Off to a Good Start
If I learned one thing over the past five years of watching Illinois football it has been to really sit back and enjoy/celebrate the wins. We could all sit back and be a ‘Sunday morning quarterback' and nitpick some of the negatives we saw in the Illini's 42-17 win over Eastern Illinois but it's just not worth it. The Illini won—they are 1-0—and there were certainly enough positives on Saturday to get you excited about the future of this football program.
The Illini—led by a prolific rushing attack—took care of business. By the time the middle of the third quarter arrived, the game was over and really that's all you can ask when you are facing a Division IAA opponent.
On the whole it was a great day in Champaign. The weather was perfect, there was a sense of optimism throughout the tailgates and we all got a chance to watch a lot of the young freshman see their first snaps for the orange and blue.
But even with the freshman taking the field for the first time the stars of the night were the three-headed running attack of Pierre Thomas, Rashard Mendenhall and E.B. Halsey. Behind an offensive line that completely controlled the line of scrimmage, the three of them combined for 283 yards on the ground and took a lot of pressure off the passing attack.
If the Illini are going to win a lot of games this year the running attack is going to be the major reason why. It is without question the strength of this football team and Coach Locksley needs to find ways to make sure that all three of these guys are part of the game plan. I love the way he distributed the carries in game one (Pierre Thomas with 15, Mendenhall with 10 and Halsey with 11) and I can only hope the staff continues to pound the football even when they get down early in the games.
Without further adieu let's take a look at some of the bright spots and some of the concerns coming out of the first game of the 2006 football season.
(1) Vontae Davis: After one game you can already tell he is going to be a big time college football player.
For a freshman to get burned on two consecutive plays (including one for a touchdown) and come back to have the biggest play of the game shows you all you need to know about the mental make-up of Davis. As an Illini, you had to smile when Davis got position on that fade pass in the end zone and went up and got the football. That's the kind of defensive play we haven't seen in the Illini secondary since Eugene Wilson left for the NFL.
(2) Rashard Mendenhall: We pretty much know what we are going to get from Pierre Thomas and E.B. Hasley, but the wild card of the group—and perhaps the entire Illinois offense—is Rashard. After one game, I was extremely impressed with his quickness through the hole and his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
When you think about it, Mendenhall is kind of a combination of Halsey and Thomas in that he has the type of running power that Thomas has and the speed of Halsey. If he learns to protect the football better (and you better believe Zook and his staff are hammering that home this week) he could be a major force for the Illini offense this year.
(3) Offensive Line: I know it's Eastern Illinois and they are going to have to prove it against a much more formidable foe this week in Rutgers, but the offensive line was awesome this past Saturday. They created holes (how big a hole did E.B. Halsey have to run through on that first touchdown run?), they blew Eastern off the line of scrimmage and they gave both Brasic and Juice enough time to sit back in the pocket and throw.
With the addition of Akim Millington, this line has an added toughness that has been lacking in recent years and hopefully they can continue to improve as a unit as the season goes on.
(4) The I-Block: It wasn't so long ago that the I-Block was half full and virtually dead. This past weekend (and really the entire last season) the Block was alive and they looked and sounded great. Sitting in the west balcony, it was awesome to see the students so into the game and chanting so loud at the opposition that it could be heard all the way across the stadium.
Ever since that group was taken over by Illini Pride, there has been a visible change in their attendance and energy at the game. Here's to hoping that continues throughout the season even when things aren't going so well.
Some Early Concerns
(1) Punting Game: You could really expand this concern to the entire special teams unit, but there is no question you have to be most concerned about the punting game. Kyle Yelton looked very shaky on his two punts in the first game and it seemed like it took him a long time to get the ball away. If he waits that long against more athletic and quick teams there is no doubt he is going to get a few punts blocked.
And by no means is this a knock on Kyle Yelton who has been put in a very tough spot this year. It's not easy to be a true freshman punter in the Big Ten and I don't doubt that one day he will be a very good punter in the Big Ten, but the fact of the matter is he is our punter and he is going to need to do better.
Illinois isn't going to blow anyone out and their special teams (punting and kicking) could be the difference maker in a few wins or losses.
(2) Going Deep?: I thought Tim Brasic looked pretty good and the Illinois receivers played pretty well but the offense barely looked downfield and I just don't know if this team has the ability to stretch a defense with the big passing play.
If they are unable to put the fear in an opposing defense that they can complete the deep pass, the opposing defenses are going to stuff the line and make it a lot harder for this team to run the football.
There is certainly a chance that the staff didn't want to unveil this aspect of the offense because their opponent was Eastern (and hopefully that was the case) but it will be interesting to watch over the next few weeks because they need to find a way to be able to pass vertically.
(3) A Quiet Front Seven: I mentioned in my season preview article that the key to this year's defense was the ability of the front seven to hold their own and make some plays. After one game—and I know it's only one game—it's hard not to be concerned with their lack of ability to make plays.
I know that Eastern runs a ‘quick hitter' offense and has a lot of ‘option misdirection' type running plays, but there was points in the game where I couldn't believe how quiet the front seven were. Other than Derek Walker's sack (which was awesome) and Britt Miller's interception (I still believe Miller is going to be a big time player) that unit was very quiet and no one really stood out.
As the non-conference season moves forward and freshman Melvin Alaeze gets some action hopefully they will begin to make their presence felt.
Even as I write all of these positives from the opener and address some of the concerns, I need to take a step back and remember this is only a small sample of what we will get throughout the 2006 football season. There is a long way to go and one game certainly doesn't make a season.
Knowing the way my predictions have worked out in the past, Brasic will hit Jody Ellis for a 75 yard in the first play of the game, Yelton will average 50 yards a punt and Doug Pilcher will record three sacks in the first half of the Rutgers game!
Into the Crystal Ball
The Illini head east this weekend to face the Rutgers Scarlet Knights in a rematch of the first game of the 2005 football season where the Illini miraculously pulled out a come from behind victory.
The Scarlet Knights are coming off a 21-16 road victory against the North Carolina Tarheels and bring a two-headed backfield (Ray Rice and Bryan Leonard) that has to have Illini defensive coordinator—Vince Okruch—tossing in his sleep this week. From all reports Carolina did everything they could to take Leonard out of the game and Rice came through with over 200 yards rushing on 31 carries. It's clear early that the strength of the Scarlet Knights is their running game and if the Illini have any chance of winning this game they have to do something to slow them down.
The Scarlet Knight offense is led by junior quarterback Mike Teel who hails from Don Bosco High School—one of the renowned football powers in the Northern New Jersey area. Teel really didn't do much in the first game and I expect Coach Okruch to load up the line of scrimmage and make Rutgers beat them through the air.
There's no question this game is going to tell us a lot about where the Illini are at. This Rutgers team is good and they are no longer the laughingstock of the Big East conference. In addition to that you know that Coach Schiano has reminded his team time and time again about what happened last year in Champaign.
I think the Illini will keep the game close in the first half, but the running game of Rutgers will wear down the Illini defense by the middle of the third quarter and they will win the game going away.
Rutgers: 34 Illinois: 17
Ruminations from Week One
**It was great to see the freshman tight ends—Jeff Cumberland and the Hoo-Man—getting a lot of snaps on the field and I was pretty surprised the staff didn't find a way to get them a short pass (even a quick screen) to get the jitters out and get them their first catch in a live game.
Both Cumberland and Hoo-Man are important cogs of this offense and hopefully we will see them get involved early in Piscataway this weekend.**
**Has everyone seen the ‘Illini Crib's' video on FigthingIllini.com where Pierre Thomas shows off the Illinois football facilities? It's very well done and you have to give credit to the DIA's video department who in their first three years of existence has certainly added a lot to not only the website but the game day atmosphere.
Now if we can only turn up the volume on the speakers in Memorial Stadium (or get a new sound system) we would be in good shape. I am sure the spots they are running trying to pump up the crowd on "Third Down" or "Fourth and Goal" are great, but they aren't going to pump anyone up if you can't hear a word they are saying.**
**Was anyone else cringing when Pierre Thomas and E.B. Halsey were in the game late in the fourth quarter to return a kick? Maybe it's the pessimist in me, but that late in the game when the Illini are up at least three touchdowns I don't want to see those games anywhere near the field.**
**You have to give Coach Zook and his staff credit, because for the first time since probably 2002 there was an air of optimism throughout the tailgates before the game. Their energy, their recruiting prowess and their determination has brought some life back to a fan base that from the looks in it is starting to get real excited about Illinois football again.
Quite simply, it's refreshing to see.**
**I thought about spending a lot of time on the Derrick Rose saga in this column, but I decided against it. It's not worth it. From day one, Derrick Rose wasn't coming to Illinois. It's kind of sad that's the case, but it's part of the recruiting game in the AAU/Shoe era of college basketball.
And if you don't think Adidas and the shoe companies came into play throughout his recruitment you need to open your eyes. I might come across as a bitter Illini fan who is mad his team didn't get the best player in Chicago, but I mean let's call a spade and spade. As the immortal Mars Blackmon once said, ‘It's all about the shoes.'
I couldn't help but roll out of my chair laughing this week when I read the column in this weeks Tribune (I can't even remember the guy's name who wrote it right now), which basically chided Illinois fans for thinking this recruitment had anything to do with shoes. As soon as he gets done scolding the fans and saying how ridiculous it was to think that Rose and his family weren't acting independent of outside influences, he brings out a quote from none other than the shoe-guru himself—Sonny Vaccaro—saying how much of an influence he has been on Reggie and Derrick.
You can't make that stuff up!
I have already spent more time on this than I want to. There's no question that Derrick Rose is an outstanding player and that he would have looked great in the Orange and Blue. It's also a shame that the national perception and perception with the ever perceptive and always in-tune Chicago media will be that Coach Weber can't recruit the best players in the state.
This one was over before it started and the only criticism I think you can hand down on the coaching staff is for sticking with this recruitment too long**
As I get ready to board the plane to head back home to New York to watch the Illini take on Rutgers, Still Bleeding Orange and Blue—Jared Gelfond.