Saturday was a feel-good day for Illinois football, its coaches, its players and its fans. The Lovie Smith era started with a dominant win thanks to big plays from the offense and a dominant, play-making defense.
Of course, Illinois football won last year's opener by the same 52-3 score and that team was handedly crushed 48-14 by the same North Carolina program that Illinois welcomes to Memorial Stadium on Saturday for a primetime showdown that surely will feature the best Illinois home crowd in years.
But how much can we actually take from a dominant win over a vastly inferior opponent like Murray State? The Racers featured a good quarterback and not much else. They were small and slow, and Illinois dominated them as they should.
But the opener gave us our first look at how a Lovie-coached team looked, how a Garrick McGee-led offense looked and how new personnel looked.
Following are some notes notes and takeaways I had on the Illini's scheme and personnel after watching the film.
Quick macro thoughts
- Illinois ran a lot more zone-blocking that I thought they'd run. In its most basic form, zone-blocking includes blocking a zone rather than a man, usually relying on a lot of one-cut runs. The Illini executed their outside zone plays really well, which is why most of the big running plays were to the perimeter. The interior zone plays weren't as clean or effective. The interior linemen ran into each other a lot, which isn't too unexpected given that all three interior linemen were making their first starts.
- Garrick McGee's offense seems simpler for Wes Lunt. Lunt makes his read at the line of scrimmage and usually quickly attacks his favorable match-up. That term, "favorable matchup," kind of explains McGee's offense. He tries to put players in a position where they have even a slight advantage. He likes to run drag routes to get his receivers matched up with linebackers. He likes rollouts to get his tight ends matched on smaller defensive backs. McGee also seems more methodical. He'll mix tempos but prefers to come out of the huddle. These are all very vague descriptions, but Illinois basically traded a Big 12-flavored offense for a more traditional, pro-style offense seen more commonly in the Big Ten. It'll be interesting to see if they can succeed against a really good ACC opponent.
- The defense is one word: aggressive. The defensive line's job is to simply disrupt. Get up the field and disrupt the pocket. They dominated the game. The Illini mixed in some of Lovie's patented cover-2 but mostly ran man-to-man press coverage with ten defenders within five yards of the line of scrimmage and a deep safety (Taylor Barton) sitting 20 yards back of the line of scrimmage, out of the television's view. The linebackers rarely blitz but are required to cover a lot of ground and make plays in space. The defensive backs attack the receivers at the line of scrimmage and usually sit on their inside hips, so they can jump any route. The Illini will take chances this season with the goal that their aggression flusters opponents or forces opponents to make mistakes. Again, these are very vague descriptions, but it is a big change from last year's more reactionary scheme.
- With the exception of one play where the Illini missed five tackles, the Illini tackled well despite very little live tackling during practice. We'll see if that continues against a bigger, quicker opponent.
- Again, everything against Murray State must be taken with a grain of salt, but the Illini came out ready to play, executed really well and made very few blunders. They looked like a very well-coached team on Week 1.
Personnel - offense
- Sometimes, I think Illinois fans and observers take for granted just how good Wes Lunt is. Sure, after seeing Aaron Bailey lead Northern Iowa to an upset over Iowa State, I imagine a world where Lunt would've picked Louisville over Illinois -- and ironically would have played the previous two seasons for new Illini offensive coordinator Garrick McGee. Bailey's running ability may have actually been a better fit at times for the current Illini personnel. But put Lunt on a team like Michigan State with a strong run game and he'd probably have first- or second-round hype. I know he put up a 209.0 rating against Murray State, but he tore the Racers apart. A talented player like him should do that to an inferior opponent. But we can still admire a talent like him doing so. Lunt is the strength of the Illini offense. We'll just see if the rest of the offense is strong enough to let him hit his ceiling this season. Oh, and he had a 3-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio. That stat (TD-to-INT ratio) is a solid marker of his decision-making ability, which is why that stat will be a good indicator of his performance this season. He now has a 31-to-9 TD-to-INT ratio at Illinois. Prettay, prettaaay good.
- Who had Ke'Shawn Vaughn as the Illini's third leading rusher on Saturday? That's got to be taken as a positive. Vaughn had some struggles, mostly because of the blocking in front of him. But hedid miss a few opportunities to bounce it outside for bigger gains. He also saw a lot of green in front of him on a few runs, only to get brought down by a couple shoe-string tackles. Vaughn is the work-horse back. He chugged for some tough, extra yards on Saturday. So while he didn't have a huge game on the stat sheet, I'm not worried about his performance.
- We've talked a lot about Kendrick Foster here. He had one of those camp performances you just couldn't believe. This guy couldn't run away from anyone during his first three seasons, and then he's the big-play threat, running by everyone in practice? I struggled to believe it but wrote about how he could be a breakout. Still, I tried to keep expectations realistic, that Foster had only proven that he could be a complementary piece. So while I'd seen Foster make these kind of runs during camp, Saturday's showcase was still slightly shocking. I could talk about the nice subtle cuts he made, Foster simply showcased speed -- greasy, fast speed. I asked him after the game how much he'd taken off his 40, and he said he went from a high 4.6 (I would've guessed 4.7-4.8ish) to high 4.4s. He sure looked that fast on Saturday, going untouched on two 56-yard runs. The Illini needed that threat in their offense. What a weapon Foster could provide. What a story Foster already provides.
- Not to be lost in the mix, Reggie Corbin and Tre Nation also had nice performances in mop-up duty. Corbin's 32-yard run showed his best attribute: lethal change-of-direction ability. He made a lethal jump cut that shook a defender and found open daylight. But he did get caught from behind, which shows he doesn't quite have the best breakaway speed. But he is effective in space, and a solid weapon in the arsenal. Nation is not flashy at all, but he runs hard. He's a physical, one-cut runner who is always moving forward. He and Corbin probably lack No. 1 running back ability, but they give Illinois different types of tools in the tool box. Count me as a little more encouraged about the Illini running backs.
- The Illini fullbacks had a nice day. Nate Echard sprung Vaughn for a few nice runs. Austin Roberts took on two blockers to free Vaughn for his touchdown dive. Once Tim Clary went down last season, Illinois lost this weapon and their horrendous goal-line performance mirrored that. Echard and Roberts both used to be linebackers. Now, they give the Illini weapons to block those linebackers head-on.
- The tight ends were targets seven times and had four catches. Tyler White barely played. He still doesn't seem 100 percent from last season's torn ACL. Caleb Reams played a lot and has the potential to be the 30-catch, 250-yard check-down guy in this offense. Lunt overthrew him on one pass (he had to throw over a linebacker and threw it just out of Reams' grasp). Ainslie Johnson played a little bit, but mostly in two-tight end sets as a blocker. Andrew Davis had one catch. The Illini split him out wide on a couple occasions. He's still not a very strong blocker.
- Nick Allegretti looked pretty comfortable and strong at center. He's the nastiest Illini offensive linemen and blocks until the whistle. He will be the starter there in 2017 and 2018. I'm still surprised Darta Lee got the start. I thought he was going to play sooner than any other 2017 OL because of his power and nasty streak. But he needs to lean down about 15-20 pounds. As expected, he looked lost at times and struggled to catch up to block linebackers. He was at his best on pulls and kick-out blocks. He was replaced midway through the game by Jordan Fagan. To be honest, I thought Fagan at guard and Connor Brennan at guard was a typo. Brennan got starter snaps at guard during the spring and fall training camp. Fagan isn't very strong for a man his size. But I will say that Fagan looked pretty solid. His pull block opened up Foster's first 56-yard touchdown. He isn't a roadgrader but he's pretty technically sound and knows where to be. He moved back to tackle late in the game. Joseph Spencer should be back next week, but if he can't go, Fagan may be the safer choice at guard but Lee has the higher ceiling. As expected, Gabe Megginson had his ups and downs. He needs to focus on playing low and maintaining his leverage but when he does, he can maul some people. Next week is a huge test for him.
- No wide receivers drops! Can you believe it?! Lunt completed passes to nine receivers. Obviously, Malik Turner is the best of the bunch. He's big, one of the top athletes on the team and showed improved speed as he got behind the defense on the 68-yard touchdown. Justin Hardee brings speed, as you saw on the drag route for a big gain. Desmond Cain isn't all that explosive but he's physical and nimble. It was nice to see Sam Mays and Dominic Thieman get a couple catches. Those guys have high ceilings and need some confidence going into a big test.
The personnel - defense
- After watching the film, it is clear that Dawuane Smoot was the star of the game. Most people noticed his three penalties, which weren't a positive. But you know what? Smoot is a relentless player. I don't want to tell him to tone it down, and on Saturday he was a one-man wrecking crew. He's simply a terror off the edge, and while he didn't have any sacks, he came close to about five but credit KD Humphries for getting rid of the ball or sidestepping Smoot in the pocket a few times. Though, one Smoot rush led to Humphries poor pass that led to Taylor Barton's interception. Smoot simply is the best pass rusher in the Big Ten.
- Carroll Phillips isn't too far behind. He showed why I've been so high on him. He has devastating speed off the edge and has added a power element to his game. He absolutely blew up a jet sweep to the running back.He routinely made Humphries step up in the pocket, only to step into a Chunky Clements sack. Along those lines, that's why Clements needs to be consistent. Illinois has two great pass rushers off the edge, so it needs someone in the middle to consistently get disruption so quarterbacks can't just step up in the pocket to avoid that pressure. Rob Bain looked quicker with his loss of 15 pounds and provided more penetration in the middle. He body-slammed Humphries on one rush, so ... yeah ... he's still a monster.
- The second defensive line group isn't as spectacular, of course, but it was productive. Gimel President wasn't all that flashy but he has a solid mix of speed and power and ended the day with two sacks. Tito Odenigbo's sack was just a pure bull rush. Odenigbo doesn't have as high of a ceiling as Jamal Milan, but he looks the part of solid Big Ten rotation player. True freshmen Kenyon Jackson and Tymir Oliver both received reps, so it appears Illinois wanted to go 10-deep on the defensive line. I would've thought Illinois would've liked to redshirt the freshmen given how thin they are at the position next season. But it's reasonable to think they wanted to get these players game experience before both play huge roles next season. Plus, this staff is in better shape to replace these players in future seasons.
- Hardy Nickerson is a huge upgrade at linebacker and an A-plus free agent acquisition. Nickerson isn't the most physically imposing at 6-foot, 230 pounds, but he's wicked smart and instinctive and has underrated speed. I was most impressed Saturday with his ability to break down in space and wrap up for a tackle. He stuffed a receiver in a one-on-one battle on third down a yard short of a first down.
- Tre Watson is the starting strongside linebacker, but he barely played on Saturday because Illinois mostly employed its nickel package against Murray State's defense, swapping Watson out for James. Watch the Illinois sideline and you'll see Watson or James swapping in and out based on the opponent's personnel. James -- who I'm all-in on for a pick six this season -- dropped what would have been the Illini's third interception of the season.
- Julian Hylton showed exactly why Lovie Smith prioritizes athleticism and speed over experience (unlike the previous staff). On the second play from scrimmage, he stuck in a slot receiver's hips, eyed the quarterback, jumped the route, closed quickly and leaped for the ball to paw an interception. Recent Illini defensive backs haven't had the explosion, length or leaping ability to pull it off. Hylton also came up to make an aggressive tackle for loss on a receiver screen. It will be interesting to see how reliable he can be. (Speaking of which, we saw another reason why Caleb Day didn't win the starting job. He missed an assignment on his first play on defense, allowing a first down to a slot receiver.)
- Chase McLaughlin admitted to me that long-distance kicks weren't his strength, so it was great to see him hit a 48-yarder with 10 yards to spare.
- Ryan Frain had a strong performance as the kickoff specialist. Seven of nine kickoffs went into the end zone and the other two went to the 1 and the 6, respectively.
- Darius Mosely was probably the safest pick at punt return, but he showed a little wiggle. He broke multiple tackles on his 22-yard return that counted and showed some great vision on his called-back touchdown return, zig-zagging with his blockers to mostly go untouched to the end zone. The first blocker just happened to block in the back.