.
5. All that goes out the window if they beat South Florida.
They’re not beating South Florida. That’s a top 25 team that has been waiting to play for two weeks. They’ve got a national TV audience in prime time. They’ve got a coach who’s smarter than Texas allowed him to be. This is a loss. Let us not be discouraged by it. This team is already way ahead of schedule. Even if they only win one or two more games, Lovie has them well on their way. I can’t believe I’m this excited about Illinois football. Punishment is surely on its way, and I’ll have it coming.
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Top photo courtesy of Scott Wells.