I admit it, I came into the game on Saturday fully expecting to leave the stadium by half time, and drive back home to Chicago. Why? I fully expected the team to get blown out by Wisconsin, just like they had been blown out by Michigan State and Penn State in previous weeks, but something changed my plans … Illinois was more competitive than the previous weeks. Though, I never thought Illinois had a chance to win the game, I did stay until the end because the Illini were competing.
There were two things obvious to me during Saturday's game: (1) Wisconsin seemed to be running a completely vanilla offense and (2) Illinois' offensive line is just not up to snuff, and it was blatantly obvious.
Wisconsin seemed to be running a completely vanilla offense
It seemed like Barry Alvarez was going to be content to come into Champaign, and just run the ball with Brian Calhoun all game. To start the game, Wisconsin ran the ball fifteen straight times, and their first pass was a 62-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Williams. On the game Wisconsin only attempted 22 passes as compared to their 50 rushes. To make the offense seem like it was even more vanilla, almost every run called was off the left tackle, and despite the entire stadium knowing which way the ball was going to be run, Wisconsin would still gain just over five yards per rushing attempt. I was waiting, and luckily we did not see it for Wisconsin to run that play, but it would actually be a reverse and then the new ball carrier would walk down the opposite sideline into the end zone as the Illini defense over-pursued on the play.
Illinois' offensive line is just not up to snuff
If you did not watch the game, and you just look at the box score, you would see that Illinois seemingly rushed the ball well as they gained 7.6 yards per carry. While the numbers do show that the Illini were able to run the ball on Wisconsin, they do not show how those yards were gained. Quarterback Tim Brasic rushed for 116 yards on 16 carries, but very few of those carries were designated rushes. Brasic was often times flushed out of the pocket as the Wisconsin defender just got right past the Illini lineman, forcing Brasic to run for his life outside of the pocket. Pierre Thomas rushed very well, but he also did it all on his own. There were no holes opened up for him, and he just used sheer force and will to gain his seven yards per carry. It seemed like on all eight of his rushes that he was hit behind the line of scrimmage, and then had to just use his sheer will to gain yardage.
Two things had me baffled during Saturday's game: (1) Illinois' play calling on third and short and (2) Illinois' receivers dropping passes.
Illinois' Play Calling on Third and Short
I remember two distinct third and short situations for Illinois, and both times the first down was not attained, thanks to Mike Locksley's play calling. Yes, I know Zook and the staff are trying to establish the spread offense, but on third and short, with Pierre Thomas on your team, you should play smash mouth football for a down and just let him get the first down himself.
One of the plays was a pass. Just a terrible decision.
The other was a delayed handoff to EB Halsey out of the shotgun. Bad decision, though not as terrible as throwing a pass. Though why would you run with Halsey instead of Thomas in a short yardage situation?
Neither play resulted in an Illini first down, and with it went any chance Illinois had of surprising the Badgers.
Illinois' receivers dropping passes
There were a few times on Saturday afternoon where Illinois receivers dropped passes they should have had that hit them in the hands, obviously not where Brasic was supposed to throw it. A bad case of the drops has once again infected Kendrick Jones, and they always seem to come at inopportune times.
The surprise so far of this season for me has been the play of freshman wide receiver Kyle Hudson. I never would have imagined that Hudson would turn out to be the best receiver Illinois has on the field right now, nor that he would be as sure handed as he is. Saturday was a real break out game for Hudson, as he had 10 catches for 114 yards and a touchdown. This is a player that when he committed to Ron Turner, I really did not think he would amount to much, and I thought he would probably not be on the team for his entire career. Boy was I wrong! Turner found a gem in the lanky wide receiver from Matoon, and it will be interesting to see how he is used as the Illini get more and more used to the spread offense.
In Mark Tupper's latest blog entry, he focuses on Illinois senior center James Augustine. Tupper talked with Augustine during media day Sunday in Chicago, and he thinks now is the time for James to go "high-profile." I think the University of Illinois Marketing Department agrees, as one of their two ads for ticket sales focus on the return of "King James" (don't get me started on how dumb the nickname is, but it shows Illinois is expecting big things from their center). Tupper, though, seems to be expecting major things from Augustine this year:
I've picked the numbers 18 and 10 for Augie this season. That's 18 points and 10 rebounds a night. Plus three or four blocks. Assuming his foot is OK, there's no reason he can't do that.Umm, Mark … there is plenty of reason to believe that James cannot do that.
How about last year in the Big Ten, no player averaged ten rebounds a game, and only three averaged more than eight rebounds a game?
How about last year in the Big Ten, only two players averaged more than eighteen points per game, and only four averaged more than seventeen points per game?
I won't even get into how laughable it is to assume he will get three or four blocks per game, either.
Mark, I think you need to put down the Orange Kool-Aid. If James has a season like you predicted, it would be an elite season from a big man, and, well, shocking. Emeka Okafor averaged 17.6 and 11.5 in 2003-2004, and to be honest, James Augustine is no Emeka Okafor.