It's been five days since I left Rutgers Stadium and I still have that phrase ringing in my ears. On second thought, I should be thankful that I can still hear anything after sitting in shouting distance from the Rutgers ‘Cannon Boys' who shot off that cannon two times after every time the Scarlet Knights scored. Let me put it this way—there isn't a worse feeling that traveling two hours on a plane to watch your alma mater play football just to see them get drubbed (while sitting in intense heat) and then have to hear some darn cannon go off 45 times in the first half. But I digress…
Before I go into detail on the debacle that was last Saturday's football game let me say this first. While it was not a good showing (and boy is that an understatement) one game is not going to change my beliefs that this program is heading in the right direction and it's not going to change the fact that we are bringing in better athletes. It's also not going to change my beliefs that Coach Zook and his staff are the guys to finally bring Illinois football back to prominence.
In addition to that if anyone thought that we wouldn't see this team struggle this year you were completely fooling yourself. This team is still young, they have very few upperclassmen who are actually on the field and as I have said over and over this program isn't going to miraculously change overnight.
With all of that said though Saturday was a major disappointment.
Sifting through the Rubble
I don't even know where to get started. This was a game that I didn't expect Illinois to win, but I sure expected them to compete. I didn't think there was anyway that by halftime this game would be over. I thought our defense would struggle, but our offense would be able to move the football and keep the game close for a while. Boy was I wrong…
The Illinois offense was completely out of sync. It's mind boggling that they didn't even step into Rutgers territory throughout the entire game and only accumulated 126 yards of total offense on the entire afternoon. Of all the disappointments that came out of this past Saturday to me you have to start with the biggest disappointment—the Illinois offense.
This was a unit that we all expected to be pretty good this year. We have good running backs, we have the spread offense that should keep defenses off balance and we have a few weapons that should help move the football. One game doesn't make a year, but as an Illini fan you have to be very worried coming out of Saturday about the offensive firepower.
I like Tim Brasic. I think he is a tough kid and a great competitor, but I was shocked to see how much he disgressed against Rutgers. He looked uncomfortable in the pocket, he threw some very bad passes and there were times that it seemed like he was playing his first ever college football game.
I spent time in last weeks Bleeding saying how impressed I was with our offensive line and they certainly didn't put forth a great effort against Rutgers. They had both Juice and Brasic running for their lives at times, they committed penalties and they certainly were unable to control the line of scrimmage.
I had a lot of people write me after last week's column saying that we didn't see any deep balls against Eastern, because we were holding plays back. I am sure we weren't holding anything back against Rutgers, but we still saw a lack of big play ability with this offense.
The offense really looked lost and it just seemed like they didn't have any kind of identity.
I would love to say that I have the answer for Coach Zook and Coach Locksley in regards to the quarterback situation. I know all the fans this week were saying, ‘Start Juice,' and let him use this entire season to get his feet wet and learn. It's not that easy and it's certainly not that simple.
On one hand, I understand that line of thinking. It would be nice to throw Juice ‘into the deep end' and hope that while he takes his lumps throughout the season that he is learning along the way. It was pretty clear from his first two appearances in an Illini uniform that Juice is pretty raw and it is going to take some time before the game slows down for him (and for the record you can also tell he will be pretty special if they can harness that cannon he has for an arm). If he is the type of kid who can have bad days and let it roll off his back, I would consider starting him for the rest of the season but you need to be very careful about affecting his confidence.
Remember when Kurt Kittner was playing as a true freshman he didn't play in every game that year. I still think you need to ease Juice in before completely turning the page to what we all hope will eventually be known as the ‘Juice era' of Illinois football.
I also don't think you can or should fully turn the page on Tim Brasic yet. As hard as it may be to believe after last Saturday he still is probably the quarterback that gives this team the best chance to win each and every Saturday (especially in a game like Syracuse this early in the season). And while we all as fans are looking towards years three and four as the big turnaround years in the Zook Era, you can't completely forget year two because it is important to get more wins to show tangible evidence to recruits and fans that this ship is heading in the right direction.
Let's put it this way…there is no easy answer and I don't envy the decision and situation that Coach Zook and Coach Locksley are in right now.
Special Teams Not So Special
The Illini special teams were plain horrible this past Saturday. From E.B. Halsey not fielding that first punt to Kyle Yelton getting his first punt basically taken out of his hands to DeJaun Warren ‘rugby style' kicking the ball all over the place the entire unit was disastrous. Rutgers fans were laughing and quite honestly it was embarrassing.
I don't blame the first punt block on Yelton (it was basically a jail break), but he needs to get the ball away quicker. You can tell his confidence is shaken and really a lot of the blame for that aspect of the special teams has to fall on Coach Zook and his coaching staff.
There are a lot of things still in this program that Coach Zook hasn't had control over, but he certainly had control over our recruitment of punters in the last two years and he needed to bring in someone with more experience than Yelton.
I want to reiterate that I think Kyle Yelton is going to be a good Big Ten punter down the line, but it's been pretty clear that he isn't ready to punt on this level yet.
Coach Zook was once a special teams coach in the NFL and he knows how important that aspect of the game is. Unless it gets fixed and fixed quickly that unit is going to cost this football team time and time again.
Glimmers of Light
Even though things went south this past Saturday, there were still a few positives I was able to dig up from the game.
Defense: The Illini defense wasn't great, but they weren't awful either. They played the entire game with a short field and really only gave up 19 points to a pretty good Rutgers offense. If you would have told me that the defense would have held Rutgers to only 19 points, I would have felt pretty good about the game.
Turnovers: Through two games the Illini have caused five turnovers. Through an entire season last year they only produced eight. While the offense is giving it up too much, the defense has actually done a pretty good job of making a few plays. I know it was late in the game and Rutgers had essentially taken their foot off the pedal, but Alan Ball made a real nice play to step in front of a slant at the goal line to pick off a pass.
It's good to see guys like Ball and Doug Pilcher (who hit Rice on the goal line) out there making plays.
Antonio Steele and J. Leman: I nearly did a double take when I looked at the stat sheet, but Antonio Steele and J Leman both had 12 tackles (albeit pretty quiet ones) in the game. After years of looking at our secondary lead the team in tackles, it's nice to see our linebackers getting into the double digits and leading the team in that category.
Melvin Alaeze: Only had a few plays, but it was nice to see him on the field. The defense and defensive line specifically need him to get back into playing shape and to have an impact.
Into the Crystal Ball
Wow this is a big game for the 2006 Illini! They need to show up and they need to prove that last week was more of the aberration than the norm. They need to play with some intensity and show some anger in response to their poor showing last week.
As the Fighting Illini welcome the Syracuse Orange (still Orangemen in my book), they have a lot to prove. The Orange come in off an impressive loss to Iowa where they had the Hawkeyes scratching and clawing for their lives on a late goal line stand.
The Cuse are a program that has struggled mightily in recent years and are no longer one of the dominant teams in the Big East Conference. Under new Coach Greg Robinson, the Orange have a long way to go to become a good football team again.
This is a team the Illini should be able to handle—especially at home. I can't stress enough how important I think this game is for the 2006 season. This team needs to put last week to bed quickly and with Iowa and Purdue looming this is a win they absolutely need.
Going into the year, I thought Illinois was going to win this game but now I have my doubts. I think this will be a close game and special teams will be the difference.
Corrections from Last Week's Bleeding
- As was quickly pointed out to me this past weekend, Mars Blackmon said ‘It's got to be the shoes' instead of ‘It's All About the Shoes' as I wrote. My only response to that is as a New York Knick fan and as a person who despises Michael Jordan lets just say I turned those commercials off a lot.
- I mistakenly referred to our Block I as the I-Block, which really is a ridiculous mistake on my part. It's only one of the longest standing traditions in the history of Illinois football—why would I know what it is called! My only excuse is that I was watching the James Blake tennis match with his J-Block as I was writing that Bleeding column.
**One thing that always gets me fired up as a fan is seeing the passion and intensity from Coach Zook. If you want to see some passion and fight just head to Fightingillini.com and watch this week's press conference. That's a coach who didn't take this past week's loss well and that intensity is great to see. It's refreshing and it's that passion/energy that is hopefully going to get this program turned around. **
**I was so excited to see Justin Sanders this year and I am surprised to see how quiet he has been through the first two games. He had one tackle against Rutgers and really has yet to make his presence felt. Hopefully that is a case of Justin just trying to get acclimated to Division I college football because this defense needs him to make plays**
**I would love to see this offense go to more quick no huddle possessions instead of taking time and looking towards the sideline on every single play. About the only time the Illinois offense really got into any kind of rhythm on Saturday was when they went to more quick snaps (right before the end of the 1st quarter) and Mendenhall was able to rush for 13 yards and Brasic was able to hit Cumberland over the middle for 15**
**I wrote a lot in this article and I didn't even touch the EJ Gordon situation, some thoughts on Midnight Madness Ticket Program that is going on and much more regarding Illinois football. You can tell I haven't been writing this column for a while, because I won't shut up**
As I get ready for a big game against the Cuse, Still Bleeding Orange and Blue—Jared Gelfond.