The Illini football team added a few more building blocks Saturday with a dominant performance against San Jose State in sun-drenched Memorial Stadium. The game was not as close as the 40-19 score might indicate. The Illini gained needed experience and confidence going into the California game next week and have a chance to be our first team to win its first three games of the season since our Big 10 Championship team in 2001.
San Jose State may not have been as strong an opponent as Rutgers last week, but Illinois respected them enough to play hard against them. In doing so, they gave Illini fans visions of future teams with exciting, multiple offenses and swarming, hard-hitting defenses. A few glaring errors were made, but they are all correctable. Now, if we can just make those visions into realities by continuing to improve as the season goes along, everyone will be happy.
Other articles will discuss the specifics of the game, so those won't be duplicated here. But there were several significant events that bode well for the future of Illini football. And the biggest one of all was the improvement the Illini made since last week. It is always amazing how much better athletes play when they are relaxed and confident.
And no one showed more improvement from game 1 to 2 than Tim Brasic. He played with a poise that is usually reserved for quarterbacks with much more experience. He showed excellent leadership, and his teammates responded. Tim is one of those players who is all-or-none. Without confidence, he has trouble getting the eye of the coaches. With confidence, he starts to play like a potential star, in this one game and hopefully many more.
When a quarterback has confidence and then validates that feeling with quality play, his teammates and coaches respond in kind. Role players always play better when they can trust a field leader to make quality plays under duress. They don't have to play beyond their comfort level, so they can relax and play their best to fill their prescribed role. Brasic has, up to now at least, given the entire offense a boost of confidence it will need to go up against the top teams on our schedule.
And this helps offensive coordinator Mike Locksley call plays. Locksley is a rookie just like Brasic, so he finds it much easier to attack opposing defenses when he can trust his quarterback to protect the ball and make plays. So far at least, he hasn't had to limit his play calling because he trusts Brasic to run the plays properly. His multiple formations and multiple variations can really confuse defenses, so it is to Locksley's advantage to have Brasic showing an affinity for a wide variety of plays.
The Illini defense also did an excellent job Saturday, and this improvement is definitely uplifting to everyone concerned. It is true that the Spartans provided only an occasional threat, but those threats were limited mostly to one-time mistakes by individual players who will learn from their errors.
Otherwise, the defense showed balance, aggressiveness, and gang tackling. SJSU couldn't create any kind of running attack, and even their potent passing attack suffered except for a couple of big breakdowns in the secondary. There were some sacks, and there was one interception. Someday, an opponent will actually fumble the ball, and it will likely be due to an Illini defender's solid hit. Without question, credit must be given to Coach Zook, defensive coordinator Mike Mallory and the other defensive coaches for helping our defense improve.
The one biggest failing in this game was special teams. Coach Zook will not be pleased with the play of the punt and kick return teams. An early blocked punt, a special pet peeve for Zook, gave SJSU great field position and ultimately an early lead. And a kickoff return for touchdown in the second half helped make the score more presentable for the Spartans. These problems must be corrected quickly; Coach Zook will doubtless pay special attention to these areas in practice this week.
But it must also be stated that one extremely important part of special teams is showing much potential. Namely, Jason Reda proved to his doubters that he has a strong, accurate leg by kicking four field goals without a miss. He also showed good height and distance on several kickoffs, a role he had not expected to play in this game. Steve Weatherford's mild sprained ankle gave Reda the opportunity to show Illini fans his kickoffs, and he delivered quite well. He will likely win the Illini some games in his career.
A big foundation laid in this game was the opportunity to play more players and get them some necessary experience. Not all will be mentioned, but a few deserve special recognition. Josh Norris, the short but powerful walkon defensive tackle, played nose guard during an exciting goal-line stand early in the game. Owning the strongest legs on the team, Norris held his ground and plugged the middle effectively. Redshirt freshman Dave Lindquist, a walkon defensive tackle from Highland Park, played significant minutes as a second teamer (he is ahead of the massive Charles Myles, who did not play).
True freshman Kyle Hudson squirmed free for two long pass receptions. Freshmen Greg McClendon and Mike Nabolotny and redshirt freshman J. R. Kraemer all saw time at tight end, a position that needs their depth. Rashard Mendenhall got over some of his nervousness by rambling for 64 yards in 11 carries while demonstrating the burst and moves that made him a high school All-American last year. Brian Grzelakowski has made a rapid transition from fullback to linebacker and demonstrated speed and smarts in plugging holes and disrupting SJSU's offense. He is giving Anthony Thornhill a run for the starting spot.
Andrew Burk was the first substitute on the offensive line, replacing Ryan McDonald for several series. Ben Amundsen and Bryan Truttling also saw action on the line, as did center Kyle Schnettgoecke. Jim LaBonte is still working into shape after summer back surgery. Bryant Creamer, Lonnie Hurst and freshman Will Davis joined in the fun at wide receiver. And freshman Brit Miller saw action both on special teams and as a middle linebacker. All these players and more got the chance to get comfortable on the field of a big-time college football game, and this will help them play better when needed in the future.
San Jose State was an important victory. You must beat the teams you are favored to beat, and this game will be the last time we are favored for awhile. Being 2-0 is a big confidence boost that will help the Illini prepare for an outstanding Bear team at California next week. And every win helps future recruiting, future fan support, and gets us closer to our goal of a Bowl game.
Yes, some good building blocks are being established. Now, we must prepare even harder for a future that becomes significantly more difficult but also more potentially rewarding. We have taken the first steps, now we must grow from here. But it is a wonderful first few steps.
Illinois Defeats San Jose State 40-19
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