We always, ALWAYS, get excited and hyped up for college football and opening day for the Fighting Illini. Doesn’t matter where the team is projected to finish, what holes the roster has, how suspect they may have been the previous year… This is part of what it means to be a fan. You’re positive and optimistic at the onset, ready to support your team and hope for more wins, more progress, more glory.
For Illini football, this has been especially difficult the last two decades. Wins have been in short supply, consistency – forget about it. At least there’s been excitement with a couple of unexpectedly good seasons. Robert sums it nicely over at A Lion Eye. The Orange and Blue have been schizophrenic on the football field, and as a result we’ve watched the likes of Iowa, Michigan State, and Wisconsin pass our programs up. Former AD Ron Guenther may have been good at balancing the books and upgrading facilities, but many of us are starting to understand just how lacking he was in vision and football team acumen.
As Robert says, Illini fans need to somehow forget the last 20 years and give the new guys a chance. AD Mike Thomas has cleaned house, bringing in Tim Beckman, John Groce, and others. There’s a new commitment to marketing the team and making the gameday experience an experience. And as for Coach Beckman, we all know he want to COMPETE! at everything. He’s also a man with a plan and a vision for how to build and manage a Big 10 football program. He doesn’t appear to have the obvious holes in his portfolio that plague our last three head coaches.
And for a die-hard Illini fan like me – well I only need a glimmer of hope to get excited again. Judging by attendance at Memorial Stadium on Saturday (I’ll estimate 30,000), more people are in wait-and-see mode. You can’t blame them – especially with the dire and rainy forecast.
Now a brief word about the 24-7 win over Western Michigan: it’s a good win, a solid win. WMU is one of the better MAC teams, and MAC teams always take a Big 10 scalp or two in the non-conference. Look at Penn State’s loss to Ohio. Look at Iowa barely beating Northern Illinois. And with that in mind, five points in your inaugural Beckman Era pentagram:
- Defense as good as advertised. Sure WMU doesn’t really run the ball, but the Illini held them to negative yards rushing. The D forced fumbles and interceptions and harassed a very good quarterback into a pedestrian performance. Ashante Williams with the pick 6 to seal the game, just when it was starting to get uncomfortable.
- Special Teams didn’t hurt us. Based on the last few years, this was a vast improvement. Every time we caught a punt and stayed in our lanes on coverage, I felt a little better. We can be competent on special teams. Hopefully the kickers continue to feel more comfortable.
- Offense = not so good. No shocker here – the offense was suspect. This is the same unit that looked so poor during last year’s losing streak. It certainly didn’t help when Nathan Scheelhaase left the game with an ankle injury, but before that our running game looked uncertain and we rarely threw the ball down the field. How much of this is the offensive line adapting to a new scheme and how much was game management? We will find out soon enough.
- Game management instantly better. Not many penalties. Using the clock and timeouts to get plays right and force the other team to kick into the wind. Minimizing mistakes, basically. These were not part of the Zooker’s gameday. True, Beckman went way conservative way quick, and if not for the pick 6 it might have gotten a lot more interesting. But other than the sequence when Reilly O’Toole couldn’t seem to get the plays in on time, we executed the basics fairly well.
- Depth issues and rotations. A lot of guys rotated on Defense. Even key players like Jonathan Brown and Michael Buchanan had series off. Contrast that with the O-Line playing the entire game and not much variation at receiver and running back. Don’t know what it means at this point, but based on early returns this team will definitely need to lean on that D. Keep them fresh if you can.
Next Saturday’s night game at Arizona State will answer more questions. The Sun Devils scored a lot of points in their opener. If Nate can’t go and we weren’t purposely vanilla on offense to hold some things back, it could get messy…
But the Illini and Coach Beckman earned their opening day win, the sun came out and we tailgated for awhile, and I got to eat some Papa Del’s pizza. A good day in Illini Nation.