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44 Random Thoughts on Illinois

Random thoughts and musings on the weekend that was against the Fighting Illini

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois (sans coach) came to Beaver Stadium this weekend to play Penn State (sans offensive line). Penn State laid the smack down. I have some thoughts. They are randomized below.

  1. I'll take that weather any day of the year. Welcome to football season.
  2. It's noticeable how differently our offense performs when it's not raining. We'll talk later about improvement on the offensive line, Christian Hackenberg's touch on short passes, and Saquon Barkley. That said, perhaps the issue that changes things most for the offense is having a dry football.
  3. Going into Saturday's noon kickoff, this team was 6-2 with its only losses to the No. 1 team in the country and an undefeated mid-major who was heading into a heavily hyped showdown against a top-10 opponent and traditional power. Still, #94KStrong. STEP has taken its toll; so have the sanctions and the scandal. The view from the south end zone seats perfectly encapsulates the need for a modern stadium that apportions seating in a more logical fashion.
  4. Can we please figure out a way to get the students to their seats in a timely manner? The student gates are always a mess and walking up those ramps is like trying to drive through the Holland Tunnel at rush hour. That makes attendance look worse than it actually is.
  5. I have to say, though, that the students always do Halloween weekend right. I never dressed in costume to go to a game when I was there, and I'm very impressed by the creativity. My personal favorite - a guy dressed as Yoda (in blue and white) with a sign that read, "Penn State We Are."
  6. The Lion donning the MJ jacket and doing the Thriller dance was amazing the first time it 2005. It's now 10 years later, we've seen the same dance for 10 years and it doesn't get nearly the same reaction. Also, this year featured the dubstep remix, which was a questionable artistic decision on multiple levels. Let's do ourselves a favor and shelve this in favor of something different for next year's Halloween weekend festivities.
  7. The defense was on top of the Illini from the jump on Saturday, with the first drive losing a yard on three plays. Ke'Shawn Vaughn had very little room to work all day. Wes Lunt tried admirably, but even his 1-of-2 for 2 yard stat line on the first drive was an indicator of things to come for the Illini offense.
  8. Of course, Penn State's offense wasn't much better statistically on its first set of downs. Three plays, eight yards, punt. There did seem to be a little bit of rhythm here. Hack started out nicely with a pass to Chris Godwin, Barkley added an impressive burst and nearly got the first down after the jet sweep loss on second down. Penn State punted, but it wasn't a complete loss.
  9. Lots of discussion about the jet sweep this week. I'm not entirely sure why people hate this play so much. It almost always gets positive yardage, sometimes results in a 20+ yard gain on the ground, and opens up play-action from the shotgun later on in the game. It feels like admitting that this play is successful means that you're admitting that John Donovan is successful, which is anathema to many in this fanbase.
  10. To be clear, I haven't been John Donovan's biggest supporter either this year. That has little to do with the jet sweep.
  11. This jet sweep with Brandon Polk lost yardage. It did set up a very nice pass to DeAndre Thompkins on the very next series, so it wasn't all for naught.
  12. I'm pretty sure Hackenberg completed his first six passes, which included a touchdown to Chris Godwin and a 31-yard strike on the jet sweep play-action wheel route to Thompkins. Someone fact check me on the stats. On that Thompkins play, the offensive line struggled with their blocking, but Hack moved well in the pocket, got himself free, and got the ball out quickly. It was a nice piece of work.
  13. A quick start is exactly what Number 14 needs out of the gate. Seemed like it loosened the offense up all day. A few weeks back, we talked extensively about how this team lacked the capacity to go on extended, time killing touchdown drives and appeared to only be able to score on big plays. That was certainly true in last week's Maryland game. This week, we looked like an efficient, effective offensive team. Credit to all of the players for executing well and all of the coaches for (finally?) putting these players in the best possible position in order to be successful.
  14. Saquon Barkley is the Truth.
  15. I was thrilled seeing Barkley utilized in the passing game, on both screens and swing passes out of the backfield. He dropped two, but he also made the Illinois defense look like they were in slow motion. Finding a way to get him into open space is a key to Penn State's offensive consistency.
  16. Like last week, it appeared that there was a concerted effort to bottle up the running game, which only benefitted Hack, Godwin, DaeSean Hamilton, and Geno Lewis. If the right one don't get ya, the left one will.
  17. Illinois successfully bottled up the rushing attack to a degree, but it did not last forever. At some point, we should (and were) able to "out-athlete" them.
  18. Geno Lewis out-athletes nearly everyone else on the field every time he gets in the game. He has been inconsistent in completing the catch. I think he dropped a ball or two on Saturday as well. But he made a heck of a play in the end zone to pull down that fade. It's the second week in a row that he's been able to make a significant contribution.
  19. I like that we have found what our receivers do best and have them do it. Polk and Thompkins are fast and useful in the rush game. Hamilton is elusive in space. Godwin is a big, strong receiver who can make plays in tight space.  Lewis makes those "high point" catches. It seems like this squad is rounding into shape at the right time.
  20. Not that it needs to be said, but I love the use of the halfback pass to Hackenberg early in the 3rd quarter. What a fantastic trick play. Well-designed and well-timed.
  21. Nick Scott is our most efficient passer. He plays running back.
  22. Even so, that wasn't Scott's best pass. That one to Godwin earlier in the year was a tighter window.
  23. The best part about Christian Hackenberg's touchdown reception was after he got popped by an Illini defender post-score. Nick Scott, who threw the pass, ran down the field and shouldered the defender who took a cheap shot. Very protective of his quarterback, and nice to see that Scott was thinking about his teammates rather than himself after that touchdown pass.
  24. Scott has also become a fantastic player on special teams. After the first touchdown of the game, he made a great play and was right in the thick of it.
  25. By the way, let's all discuss Hackenberg looking like Reggie Bush in the backfield and turning a 10-yard loss into a three yard gain by running 45 yards total.
  26. Jumpman, Jumpman, Jumpman, Saquon's up to somethin'.
  27. I mean, the guy leapt from the four yard line, crowd surfed over the defense, scored the touchdown, and never left his feet. Oh, and he lost a shoe. The kid is straight absurd.
  28. No one can complain about the Wildcat when Saquon Barkley is running it.
  29. I actually thought that the best run of the day (traditional category) was by Mark Allen, who made a nasty cut back into a lane and raced to the end zone. That was an outstanding run live. On replay, the camera work didn't do it justice.
  30. I am sympathetic to Akeel Lynch, who is experienced and solid. It's not a surprise to see someone else talented usurped by a kid like Saquon Barkley, but you've got to wonder what he's thinking. Barkley, Scott and Allen all have clearly defined roles to play. Akeel Lynch is floating in a second team role waiting for the chance to break out.
  31. We haven't talked defense in a while, which is shameful on my part because they flat dominated on Saturday. Wes Lunt is a good player. Extremely solid. He had no chance against this team. The line was overwhelming, the blitzes were well-timed, and the backfield certainly played well.
  32. Troy Reeder missed lots of tackles against Maryland. He did not against Illinois.
  33. My future father-in-law called that Reeder pick 30 seconds before it happened, which was pretty great.
  34. Nice to reaffirm that the future of Linebacker U is in good hands with Reeder and Cabinda.
  35. Brandon Bell is the here and now of Linebacker U. Very impressive, no?
  36. Nice sack by Zettel. I thought it was his best game of the year outside of the game after his father's untimely passing.
  37. I can't wait for Carl Nassib to break the single-season sack record this weekend, the celebrate by placing his hands on a Northwestern trainer's shoulder by accident and act like he just put his hand on a hot stove.
  38. Finally, it's MCSORLEY TIME!
  39. He was...solid. Made some good decisions to throw the ball away. He's lightning quick. Those read options will be better executed than they were this year. He short-armed a potential touchdown pass to Lewis, but otherwise I thought his garbage time minutes were useful.
  40. I thought for sure that the second-team defense was going to blow the shut out after the midfield turnover, but they came through when it counted. I'm excited to see Torrence Brown mature after looking this good in limited time. Outstanding play on 4th down.
  41. Whoa boy, special teams. Where to begin?  Two blocked point afters. Two kicks out of bounds. A fumbled punt return. Not great, guys. Fortunately, it didn't matter so much.
  42. But I thought the punting was ok. Figure that out.
  43. This was a great match up for us, and it showed in the final score. Michigan and MSU provide a similar stylistic contest, which makes me feel good about things. This team is peaking at the right time. I'm very pleased with the season even if we end up at 7-5, but there is greatness within reach. It's going to take a lot of skill, a lot of poise, and a good amount of luck to get there. We'll see if this team has the ability to put it all together down the stretch.
  44. We are...