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Illini pick up win with another big fourth quarter

I really hope the Illinois football team and people who still claim to be a fan of the Illinois football team are happy right now, after a 42-35 win over Texas State. Seriously, I hope they’ve enjoyed these first four games and the 3-1 record the Illini has compiled. I sincerely hope that because I don’t know if this team can win another game this year (with the exception of Purdue, because Purdue is a joke).

On Saturday Illinois did as it has done in every game so far, sucked really hard for roughly 45 minutes and then pulled it together to grab a win from the claws of defeat. To state the obvious, this is an untenable style of play. Sure, it worked against an FCS team (Youngstown State, who led 9-7 at the start of the fourth quarter) and against two lesser FBS teams (Western Kentucky led 27-21 and Texas State led 28-25 at the start of the fourth), but this bullshit doesn’t work against good teams, like Washington (by the way, try to look up stats from that game on, they don’t exist) or any Big Ten team not named Purdue (not to pile on, but everyone has to have someone to make fun of).

Fans at Memorial Stadium on Saturday saw first hand how miserable this Illini team can be and how awful the road ahead can get. Before the two-hour rain delay that occurred in the middle of the second quarter, Illinois were entirely outclassed by a team no one outside of San Marcos, Texas, knew anything about. After one quarter, Illinois trailed 14-6, had 1 first down to Texas State’s 9, and had 3 passing yards to TSU’s 89. The one good play for Illinois was the very first, when Josh Ferguson was pitched the ball and ran for 75 yards for a touchdown. Aside from that play, however, the Illini only gained 6 net yards in the first quarter. And, in true Illini fashion, Taylor Zalewski missed the extra point on the touchdown (losing his job, at least for the game, in the process).

In the second quarter, before and after the delay, Illinois was hardly any better. The team went roughly 21 minutes between gains of more than 10 yards, getting its second first down with 8:30 remaining before halftime. It wasn’t until the final drive of the first half for Illinois that quarterback Wes Lunt strung together consecutive completed passes, and it was no coincidence the Illini scored on that drive. Prior to that he was looking for short passes and missing wildly, looking a lot more like he did in the first game than he should have after three starts.

The Illini, and Lunt, really started their comeback in the third quarter, scoring twice on their first two drives of the half. But on both of those touchdowns Illinois went for two and on both they missed. Those conversion attempts were a microcosm of the game for Illinois: when Lunt couldn’t work it out, the whole offense looked bad. 

The fourth quarter looked much like the rest of the Illinois season (except the Washington game), where they remember they’re playing lesser competition and make them look like such. Besides Lunt, Josh Ferguson, in particular, picked up his game; the junior rushed for only 32 yards between the first play of the game and the start of the fourth, but added another 83 yards and a third touchdown in the final 15 minutes. His play and the solid defensive work from guys like T. J. Neal and V’Angelo Bentley (who had a pick six) really made the difference in putting Texas State in its place.
Again, though, that it took until the fourth quarter for Illinois to run away with the game is upsetting. With Lunt under center, a more experienced defense, and the best offensive weapons — both in the backfield and from receivers — in years, Illinois was supposed to be much better than this. I drank the Kool-Aid; I truly believed this team would make a bowl this year. I know I’m not the only one. 
Now we’re looking at a team headed toward the buzz saw of #21 Nebraska next week and just hoping they don’t look as embarrassing as they did against Washington. Unfortunately, predicting Ameer Abdullah to run for 200 yards by himself and the Illini offense to gain about 200 yards total is not absurd. 
“We’re pretty positive about what we can do in the Big Ten. We’ve got a lot more experience this year,” Ferguson said after the loss.
I like his confidence, but it doesn’t get easier from here for Illinois, at all. Watch at your own risk.
Player of the game
Ferguson has to be the guy you pick here. His huge first play helped him set career highs with three touchdowns and a 233 total yards. When the offense was clicking he was spinning TSU defenders out of their shoes, executing runs and screen passes brilliantly, and generally keeping the opposing defense off-balance and allowing Lunt to find space for big pass plays downfield.
Honorable mention to Bentley, who made a difference on defense with his pick six, but also had another big return in this game, 40 yards on a punt, which led directly to Illinois’ third touchdown.
Not-so-special teams
Illinois had a lot of problems that affected the game more than special teams did on Saturday, but in a closer game that might not have been the case. Illinois kicker Taylor Zalewski missed the PAT kick on the first touchdown of the game, which came after sending multiple kick-offs out of bounds in previous games and missing a couple of field goals in Western Kentucky game. Coachin’ Timmy Beckman was correct in removing him, but you have to wonder going forward how good replacement David Reisner, a sophomore, is going to be, coming in with no game experience before Saturday.
With no faith in the kicking game, Beckman elected to go for two after consecutive touchdowns and twice the TSU defense gave Lunt no options and twice he failed to create anything. In a situation like this Illinois has to miss Nathan Scheelhaase, because Lunt simply threw the ball away on the first conversion attempt and then tried to force a pass and wound up with nothing.
In games that could be close, which charitably includes Northwestern, Minnesota, Penn State, and (of course) Purdue, Illinois is going to need those extra points. Special teams has been an issue for a couple of weeks now, hopefully the Illini coaching staff makes an honest effort to fix this mess before playing Nebraska.
I really don’t blame you, but damn this looks bad

Photos courtesy of Travis McDade.

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