Smile Politely

Something to hold on to for the Illini

The first home game of the season started in the gloaming — not quite night, not quite afternoon. But despite the weird hour, the humble opponent and the Illini performance last week, the fans packed the place right up to the corners. Even the seats that from a distance looked empty turned out to be filled with packs of boy scouts dressed in putty-shaded uniforms. The crowd totaled more than 62,000 — the best home opener since a 1995 game against Michigan.

All those people were promptly rewarded for showing up. On the first play by the Illinois offense, quarterback Juice Williams swept around the left side and broke untouched into the open field. He hustled 49 yards before being tackled by the ghost of Red Grange. The long run — ending with a sudden stop — didn’t agree with Williams’ quadriceps muscle and he limped through only one more play, handing the ball to Jason Ford for a touchdown. Then Eddie McGee took over for the rest of the game.

McGee plays like a skinnier Williams. Even when set in the pocket he appears in frenetic motion, as if he’d much rather be running. And he did plenty of that, finishing the game with 18 rushes for 55 yards (that’s 83 gained against 28 lost). He also threw a lot like Williams: on the run. In the passing category, McGee finished 13 for 17 with a touchdown and an interception.

The offense was strong on the ground, which is nice, because Illinois has a lot of talented running backs. Illinois has a lot of talented receivers, too, but the process of getting the ball in their hands with any consistency has proven complicated. The transaction between quarterback and running backs, on the other hand, is comparatively easy and will hopefully be practiced with more regularity in the future.

The defensive secondary looked exactly like last week, except against a worse team. The thing that bailed the corners and safeties (but mostly the corners) out was ISU quarterback Matt Brown who overthrew open men on a half dozen occasions. Still, he completed 27 passes for 312 yards, double what the Illini put up. The state of the defense is best summed up with this stat: three of the four players with the most tackles this game were defensive backs. That’s almost never good.

But still, this was Illinois State. By midway through the third quarter, what most people expected to happen had happened and the Illini’s lead looked to be insurmountable. Good taste prevented fans from leaving too early, so they distracted themselves with a wave. After, say, 1995, when crowd waves jumped the shark, the activity now says nothing more than “we need stimulation and you’re not giving it to us.” After a few successful turns of that, it was time for folks to leave.

The event staff, in their bright yellow jerseys, dutifully lined the wall to the stands as the game approached its end, presumably to discourage enthusiastic fans from rushing the field. By the end of the game, of course, the fans most likely to still be in the stands were those who had known the players much of their lives and weren’t likely to climb walls to get close to them.

This included a contingent of fans of St. Joseph-Ogden, the high school home of Illini sophomore Zach Becker. At 6’3, 252 pounds, Becker doesn’t look like the prototypical kickoff return man but when ISU kept kicking it to him he kept running it. He returned three kicks, racking up 31 yards. A ten yard average is not going to get set any records, of course, but Becker did exactly what he was supposed to do: hang on to the ball, and move it down the field.

As it happens, the most important drive in the Zook era at Illinois (in 2007, against Ohio State) was one that subscribed to this philosophy. Push the ball forward a bit at a time and don’t let the other team get their hands on it. Keeping the offense on the field will be more important this year than scoring touchdowns. It might not be exciting, but it’s as close to a sure recipe for wins as this team is likely to get.

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