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49 Random Thoughts on Illinois

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Random musings on a Friday night smackdown in Champaign

NCAA Football: Penn State at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

On Friday evening, the Penn State Nittany Lions and the Illinois Fighting Illini engaged in a contest of American football at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois. The Nittany Lions emerged victorious, 63-24. I have some thoughts, which are randomly set forth below:

  1. This was a really strange game for a variety of reasons. These Friday night fiascoes have to end.
  2. First, weekday games aren’t exactly great for the players. I know plenty of programs have already made a mockery of the term “student-athlete,” but still. Sure, other sports have midweek games, but none of those are as physically taxing or inherently dangerous as football. Now, we’re asking these guys to take one less rest day, travel earlier in the week, and play a late game all for the sake of...FS1’s Friday night ratings?
  3. On top of that, it’s terrible for fans, which is exactly what makes college football so special. Saturdays are meant for long days in front of a grill and a cooler, chucking a football around on a grassy field, catching glimpses of 10 other games on a TV or radio, and watching the marching band. Kicking off at 9:00 p.m. on a Friday robs fans of a genuine tailgating experience and the richness of the sport and all of its inherent grandeur.
  4. Fundamentally, Friday night games (and Thursday night games, and Wednesday night games, and yes, Tuesday night games) are simply continuing the professionalization of college football, which is something that this sport assuredly does not need.
  5. The lone argument in favor of a Friday night game is that its provides unheralded programs the chance to gain some exposure. That argument is ridiculous on its face in this circumstance.
  6. Illinois is not in the MAC, the Sun Belt, Conference USA, or the Mountain West. They are a Big Ten program.
  7. I know, I know. But no, seriously, Illinois plays football in the Big Ten.
  8. Yes, really.
  9. The Big Ten recently negotiated a $2.64 billion television contract between FOX and ESPN. That doesn’t even include the network named the Big Ten Network.
  10. You know what Illinois needs to do to get greater exposure?

11. Win a bunch of games, all of which are televised on BTN, ESPN, or FOX, and you too can reap the benefits of your major conference membership. But Friday night games? The only thing that happened on Friday night to Illinois was that they got smacked around by a top 10 team.

12. tl;dr

13. That Lovie Smith beard is something else entirely. And all I kept thinking?

14.

15. The term “slow starts” has been bandied about for weeks. I understand conceptually, but it’s not exactly right.

16. Penn State has scored touchdowns on at least one of its first two possessions in every game this year. In fact, until Friday, Penn State had scored a touchdown on each of its first three opening drives this season.

17. This week, Penn State was well on its way to doing that again, as Trace McSorley connected with Juwan Johnson and Jonathan Holland on three straight passes totaling 55 yards. Only a Holland fumble on the third play ended the three game streak.

18. Of course, the train kept rolling on the next drive as well, where the Lions went 70 yards on 9 plays. That drive culminated in a 14 yard Miles Sanders touchdown. More on that later.

19. In fact, the offense seems fine out of the gate. The defense generally seemed fine, too. In terms of plays, yards, and points, the Illini’s first two drives went 3/7/0 and 9/28/0.

20. Just taking a look at where things stood, you could make a reasonable argument that Penn State should have been up 17-0 before Illinois’ first touchdown drive. Instead, a fumble and a missed Jake Pinegar field goal left the Nittany Lions up just one score.

21. Lots of comparisons to the 2016 Lions this week, but they actually remind me of a more explosive version of the 2012 offense.

22. If you remember back then, Bill O’Brien’s teams often started out of the gate hot. The first 10-20 plays were scripted, I believe, and they generally worked. Penn State would often get up early in the first quarter, then settle into a bit of a lull as the coaching staff figured out the defense’s adjustments. Typically, that lull would subside around the 6 minute mark of the 2nd quarter, at which point Matt McGloin would direct another scoring drive.

23. This squad is similar, but more talented.

24. I wasn’t at all concerned during this game and I’d be surprised if more than a handful of you were too. Even though it shot itself in the foot several times on both offense and defense, Penn State was up 21-7 with 8 minutes to go in the first half. A confluence of poor defense and an uncharacteristic heave led to 10 points for the Illini, and suddenly they were within striking distance.

25. When you add the first drive of the second half on top of those last 8 minutes, I can sort of see how fans would start to get a bit concerned. But when you look at the game from 1000 feet, you can see that Penn State basically fell asleep at the wheel for basically 12 minutes.

26. When they woke up, they hit the gas.

27. I know everyone (including Miles) loved that 48 yard burst for the score, but his first touchdown was my favorite. The jump cut, the broken tackles, and barreling into the end zone? That’s what I love to see. Those 200 yards were well earned, and, frankly should have been more.

28. This is the weekly reminder to Coaches Franklin and Rahne:

29. Give

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31. Miles

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33. the

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35. football!

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37. Only good things happen when you do, and that trend should continue against Ohio State.

38. Nice to see Juwan Johnson get back to form this week. I wonder if he needs to get involved early to be truly effective. Having that first play go to him, even though it was a quick pass, probably got him involved.

39. The tight ends continue to be the surprise of the season for me. The Holland fumble is just one of those things - he caught the ball, turned around, and got popped just right. Sometimes you have to give the other guy credit. Otherwise, I think he’s done a nice job as a stabilizing force. Kudos to Pat Freiermuth as well for his first career touchdown, although he tried to make it as difficult as possible on himself.

40. I’m still trying to understand exactly what we’re doing with defensive rotations and wondering whether we’ll see some different looks against the Buckeyes. Illinois was obviously a team you could use for some experimentation, even as an in-conference foe.

41. It’s worth reminding people that Trace McSorley is dangerous on the ground in his own right.

42. We were remarkably close to having three different backs rush for 100 yards. Sanders had 200, but both Slade and McSorley had more than 90. Has that ever happened before? You’d have to assume so...

43. Slade has some serious burst. He’s a big play waiting to happen, but sitting behind Miles for a year (probably) is a good experience for him before he takes the reins full time. I’d be remiss, though, not to mention the offensive line delivering some killer blocks.

44. Brandon Polk just loves to join in on a good touchdown run. Last year, he escorted Saquon Barkley to the end zone in the Georgia State game. This year, he cruised in with Slade. I guess he just needed to get one good wind sprint in.

45. You have to appreciate Sean Clifford’s dedication to perfection, enticing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty just to keep his own passer rating intact.

46. The offense is a powder keg. If the defense can mature quickly, they will be a force to be reckoned with down the stretch. But we’ll see how close to postseason ready they are this coming week when the Buckeyes come to town and all eyes are on the Lions.

47. On to Ohio State.

48. Welcome back, College Gameday.

49. We are...