Mike Cagley, IlliniGuy
September 4, 2022
The loss to the Hoosiers on Friday night was a bitter pill for Illini fans to swallow. The 2022 schedule for the Illini is brutal as the calendar moves into October. This escalation of difficulty in opponent quality is the reason many were hoping the Illini could roll out of the first four games of the season 4-0 or at least 3-1. The biggest obstacle was thought to be the matchup against Virginia, who destroyed the Illini 42-14 last season. This author had hoped the Illini would be 3-1 going into October with their lone loss likely coming at the hands of the Cavaliers.
With the Hoosiers coming from behind in fashion similar to Purdue last season, the Illini are now in as close to a "must win" game as a team can be in during week 3 of a season. A victory over the Cavaliers followed by taking care of business against Chattanooga would put the Illini in position to make a run for a bowl berth in 2022. It will not be easy, as the Illini are talented but not deep. Having to make the run from a 2-2 or a 1-3 record would be almost impossible in today's Big Ten conference.
There were a few topics that were worth talking about.
The Illini picked a strange field position to start going ultra conservative with their play calls. Trying to run up the middle on 4th and goal on the 1 while the interior line from left guard to center and over to right guard were having a challenging evening was surprising. Running with the same player three plays in a row was also mystifying. Sharing the ball amongst multiple targets would've at least kept the Hoosiers off guard - if only slightly.
One wonders what was running through the mind of offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. Did he think that one yard is an automatic score? Certainly, when Shaun Shivers carried the ball in for a score of one yard, the Hoosiers did. Did Lunney think his head coach would want the most conservative play calling on this drive? That belief would fit what we know of last year's play calling scenarios.
Whatever was going through Lunney's mind, the Illini had little chance with such predictable play calling and the breakdown of blocking that left a defensive tackle untouched on such a key play. One wonders what the play calling would've been like had Lunney been the offensive coordinator at UTSA just one year prior in a similar situation.
I feel compelled to note Purdue struggled with the opposite issue as they had three different possessions in the last 6:27 against Penn State and still could not run enough time off of the clock to prevent a Penn State rally in West Lafayette. This time, the situation was Purdue's inability to run the ball that let to a bushel of incomplete passes. Purdue fans appear to have the same frustrations as Illini fans on play calling late in the game aside from the fact that their collapse was against a much better team.
The Illini tight ends were thought to be a talented crew. After the first two games, the tight ends have not been difference makers. This needs to change, if for no reason other than a couple more blockers may be needed to fuel the rushing game.
Luke Ford has a fumble and hasn't been immune from dropping passes. Tip Reiman hasn't demonstrated the quickest feet out on the field. Some fans have been upset at the tight ends, but I am not saying I am in that camp.
My argument is if we assume the coaches believe these players are talented, then its on the coaches to put these talented players into a position to best leverage their skill sets.
The coaches should know what these players are capable of doing. What else is practice for? Players work on developing their skills and coaches evaluate the limits of the players they coach. Assuming this knowledge exists, it incumbent upon the staff to start figuring out how the Illini can leverage the skill sets of their tight ends within the parameters of the offense the Illini run.
If the tight ends are given opportunities to play and cannot do so at an acceptable level, then look on the roster to find someone who can. Even if it's a freshman or someone currently at another position. The team needs production from the tight end position. The coaches need to facilitate change to make that happen.
Tommy DeVito has demonstrated he's blessed with quite an arm. He zings the ball with velocity and has thrown several passes that the quarterbacks of recent Illini history simply couldn't make. Sure, he's had moments where his accuracy isn't perfect, but for the most part the drops of his receivers are a much bigger issue.
The Illini are led by stellar running back Chase Brown. Defenses are constructed around stopping Brown. This can be a huge benefit to the Illini offense. Chase should also be used as a decoy at times. Using Brown this way will enable this offense to use play action to help create space for the wide receivers who aren't the best at creating space between themselves and defenders on their own.
It's time to take the handcuffs off of Tommy DeVito. Make the offense less predictable. Throw on running downs. Move the percentages to 50/50 for run to pass ratios. The Illini aren't going to become a University of Texas San Antonio passing machine, but they need to add some "intrigue" to their play calling to take pressure off of Chase Brown and the Illini offensive line.
The Virginia game is critical for the Illini. They need to win as the underdog and set themselves up for a 3-1 start and a possible bowl run. A lot is riding on this season for the Illini. Bret Bielema and Josh Whitman realize they're fighting against 30 years of bad Illini football history. They need to produce a winning season. In the era of NIL and challenges and long term Illini football fan PTSD, the stakes are high and fan emotions are low.
Victory over Virginia would be a great way to prove to pessimistic fans that the Illini football program is on the right track to improving.
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