Smile Politely

Hail to the Orange and Blue

The Illini squared off against the Broncos of Western Michigan University on Saturday, and the whole enterprise seemed even more closely scrutinized than a normal season opener: subjected to a rigorous textual deconstruction worthy of the finest the academic side of the University has to offer. We’ll summarize the plot later, but first, why such a close reading?

Two teams with 0-0 records competing means the end of the college football draught, the ability to set aside all that was written in the off-season and finally see the team in action, an early augur of the end of summer. Saturday’s game was all of that, but for many, it was also a fair amount more. Much of the anxiousness seemed to focus on a lingering fear that an entire epoch can be tainted at conception. Saturday marked the first game with Tim Beckman as the new head coach, and there was lots of talk of “The Beckman Era.” It’s become a major sports cliché that every head coaching change is the beginning of an “era.” A friend of mine has some “commemorative” plastic cups that say, “The Ron Turner Era Begins!” which is like having a souvenir pamphlet entitled, “Your Upcoming Hindenburg Ride: Float Away to Fun!” 

Nevertheless, Beckman’s first game as head coach was suffused with a palpable sense of fear that any excitement at the prospect of a fresh break from The Ron Zook Era would be shattered immediately with a disappointing loss. Skipping to the last chapter, the Illini handled the challenge with aplomb, winning 24–7 in a game that was never close.

The never uncertain result aside, the game showed that season openers are no less uncertain for the teams themselves than they are for the fans, as the whole enterprise showed that, just as the fans are beginning to know their team, the team is just beginning to know itself.

As the fans read the players closely, the players were obviously working on reading each other, and their playbooks, ever more closely. Not that Illinois looked unprepared, but they remained a team in progress, working to discern which plays of the playbook work with which combinations of players.

Running backs Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young both got a fair amount of time carrying the football, but so did Jon Davis. A closer reading shows that Jon Davis is listed on the depth chart as tight end. But that is likely to change, as Davis carried the ball well from the backfield.

Ferguson and Young’s style of running, more open field cuts and speed, was complemented nicely by Davis’s, who hit the holes hard and without hesitation in a way that will prove key for the Illini in Big Ten conference play.

Saturday’s game did little to challenge the prevailing assumption that the primary quarterback will be Nathan Scheelhaase, so long as he is able. Scheelhaase left the game with an unspecified left ankle injury (Beckman would say only that it was “tweaked” but there were no indications that it was serious), and was replaced by Reilly O’Toole. Mr. O’Toole never seemed to find a stride, but that should not be cause for concern, as his duties were largely relegated to handing off the football for an offense that had already gone into safe-mode.

Closer observation showed that Mr. Beckman and his staff had been doing quite a bit of reading themselves. In last year’s contest against Western Michigan (a too-close-for-comfort affair we covered for you here at Smile Politely), the Broncos were able to manufacture six or eight yards of offense at will with passes to the flat. Beckman and the defensive coaches had obviously made stopping this type of attack a priority from the first series, and the game plan was well executed. The entire defense played admirably, and should give much reassurance that last year’s prevailing bright spot remains.

The offense was equally well-read, though lacked the polished execution of the defense. On the first series it became apparent that the offensive coordinators had seen a weakness in Western Michigan’s three-on-the-line front, as Scheelhaase hit Lankford, streaking through the seams in the secondary coverage, in stride en route to a 64 yard touchdown. The offense never found a rhythm and struggled to get into third-and-short situations, but was able to convert most downs when needed and keep the game rolling. The real question will be whether the offense will be able to reach the level of the defense and be ready for a step up in quality of opponent next week, as Illinois travels to play Arizona State for a Saturday night special. Check back with Smile Politely later in the week and we’ll preview that one for you.

We learned other things on Saturday as well. We learned, in a Smile Politely exclusive, that Myers Leonard will be traded from the Portland Trailblazers soon. He was in attendance at the game, and confirmed that his girlfriend recently purchased a new bicycle for him that is neither a fixed-gear nor freak bike, and he has decided not to grow a “Dream of the 1890s” beard. His lack of intentionally-inconvenient ecotransport and farrier-appropriate facial hair can only mean that he will be run out of Portland on a hand-hewn artisan rail in the near future.

But for now, soak in the fact that Illinois is off to a good start on a fresh football season. Even the field got in on the action, as the playing surface at Memorial Stadium has gotten in on the “Our State. Our Team” branding effort and revamped itself to match the hardwood floor across the street. Whether Illinois’ play can match the razor sharpness of the newly painted lines remains to be seen. Regardless of the ending, it’s sure to be an entertaining read.

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