The Good and the Bad from Saturday

The University of Illinois lost a football game to Iowa at Memorial Stadium Saturday, but it may have gained a quarterback and some much-needed defensive confidence in the process. Illinisports summarizes the good and bad from the game in this report.

The Fighting Illini fought bravely in a tough 24-7 loss to the ranked Iowa Hawkeyes Saturday in Memorial Stadium. Despite giving a first starting assignment to freshman Juice Williams, who demonstrated his nerves and inexperience, the Illini held their own and kept most fans in their seats for the entire game.

From this vantage point, the game outcome came down to two main factors: the strong South wind and quarterback play. The wind was strong enough to affect both the punting and passing games. It caused more conservativism in offensive strategy for both teams when facing into the wind. And it gave confidence to the team with the wind at its back while serving as an extra deterrent to the team facing the wind.

All four touchdowns in the game came with a helping wind, the Hawkeyes gaining their three touchdowns in a span of four minutes in the second quarter when the wind and poor Illini play near their own goal line gave Iowa repeated outstanding field position.

Juice Williams has outstanding potential, but he was predictably erratic Saturday. He threw too hard on some of his shorter throws, waited too long on some throws, got flushed from the pocket too early at times, and demonstrated how devastating nervousness and inexperience can be in the mighty Big Ten. It also didn't help that his receivers had difficulty catching balls thrown properly to them.

Juice ended with only 9 of 32 completions for 161 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. But two of his throws should have been caught on his first drive, which resulted in a Jason Reda field goal attempt that was pulled slightly left of the crossbars. Had those balls been caught and the Illini scored early by field goal or possibly touchdown, Juice's confidence might have soared and allowed him to play efficiently throughout. But failure had the opposite effect as his subsequent long string of incompletions can attest.

In contrast, senior Drew Tate led Iowa with passing efficiency and good decision-making. He completed 17 of 27 passes and was especially effective with three short touchdown drives in the second quarter. Had Juice Williams been an experienced senior and Tate a raw freshman, the outcome of the game might have been reversed.

This is especially true since the Illini defense showed more improvement this week and fought valiantly until the bitter end. Iowa ended with only 29 more yards in the game than the Illini offense, and much of that can be contributed to a stout, well-prepared Illini defense. There are still imperfections that must be worked out, but Iowa complimented the Illini defense after the game for competing well against them. The Illini defense deserved a better fate on this day.

Perhaps the key to Illinois' chances of coming from behind in the second half came in a long drive they put together against the wind late in the third quarter. It was an impressive drive overall, keeping the ball out of Iowa's hands when they had the wind in their favor and taking time off the clock. Juice fired a long bullet that Derrick McPhearson should have caught for a touchdown, but he dropped it. Reda came in to try a 46 yard field goal, but the strong wind killed its momentum. The game was still in reach, but Illinois needed to score on that possession. Still, that drive was a sign of growth for Juice Williams and gives renewed hope for the future.

On a sad note, Illini offensive left tackle Akim Millington suffered a severe ankle injury that may keep him out for awhile. Akim had not yet played with the skill expected based on spring and fall practice. He may have been playing hurt. In addition, he had minimal previous playing time at Oklahoma and was rusty from some time off from the game last year. But he is by far Illinois' best left tackle. Since the left tackle is the one who must protect the quarterback's back against top speed rushers, he will be missed.

Those fans angered by still another loss tend to look only at the mistakes and look to fix blame. Certainly, some things need improving. But a fair analysis must also include all the good things the Illini did this game. For one thing, they eliminated the costly penalties that marred their loss a week earlier (it helped to have Big Ten officials instead of the Big East crew that worked the Syracuse game). And the defense gains more confidence with each week and is beginning to show the emotional intensity it must bring play after play to win in the Big Ten.

Perhaps the biggest positive for the offense is the potential shown by Juice Williams. He still needs to develop more touch on his short tosses, something that will improve as he relaxes and gains confidence. And he still must learn to calm his nerves and keep his wits about him under duress. But he has an ability to throw long accurately, and he can scramble enough to give receivers time to find open seams.

This ability to both run and pass deep puts tremendous pressure on any defense and forces them to cover the entire field. Defenses cannot crowd the line against Williams because he will burn them deep if they do. This will make more intermediate pass routes come open since no defense can cover everything at all times. And if the opposing defense misses contain on its pass rush, Juice will burn them with his feet. These extra dimensions will give Illini offensive members more confidence as Juice continues to grow into his role. Now, if the Illini can just get their receivers to catch balls thrown well.

The Big Team is again loaded with tough, talented teams. It will be an uphill battle for the Illini to improve on last year's record and demonstrate potential for future years. But if they take the positives from the Iowa game and build on them, they can give top teams a battle. And maybe they can pull an upset or two along the way.

All hope is not lost, Illini. In fact, the future may yet be bright for those who keep the faith. Iowa knows they were in a battle to the end, and knowledgeable Illini fans know it also. And what is most important, Illini players and coaches know it. This could be the beginning of something good despite the loss.

Go Illini!!!


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