At the end of the day the result was the same. For the 24th time in their last 25 Big Ten football games the Illini came away with a loss. But while the final scoreboard read much of the same, the feeling leaving Memorial Stadium was different.
This was a game where the Illini competed. This was a game where the fought, scratched and clawed—especially on the defensive side of the football—and stuck with a top 15 team in the country. While the lost the game by 21 points, it was much closer than that.
Illinois fans and this football program have talked at length about showing signs of improvement. We didn't see any signs in the Rutgers game and only had Juice's 4th quarter to hang our hats on after the Syracuse loss, but there were definitely signs of this team improving all over the field against Iowa.
A great deal of that visible improvement came from the Illini defense who played extremely well and showed some attitude and swagger for the first time since…quite possibly the first year of Mike Cassity's tenure as defensive coordinator.
The defense made plays, they laid out some hard hits (even had Alan Ball take off a guys helmet on one hit), they caused a red zone turnover and they gave the offense every chance to keep the Illini in this game. Perhaps most amazingly the Illini defense has cut down on the YAAT (Yards After Attempted Tackle—a stat named by the group in the West Balcony GG section) statistic that they have without question led the nation in throughout the past few years. Through the first four games—and especially this past Saturday against Iowa—we have seen fewer missed tackles and a defense that is more fundamentally sound.
I am sure some of that change is attributed to better athletes coming into the program, but you have to give a lot of credit to new defensive coordinator—Vince Okruch. In a season in which we have screamed for signs of improvement his unit has seemed to improve each and every week.
When you really delve into the stat sheet, it's even more obvious how good the Illini defense played against the Hawkeyes.
- They held a pretty formidable Iowa running attack to only 154 yards on 42 carries (including only 8 yards in the 1st quarter and 39 in the 1st half). In the past few years good running attacks have just dominated the Illinois defense and that certainly wasn't the case on Saturday. If anything the Hawkeye running attack ran up a quiet 154 yards throughout the game
- Even though they gave up 24 points on the day, take a closer look at the drives…
1st TD: Hawkeyes went 31 yards
2nd TD: Hawkeyes went 54 yards
3rd TD: Hawkeyes went 34 yards
Field Goal: Hawkeyes get 1 first down and go 18 yards
It was great to see and while they still lost the game you had to leave Memorial Stadium with a little hope and a little life looking forward to the rest of the 2006 football season.
Staying with the Defense
In addition to great team play, there are certainly some individuals who have made some improvement and made their presence felt in the first four games of the 2006 football season.
J Leman: There's nothing not to like about J Leman away from the field, but there aren't a lot of Illinois fans out there who haven't wondered at one time or another why in the world he is on the field for this football team.
A lot of those fans—including myself—need to take a step back and re-evaluate those thoughts because Leman has been pretty good this year and is starting to have a big impact on the field.
Leman finished the game with 12 tackles—including one for a loss—and now has three straight games with double digit tackles (all of which he led the Illini team). For a guy who many believed was a step too slow, that's pretty darn good numbers. In four games he is averaging 11 tackles for contest and he is making his presence felt to opposing offenses.
Kevin Mitchell: I have liked Mitchell since he stepped on campus and he is the type of you love to have in your secondary. He hits hard, he has that swagger/attitude and he is usually around the football. Mitchell probably played his best game in an Illini uniform this past Saturday registering 10 tackles, a sack (in which he blitzed through the Iowa running back) and an interception (amazingly the first one of his Illini career).
Mitchell was all over the field on Saturday and he is turning into the best safety since the Muhammad Abdullah/Bobby Jackson tandem.
Antonio Steele: His numbers weren't as good on Saturday, but Steele still made his presence felt especially early in the game. Steele had 5 tackles, but his ability to cover ground from sideline to sideline is an added dimension to a defense that has been lacking that type of speed over the past few years.
Vontae Davis: It's certainly early in his career but it's easy to see why Vontae Davis is going to be an All-Big Ten caliber corner by the time his career in the Orange and Blue is over.
Vontae let his receiver catch a few balls on Saturday, but even when he got beat he was right there (just a half a step away on almost every ball) to tackle his guy. He has the speed, the size and the toughness to be pretty special and it's exciting to have that type of guy in the secondary.
It's the ultimate compliment to Vontae that opposing teams are throwing the ball more towards Alan Ball then they are to Vontae's guys.
Overall the front four of the defense was also much better against the Hawkeyes. Against a team that is known for their smash-mouth big hog offensive lines, the front four did more than hold their own and certainly made more than a few plays.
As good as the defense was this past Saturday was as inept as the Illinois offense was. The offense had every chance to keep the Illini in this game and even potentially come away with an upset win, but they struggled to gain any kind of rhythm and never really sustained any great drives.
A lot of times I think too much is made of the play calling (All plays look good when teams execute them and make plays) but I did think that they abandoned Pierre Thomas a little too early this past Saturday—especially with the way he ran the ball on that first drive. Pierre finished the game with 11 carries for 52 yards (4.5 yards a carry average) but he had four of those carries in the first quarter and never really got a chance to establish anything after that first drive.
Juice: While his numbers were certainly very ugly (9 for 32 with three interceptions) I thought Juice did a good job hanging in there in his first ever start. While he certainly made some very bad throws and some poor decisions, he also showed those flashes of brilliance (just look at the play where he hit Willis) and a bunch of those incompletions were dropped passes.
I am sure the game is still moving 1,000 miles per hour for Juice and once that begins to slow down (and he finds a way to be more accurate with the cannon he has for an arm) this offense is going to be a lot more dangerous than it currently is.
In addition to that we also got a feel for Juice's toughness after he got popped in the ribs/stomach on the touchdown throw to Jacob Willis. Even though he was hobbling around a little bit after that, he never left the game and continued to scramble around and fight back. From a freshman quarterback, that's a great thing to see!
Derrick McPhearson: I have been waiting and waiting and waiting for DMac to have the type of impact we all thought he would when he first stepped on campus, but at this point I don't think it's ever going to come.
Maybe I expect too much of DMac and maybe he is a victim of the lofty expectations this staff and the Illinois fan base levied on him, but his drop in the end zone in the 4th quarter was indicative of his first year and change in an Illini uniform. Great receivers make that catch and in a chance to really put some pressure on the Hawkeyes, DMac let it drop to the turf.
By the time he was a sophomore, Brandon Lloyd was already changing games with big time plays and having defenses concentrate on him. To this point, DMac is certainly not…
I think he is going to be a solid contributor throughout his four years in an Illinois uniform and by all accounts he is a great guy to have in the locker room, but it's time to reassess those expectations because I don't see DMac ever becoming a go-to #1 receiver.
I thought the offensive line was much improved against the Hawkeyes and they really gave Juice time to throw the football. Hopefully Coach Locksley and the offensive coaches can find some quick hitters in the play book to get Juice going in East Lansing, because he is going to need that early confidence to succeed on the road.
Questionable Decisions/Clock Management
I should start off by saying that none of the decisions cost the Illini this football game and even if all of them were reversed and turned out in the Illini's favor, Illinois still wasn't going to win.
With that said, there was some head-scratching decisions and clock management choices made by Coach Zook and his staff throughout the game.
Decision #1: Roughly 8 minutes to go in the half; 0-0 Score; Rugby Punt
With Kyle Yelton having punted pretty well early in the game, Coach Zook decided to send out DeJaun Warren for a ‘rugby-style' punt from their own 19 yard-line with the scored tied at 0.
It turned to be a disastrous decision because Warren got off a punt that went 12 yards in a play that completely turned the momentum of the game around. I know a lot of people have speculated that it was supposed to be a fake punt, but even if that was the case I don't agree with the decision.
Anyone who has read this column over the past few years knows I am all for trick plays, but not when the score is tied and more importantly you are on your own 19 yard line. The decision to bring Warren on just didn't make any sense and it certainly cost the Illinois football team.
Decision #2: Bringing on Brasic; 14-0 Iowa
I know a lot of people had a bring problem with Coach Zook bringing Tim Brasic on the field after Illinois fell down 14-0, but I had absolutely no problem with that.
If I did say I had a problem, I would be completely hypocritical because at the time I thought it was a good decision and I thought Tim Brasic would be a nice change of pace to an offense that had been inept.
At that point in the game, Juice looked a little rattled. He was 1 for 10 and he was coming off a possession where he got hit hard on a two-yard loss and threw two straight incompletions.
It certainly turned out to be the wrong decision (especially when Brasic throws an interception two plays into the drive) but at the time I thought it was a good move to try and change things up.
Decision #3: No time-out used at the end of the 1st half?
I certainly applaud the coaching staffs decision to not run out the clock and to be aggressive at the end of the first half, but I have no idea what they were thinking as the clock was running down.
After Tim Brasic completed a pass to Joe Morgan to the Iowa 48, there was about 14 seconds left and Illinois had all three of their time-outs. It was the perfect spot to call a time-out and set up a play or two to try and get into Reda's field goal range. Instead they ran up the line of scrimmage and wasted roughly six seconds trying to call a play.
It didn't make any sense and it's hard to imagine what the staff was thinking.
Decision #4: Score a TD—Go for 2!
This is probably the biggest nitpick of them all, because the game was virtually over but I don't understand why Coach Zook didn't go for two after scoring a touchdown with 9:40 to play in the game and down 24-0.
At that point, you have to figure that the only way you are going to win the game is to cut it to two possessions and you have to think that you won't even have three more possessions in the game (for the record they only had two) so you have to try and go 8-8-8 to tie the score.
Maybe he wanted to give Reda the feeling of hitting one through the uprights and maybe he decided since Juice was banged up that an extra point was the way to go, but in that spot you have to go for two and try to get within two scores.
Even with some of those decisions that backfired, you have to give the coaching staff a lot of credit. The team scratched, clawed and fought the entire game and really gave a pretty good Iowa team a tough battle. Even when they could have folded the tent (after Iowa scored 21 points in a four minute stretch) they played even harder in the second half to outscore the Hawkeyes 7-3.
In addition to that we all screamed and complained last week about the lack of discipline and the insane amount of penalties. Against Iowa the Illini only committed two penalties for 10 yards and they played a much, much cleaner disciplined game. If you are going to blame the staff for the undisciplined games you better turn around and praise them when the team plays the way they did this past Saturday. Let's hope this team turned the corner on Saturday in that regard.
Ruminations from Week 4
**We are now four weeks into the 2006 football season and Melvin Alaeze has barely been heard from. I understand why he was quiet in the first two games, but now that he has had weeks of practice and time to get in better shape I expected a lot more out of a guy that was as highly regarded as Alaeze.
To make things worse, he didn't even dress for the Iowa game which means you have to speculate that he either broke some sort of team rule.**
**It was great to see Dee Brown, Deron Williams, Luther Head and James Augustine back on campus and in Memorial Stadium for the game on Saturday. It's great to have those guys back every October for a variety of reasons and let's hope that continues to be an annual trip for the group.
As the Weber era continues at Illinois we can only hope that we continue to produce NBA players and that they all make that trip back right before training camp. As that number continues to grow, there might even be the possibility of an alumni charity game that you can invite both fans and recruits to**
**Timing is everything and I absolutely hate the timing for the Illini heading into East Lansing this week. I know some people think that Michigan State's collapse last week to Notre Dame will lead to the Spartans annual meltdown, but I think Illinois is going to run into a very angry group this weekend who will take out all that anger on the Illini.
Michigan State has a very powerful offense and it will be interesting to see how the Illini defense tries to contain an offense that ran all over them last year. I think they stay in the game early, but they falter towards the end of the first half and State runs away in the second.