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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.