For a little more than three hours, Illinois football could forget an offseason of unprecedented turmoil and just play the game.
And finally, we can analyze and discuss that player. No more speculation based on what coaches say or what media saw during two weeks of practice. The film never lies, and the Illini now have a full game on film.
Week 1 always is one of the most anticipated weeks, regardless of the opponent. Finally, the wrapping paper is ripped apart and tossed aside. We finally get a look at what a team really is. Unlike last season's opener -- a way-to-close 28-17 win over Youngstown State -- Illini fans couldn't ask for more from the Illini's Week 1 performance, a completely dominant 52-3 win over Kent State.
During the football season, I will re-watch each game and give my thoughts on the game film. I pretend to be no great football expert, but I've watched the game a lot and have a pretty good understanding of this team's personnel, so just take this as one observer's evaluation. The Week 1 review will tend to run much longer than others because of the newness of everything, so apologies for the length of this week's installment.
The format of this feature may change during the season. For Week 1, I decided to hand out grades to each position group.
Upon further review, here's what I learned from Week 1.
Quarterbacks - A-
- Wes Lunt may not have been my star of the game -- I thought the defense was the story of the win -- but he was really, really good. The junior quarterback (11-for-19, 162 yards, four TDs, 0 INTs) wasn't perfect. He slightly missed sideline throws to Marchie Murdock and Sam Mays, but he was off by inches. But Lunt did Wes Lunt things too. His 34-yard touchdown pass to Geronimo Allison was a perfect play-action toss in stride. He ran the offense efficiently and only put the ball into danger once, an underthrown pass into double coverage to Allison, who skied over the defenders to haul it in inside the five-yard line. Lunt also moved well inside the pocket -- a sign of health -- and passed well on the move a couple times, including a rollout TD pass to Tyler White. Lunt doesn't play favorites either, completing passes to eight different receivers. Expectations for Lunt are sky high. He got a big boost from the defense (short fields), but he made the most of it. Take a look at quarterbacking around college football and be happy Illini fans that you have one of the better ones. Just keep him healthy.
- We knew V'Angelo Bentley was fast. Now, you all know he has an arm. On a trick play practiced several times during Camp Rantoul, Bentley took a toss, wound up and overthrew a wide-open deep throw to Allison by a few feet.
- The offense changes a lot under Chayce Crouch, who played all but one series in the second half and finished 3-for-9 with 46 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT. Crouch had some early jitters. At times, he needs to be a little more patient in the run game and allow holes to develop. Other times in the pass game, he needs to make quicker throws. He took a sack by holding onto the ball too long, something I saw a lot of during training camp. He should improve at these timing things with more experience. After all, it was his first game. Crouch's interception wasn't a great throw to Tyrin Stone-Davis, but it wasn't a terrible one. It really was just a nice play by defender. Crouch has a similar style to Reilly O'Toole. He just lacks the experience, which is why it was good to get his feet wet on Saturday.
Running backs - A-
- As you know, Josh Ferguson (97 yards on 13 touches) is a special player in space. Illinois did as much as possible to get him in space, routinely running tosses. On one, Kent State shut him off for what was going to be a loss or no gain. But Ferguson reversed field and outran everyone to the right for a gain of 17 yards. It's another play that shows how special he is, even if he won't do that against teams with faster defenses. Ferguson had just one catch (that won't happen often) but it was a well-designed, well-executed touch. On a 4th and short, the lone receiver to the right ran a quick slant. Ferguson faked a block and released. He got his mismatch on a linebacker and out-ran the defender. Lunt hit Ferguson in stride and Ferg avoided the defenders to find the end zone.
- Ke'Shawn Vaughn had a nice debut (11 carries for 43 yards and a TD) and showed why staff and media are excited about his future. What sticks out is his vision. He's a quick decision maker. He sees the holes and bursts through it quickly. He should've had even better stats, but Joe Spencer was called for a chop block on Vaughn's first carry, a nullified 19-yard gain. Vaughn is a great fit for the zone-blocking scheme and almost broke a few long runs. If he continues to improve his pass blocking, he's a great option as a No. 2.
- Junior college transfer Henry Enyenihi (4 carries, 13 yards) had an OK day. He was called for an illegal hands to the face and struggled some in pass blocking. But he runs hard and made a linebacker miss on a quick cutback in the fourth quarter.
Wide receivers - C+
- Illinois lost Mikey Dudek for the season, but they still have a No. 1-caliber targer. Geronimo Allison leapt over three KSU defensive backs for a catch. The next play, he reached over a defender on an out route for what looked like a touchdown (his foot was in bounds) but he was called out of bounds. Allison is a great athlete with a huge catching radius. Expect many big plays from him this year. But he must be more consistent. Allison (two catches, 57 yards, 1 TD) should've had a bigger day, but he dropped two passes, a slant and a would-be touchdown. Allison's production took a dip last year when 1) he hyperextended his knee vs. Washington in Week 4; and 2) when Lunt was sidelined with a fractured fibula. With Lunt back, Allison could be the No. 1 beneficiary.
- Speaking of Allison, freshman receiver Sam Mays is G-Mo Jr. The 6-foot-3 freshman is a smooth strider and great athlete. His touchdown reception from Crouch was impressive. He turned, leapt, controlled his body, high-pointed the pass and brought it down for a touchdown. The Illini found a good one.
- Lunt hit Marchie Murdock wide open on wheel route for the second touchdown of the game (a 34-yard pass), and it was an example of great play design. Cubit lined two wide receivers on the right side and motioned Murdock from left to right of formation. Both far right receivers ran toward the middle of the field, while Murdock ran a wheel. Lunt had plenty of time and just lobbed it to Murdock (two catches, 42 yards, 1 TD). Murdock dropped a pass on the sideline and couldn't haul in another catchable pass from Lunt. Murdock is a solid option as the fifth or sixth guy in the rotation.
- Junior slot receiver Dionte Taylor didn't get much action but made an impressive sideline catch from Crouch, and took a late hit too. Taylor should get more action his way, but freshman Desmond Cain played a lot too.
Tight ends - C+
- Tyler White caught his third career pass for his second career touchdown. Illinois lined up in triple backfield. White blocked like a run, release and rolled with a rolling Lunt for an easy score. White has the size to be a nice redzone threat. He also sat in the middle of a zone for a 13-yard catch. He's shown brick hands in the past, but he's shown progress during camp. White also had a nice day blocking, especially on tosses -- when he'd crack down on defensive ends and held his own.
- JUCO transfer Andrew Davis was a better blocker than pass catcher, opposite of his scouting report. He's a bit lanky but he shows the willingness to be a capable blocker. But Davis dropped two passes. Maybe it's just a case of first-game jitters.
- H-Back Tyler Clary isn't Jon Davis, but he played the role well on Saturday. He had two key blocks for Ferguson, one that freed Ferguson for a TD run and another that freed him for a first down inside the red zone. He also caught a drop-off from Lunt for nine yards inside the red zone.
Offensive line - B-
- The Illini offensive line was tough to evaluate because Kent State's defensive line was slow and undersized. Lunt wasn't sacked but was rushed a few times. Crouch was sacked once. This looks like a skilled pass blocking team. The run game (3.7 yards per carry) was solid but not great. Illinois blocked well at times on tosses and sweeps, but my concern lies with the inside run game. At times, Illinois produced a surge or a push against Kent State, but it was inconsistent. That doesn't bode well against Big Ten teams. The Illini offensive line was solid on Saturday, but it didn't show huge progress either.
- I have natural skepticism about Chris Boles as the starting left guard, and Saturday did little to quiet that skepticism. Boles struggled to maintain blocks and whiffed on a block that stuffed Vaughn for a loss. He tired as the game went on. However, he was serviceable. But Nick Allegretti played well in his backup reps at center, and some reps at left guard. Chris O'Connor doesn't look like a threat to Boles. He was blown up on a Henry Enyenihi loss.
Defensive Line - A+
- This was the group of the game. Illinois looked like a Big Ten defensive line playing against an inferior team -- a great sign given that the Illini defensive line has been run over by inferior teams the past two seasons. The defensive line continually remade the line of scrimmage and disrupted the backfield.
- The group was especially great against the option run, which bodes well for teams like Nebraska, Purdue and even Northwestern. Defending the option well means playing assignment-sound defense. In his quick return to the field, Jihad Ward was a beast. He routinely set an edge a few yards upfield and never got sucked in on a dive fake. Neither KSU quarterback dared take him on with an option keep. That forced KSU to pitch the ball deeper than it wanted, limiting their effectiveness.
- Ward's return also allowed Dawuane Smoot (2.0 TFL, 1.0 sack) to return to his natural position of LEO, where he can chase things down, use that burst and attack.
- The Illini starting four was really good. Chunky Clements has matured. He's quicker,stronger and has a better array of moves. He didn't log any stats but had plenty of disruptions.
- Nose tackle Rob Bain was mighty impressive. He consistently took on double teams and moved both defenders into the backfield. On a TFL, he ripped under a guard and chased down the line for the tackle. His blocked FG was pure power. He ran through a blocker and put the paw up for the block.
- Carroll Phillips put together a nice second half. He has a great burst and popped the quraterback on a pitch. Redshirt freshman LEO Henry McGrew is a guy to watch. He's not as quick as Phillips, but he's strong against the run and could be a nice option against the Big Ten's strong running teams.
- True freshman Jamal Milan got a bunch of reps, and he looks like he belongs. He's powerful but quick and didn't look lost. He'll have some downs against better opponents, but the experienced gained Saturday should go a long way to getting him up to speed. Tito Odenigbo didn't have any 'wow' moments in his first game, but he was solid.
Linebackers - A
- Great defensive line play made the linebackers' jobs so much easier. Senior Mason Monheim and junior T.J. Neal were aggressive and running down hill most of the game. Neal really stood out on a mid-second quarter possession, blowing up several runs. The Illini ILB's were in attack mode on Saturday.
- Monheim's interception was a great read. Reardon locked on to a slanting WR, Monheim read the QB's eyes, which led him to the ball. Reardon had a long delivery (he double-pumped), making it an easy INT for Monheim, who could've had a touchdown if Kenny Nelson would've blocked Reardon.
- The backups played a lot, and LaKeith Walls was the standout, leading the team with seven tackles. Walls doesn't have great strength but he has good sideline-to-sideline speed.
- Illinois also got great play from its STARs, the hybrid linebacker/defensive back. Consider James Crawford and Eric Finney co-starters. Crawford has the better measurables and showed them on Saturday, making a great tackle in space on an option pitch for a TFL. But Finney (the starter) also played really well (6 tackles, 3.0 TFL) against the option. He also sniffed out a WR screen and made a TFL. Walk-on Cedric Doxy got some reps, but dropped a likely pick-six. Doxy could play a lot next year after Finney graduates and before Justice Williams is ready.
Secondary - A-
- The secondary didn't receive many vertical tests, so it was able to play downhill and really assist in run support. The Illini have two safeties who can lay a hammer. Taylor Barton and Clayton Fejedelem combined for 11 tackles in a little more than a half of play. Both laid some pretty big hits too. Barton also blew up a WR screen, showing great recogntion. Fejedelem had a play the coaches will certainly play before the team. On a busted coverage (the TV view didn't show who was to blame), Fejedelem chased down the KSU receiver (who had about a 10-yard head start) to save the touchdown. He's a Big Ten safety, and could be a good one.
- The Illini busted two coverages. Reardon wasn't able to take advantage of the second, overthrowing his WR.
- The Illini certainly were beneficiaries of bad quarterback play. Two of the three interceptions were fortunate (Monheim's was a great play). Barton caught his off a tip. Eaton Spence just caught a bad pass by Reardon. But the Illini took advantage of the miscues.
Kicking - B
- Taylor Zalewski got off to a better start than he did last season (he missed his first two FG attempts last season) . He nailed a 43-yarder in the second quarter and made all seven of his extra points. Zalewski also had pretty good kickoffs (two touchbacks in eight attempts) with some loft but kicked one out of bounds for a penalty.
Punting - B
- Ryan Frain has a mighty big boot to fill, but he looked fine as Justin Duvernois' replacement on Saturday. He punted seven times for an average of 39.4 -- solid, but not great. He does put great loft on the ball, which can be difficult for returners (KSU muffed one).
Coverage units - C+
- The Illini tackled KSU's kick returners behind the 20 for the first two kickoffs, but KSU got to the 48 on the third return. The Illini also allowed just 18 yards on four punt returns.
Return game - A+
- If V'Angelo Bentley can play nickelback, he may get drafted by an NFL team because he is just a special returner. He toook first punt return 36 yards to the Kent 23-yard line, only a sideline interference penalty made the field longer. He took another in the second quarter 48 yards to the Kent 29-yard line. entley of course is fast, but what makes him special is his ability to see opportunities. He sets up blocks and makes such subtle moves without losing speed. He'll be a huge weapon in the battle of field position.