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Illini basketball Illini football

In hindsight, it was a pretty good day

Yeah, Illini football got walloped by a basketball school. Let it pass. Saturday was magical.

A lot of the attendees had never before seen a full Memorial Stadium. They weren’t alive when Mike White and John Mackovic’s teams were forced to build temporary bleachers to accommodate 76,000+ fans.

No Illinois undergrad was alive the last time a packed Tailgreat (look it up) celebrated perfect weather buttressed by unfettered optimism for the program’s future. The 80s Belonged to the Illini (look it up).

You might even blame excitement for the team’s mistake-prone performance. They were just that hyped up. Thirteen penalties and six fumbles might, if we’re lucky, stand as all-time records for the Lovie Administration.

Scroll down a bit and you’ll find Vashoune Russell’s pictures from the evening. This one captures Center Joe Spencer’s once in a lifetime 9 yard rush. It would have been the play of the game except that Gabe Megginson severely twisted his ankle just as Spencer was scooping the ball from the turf.

Illini center Joe Spencer nearly gained a rushing first down after picking up a fumble (Vashoune Russell)

But let’s stick to happy thoughts.

It wasn’t just a vibrant atmosphere among long-suffering tailgaters. The north end zone was packed with unofficial visitors, potential football recruits who’ve taken note of the NFL pedigree now running the Champaign show.

Garrick McGee continued to look like a 1940s leading man as he introduced priority target student-athletes to one-another. It’s the mustache, but it’s also the demeanor.

At the northeast corner of Zuppke Field, John Groce entertained FOUR Official Visitors and their families. Yes, three of these Visitors have already verballed to Illinois. But that doesn’t answer the question: Has any D-1 basketball program ever hosted FOUR Official Visitors on the same weekend?

Maybe this is the year John Groce turns things around. Even Jalen Coleman-Lands looked pumped as the team convened in the north end zone, and he’d had hand surgery just a day earlier.

So, yeah. Larry Fedora’s Flash In The Pan put a hurt on your orange for the second time in as many seasons.

Next year, he’ll be coaching somewhere else. UNC will be on probation. Lovie et al will have signed the most widely discussed recruiting class since Dwight Beverly (look it up).

Illini head coach Lovie Smith admonishes Ke’Shawn Vaughn after the latter’s personal foul Saturday night in Champaign (Vashoune Russell)

T.J. Logan eludes Illini Chris James (Vashoune Russell)

Luke Butkus and Hardy Nickerson Sr. are bemused (Vashoune Russell)
Bad form tackling by Lovie Smith versus Carolina RB Elijah Hood (Vashoune Russell)
Dawuane Smoot is not bemused (Vashoune Russell)

 

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Illini football

The Gaps

Darta Lee (61) got the start at right guard and Nick Allegretti (53) moved to center.

The game is won or lost in the line. We know that. It’s what your Pop Warner coach taught you. It’s no less true today.

This year’s Illini team will go as far as its O-Line can carry it. How far is that?

Ke-‘Shawn Vaughn couldn’t find his way up the middle on Illinois’ first drive against Murray State.  Starting Center and captain Joe Spencer was out with an injury, and guard Nick Allegretti moved into the position. True freshman Darta Lee filled Allegretti’s vacated RG spot. The majority of first drive snaps were running plays, but the big yards came on passes to Malik Turner in the flat. Vaughn’s biggest run on the drive, a ten yard gain, went outside of right tackle.

Play-by-play of first Illini drive versus Murray State

That Illinois waited ’til third down for Wes Lunt‘s first pass is thoroughly unremarkable among old school football fans. That Vaughn managed only 4 yards on the first two downs is remarkable. Murray State was 3-8 last year against a schedule that featured two total FBS teams (Northern Illinois, Western Michigan).

A moment later the Illini offense got another shot at moving the ball, when Racer QB KD Humphries threw the ball directly to Illini DB Taylor Barton.

Mikey Dudek (right) watches as Taylor Barton tries to decide what to do with his interception.

This time, Illinois skipped the run altogether. Lunt found Turner again, firing his longest career pass, 40 yards in the air and 68 overall. The pass hit a sprinting Turner in the fingertips. Somehow, Malik reeled the ball in. He claimed afterward that he’s not especially fast, and isn’t equipped with especially long fingers.

The offense then waited on the sideline while Murray State waffled through a two-punt drive (owing to one of Dawuane Smoot’s three penalties) before Darius Mosely made a nice punt return (22 yards) which could have gone for six if he’d stepped left behind his blocker rather than right.

Darius Mosely nearly broke a punt return for touchdown.

Illinois’ third drive yielded two first downs via one 13-yard Vaughn scamper, two short rushing gains and a third down pass conversion, but Illinois punted on its third series of downs.

The fourth drive was worse. An incomplete pass on first down, Vaughn gaining two on second, Lunt sacked on third. At this point, the O-Line wasn’t clearing room, and wasn’t protecting the passer.  For what it’s worth, Jordan Fagan had taken over for Lee at RG.

More terrible Murray State offense (and a 22-yard punt) next handed Illinois the ball at the Racer 39. Vaughn immediately lost two yards. His next rush gained one. But his third rush of the series might have gone for 99 had he not started it at the Racer 2.  On this occasion, the offensive line created a hole you could drive a (insert cliché here).

Whether Fagan was more effective than Lee (once he found his footing) will probably be determined by the time Illinois’ first team O trots out against North Carolina on Saturday. By the end of the second quarter, the line had cleared the way for two rushing touchdowns (Vaughn, Kendrick Foster), but both were run toward the left guard. Foster’s 56-yard scamper was the third play (and third down) of a drive that began with a 9-yard completion and an incomplete toss to Vaughn on 2nd-and-1.

Kendrick Foster hits the hole of all holes.

Whether the Illini O-Line had figured things out by this point, or whether the Racers were bored with getting beat in the flat, and spread their resources toward the sidelines; it seemed clear that the passing game opened opportunities for the running game, rather than the other way around.

Lovie Smith, in his postgame remarks , rejected a theory that the O-Line needed some snaps to find a working chemistry.   He observed the first unit comprised the same individuals that practiced together all week. Depending on your interpretation, this response could be comforting or alarming. But keep in mind, Lovie does not part with information or insight if he can avoid it. He’s not necessarily going to tell you what he really thinks.

Mike Phair advises Lovie Smith.

Lovie also rejected the idea that Illinois intended to use the run to open the field for its passing game. But the play-by-play is right there, at FightingIllini.com, for all to see. Illinois was the run-first team everyone anticipated, including Wes Lunt (who seemed genuinely pleased when claiming he’d be happy to throw fewer attempts, and take fewer licks from opposing defensive linemen).

Run-first failed. Take away Foster’s two 56-yard scampers, and Illinois achieved 175 yards on 38 carries. Its #1 tailback averaged 2.9/carry for 55 yards against an awful FCS team.

Will everything come together, now that Illinois’ first offensive unit has had a chance to work out the kinks against an unfamiliar opponent? Will Joe Spencer’s return solidify the line? We’ll probably know by 7:15 pm on Saturday. If Ke’Shawn Vaughn has fewer than 10 yards rushing by that time, you may be in for a long season.

All photos by Vashoune Russell.

Lotta horny dudes at the game.
Categories
Illini football

(Over)heard at B1G Media Days

You already know Big Ten Media Days took place Monday and Tuesday in Chicago, and that Illinois was part of the Tuesday grouping. Maybe you’ve read and seen enough of the columns and videos chronicling the event.

I watched the videos I recorded, to remind myself of the most interesting things I learned. For people who like to read about sports at work, and can’t get away with watching videos, here’s a summary.

LOVIE HAS YET TO RAISE HIS VOICE

Wes Lunt didn’t come right out and say it, but he doesn’t expect to hear Lovie Smith yell at anyone, ever. Yelling doesn’t seem like Lovie’s style, so that shouldn’t surprise anyone. We already knew the staff doesn’t employ four-letter words.

On Tuesday, a reporter tried to conjure a situation in which Lovie might lose his cool. Lunt couldn’t fathom such a situation.

ALMOST ALL THE COACHES CAN PRONOUNCE “DAWUANE SMOOT”

If there’s a surefire NFL draft pick on the roster, the experts think it’s Dawaune Smoot, who oesn’t mind when people mispronounce his name. It’s Dah-WAHN. “I don’t know why my father put an E on the end,” he mused.

To this point, Smoot says he’s learned the most from Mike Phair, which makes sense. Phair is his position coach, and  a carryover from the Cubit administration. Phair, and every other assistant coach knows how to pronounce Smoot’s name. Love calls him Dwayne. Or maybe it’s Dwyane.

YEAR ONE EXPECTATIONS: THEY DON’T EXIST

In various phrasings, reporters asked Lovie about Y1 goals. He downplayed every time.

Lovie said Illinois has good players at every position, but not much depth. He said he hopes his team will b eat every team it should beat, based on roster quality and experience. If you choose to read between the lines, you might infer that he expects a final record equaling the low expectations of pre-season prognosticators.

He inferred, strongly, that recruiting is going MUCH better in the Chicago area than anyone seems to believe. He said he plans to sign 25 guys in the class of 2017.

PURPOSE OF DEFENSE: YOU’LL BE SHOCKED BY NUMBER 1

Couldn’t resist the clickbait phrasing, but there’s no arrow to click here. Lovie quizzed the media on the purpose of defense, the single goal.

One guy got it right: to score.

So it appears that  active hands will be ripping at untucked balls in the coming years. Also, Lovie dislikes the recommendation that NCAA football rid itself of kick-offs, for safety reasons. He noted that Bears fans came to Soldier Field hoping to see Devin Hester return a punt for touchdown. “Fans like seeing Devin Hester run the ball back.”

TURMOIL IN IOWA CITY

Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta positioned himself against a sturdy table as the Hawkeye media pool surrounded him, ready to pounce. Barta’s revenue sports are doing okay, but he’s under scrutiny for firing of administrator Jane Meyer because she’s a lesbian. Monday saw a major development in the case.

Barta reassigned Meyer outside athletics in 2014, noting that her partner, former field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum, was planning to sue Barta over her firing. Griesbaum was fired for Tim Beckmanesque reasons. The athletic department was able to drum up a tale of player abuse.

In Beckman’s case, sufficient evidence allowed the DIA to invoke a termination-for-cause paragraph in Beckman’s contract. The DIA was delighted, naturally, because the underlying motivation for his firing was Beckman’s fecklessness & embarrassing stupidity. Griesbaum led her Hawkeye team for 14 seasons. Incompetence was not an issue in her case.

The funny thing about Barta’s moment with the media was the way it began. As you’ve seen from my videos of Athletic Availabilities, the cameras and microphones crowd around the interviewee, positioning themselves so microphones are near the correct mouth, and cameras point to the desired face. Then there’s a quiet, sometimes awkward period, when everyone wonders who’ll ask the first question.

The guy who spoke first in the Barta interview surveyed the cameras, noted that everyone was in place, and then said something like “okay, go ahead.”  Barta responded “hi, how are you?”

I thought that was funny, and humanizing. But Barta’s seen enough of these situations to know that the guy was performing a service on behalf of everyone involved.

LOVIE HAS NO SLOGAN

Illini fans will be delighted to learn that catch-phrase wristbands will not be a part of Lovie’s program. Rather than relying on contrived clichés to motivate his players, Lovie plans to teach them how to play football. They might be tough, and they might be together, but they’re not developing any mantras about it.

When asked about a slogan for the team, Ke’Shawn Vaughn drew a blank.

HOME

Lovie figures that, since his hiring in March, he’s spent the majority of his nights in Champaign.  Apart from some round-the-state meet-n-greets with boosters and fans, he’s been here.  To fans who thought he might take the Blagojevich approach to downstate Illinois (Lovie and MaryAnne maintain a home in Chicago) that’s probably a relief.

Lovie didn’t know that September’s home game versus Western Michigan was originally scheduled for Kalamazoo. He’s glad the site was changed. Would a road game at a MAC team prepare the Illini for road games versus B1G foes? Lovie demurred. He’s glad to play at home.

He doesn’t see a reason to pull up roots for Camp Rantoul either, noting that Champaign’s facilities are world class, so why wouldn’t the team utilize them? The guy who does laundry, he mused, had to drive back to Champaign every night.

WES LUNT, PRO QB

Lovie didn’t flinch when asked about Lunt’s NFL potential. Neither did Lunt.

Lovie asked whether any media had attended the Kickoff Banquet earlier in the day. We all got free box lunches, across the street from the $100/plate affair. So … no.

Lovie told of a raffle in which the winner receives a football. Lovie intimated that ball was heaved to the winner from the dais, that Lunt was the guy who heaved it, and that the recipient sat toward the back of the banquet hall. Lovie suggested the Lunt hit his target in the hands, but not necessarily that the ball was caught. So the dropped pass problem continues for Lunt. But Lovie said that’s not Lunt’s fault.

Wes said he has an idea of his plans for the future, and where he’ll prepare for the NFL Draft. He didn’t give a stock answer like “I’m just thinking about this season.” There’s a refreshing lack of cliché to this team.

Lovie did say that a successful senior season will be the most significant factor in burnishing Lunt’s draft status. It’s hard to argue with that logic. Lunt agreed that his offensive line is the most important ingredient in that success, and added that nothing’s changed in the depth chart, where six (maybe seven) guys are competing for five spots. Lovie is high on (redshirt) sophomore guard Nick Allegretti, and referenced his heavyweight wrestling championship. (Allegretti finished third in state, so Lovie was probably referencing his Illini Classic title, five months later.)

Christian DiLauro and Austin Schmidt are regarded as solid, experienced tackles. At center, Joe Spencer started every game of the last two seasons. Lunt regards them as cemented in the starting spots.

The other guard is Gabe Megginson, arguably Illinois’ highest-rated recruit of the past five years. But along with him and Allegretti, Lunt said Zach Heath and Connor Brennan will be competing for the starting guard spots.

THE MOOD

Lovie’s quiet confidence and no-nonsense demeanor is a 180° departure from Beckman’s continual Deer-in-Headlights routine. Where Mr. Lasagna always seemed as if he’d just been stunned by a fastball to the forehead, Lovie exudes the impression that he’s seen it all before, that nothing will surprise him.

It’s the last go-round for Smoot, Lunt, DiLauro, Spencer and Schmidt. Lovie seems unconcerned about getting them to a bowl game. But that’s completely different from saying that he won’t do everything he can to lead them there.