Heat Checks and Hail Marys - Huge Illini Weekend with Two Victories

Mike Cagley, co-host of the IlliniGuys Sports Spectacular

October 30, 2022

An Illini basketball game on a Friday night was followed up by an Illini football game on Saturday. Both teams being ranked in the Top 25 made a great weekend even better. On Friday, the Illini basketball team crushed Quincy 87-52 to open their season with an exhibition win at the State Farm Center. Then on Saturday, the Illini football team traveled to Lincoln, Nebraska to throttle the Cornhuskers 26-9. The "double win weekends" with both teams ranked takes me back to the 80s era when the Illini were competitive in both sports and ranked for most of the decade.

The Illini football team under Bret Bielema improved their record to 7-1 with a 4-1 record in the Big Ten. This is only the fourth time the Illini have started 7-1 since the undefeated season of 1951. This year's Illini (the 2022 version) joins the Fighting Illini of 1983, 1989, and 2001. As a high schooler and college student during the 1983 and 1989 years, I assumed this would be a regular event for Illini fans. Unfortunately, for Illini fans everywhere, these fantastic starts have become an increasingly rare phenomenon. With a strong coach at the helm of the program, Illini fans can hold on to the hope that he will lead this team to starts like this on a regular basis.

In any case, appreciate a season that plays out like this. The Fighting Illini football team has transformed the usually depressing fall football season into weekly appointment viewing of defensive excellence for Illinois fans. What a fantastic development for Illini backers to savor, this is shaping up to be a season fans will tell stories about to their children or grandchildren. Illinois is 10-3 in its last 13 games dating back to Oct. 23, 2021. Illinois has the third-fewest losses in the Big Ten during that span (MICH 2, OSU 1). The future indeed looks bright.

Hail Mary #1 - Illini Defense Allows Only 29 Yards in the 2nd Half

Illini Defense against Nebraska Offense courtesy David Craan, Illinois Athletics.

The Illini defense gave up 9 points and yielded 219 yards of offense in the first half. By halftime, the mediocre Nebraska offense found itself only 3 yards short of the average amount of yards the Illini gives up in a full four quarter game. Nebraska had reason for concern though. Casey Thompson was injured on a play that resulted in an interception. He went out of the game at 6:31 left in the second quarter with the Cornhuskers up 9-6. Thompson didn't return and his two backups Chubba Purdy and Logan Smothers were unable to move the ball while guiding the Nebraska offense.

In the third and fourth quarters, the Illini defense turned their output up to 11 and they played at a level the Cornhuskers could not match. In the second half, the Cornhuskers were held scoreless. Nebraska couldn't move the ball either. The ended up with a grand total of 29 yards of offense in the second half. This included 14 yards on the ground and 15 yards in the air. There is very little to say about how effective the Illini played after looking at the total number of yards and knowing that 15 yards made the air the most effective way for the Cornhuskers to move the ball.

Defensive coordinator Ryan Walters has built this team to play strong defense in the second half as he leverages his unique ability to effectively counter the moves of the opposing offense. Nebraska's lack of offensive effectiveness in the second half was exactly what Bret Bielema described as his goal when he talks about Football 101. The defense's performance allowed the offense to win the game without being particularly effective in scoring touchdowns.

The Illini ended up with a massive 38:13 to 21:47 advantage in possession time. Offensive coordinator Barry Lunney, Jr. was able to turn on the jets for the Illini rushing game, allowing the Illini to gain 106 yards on the ground to relentlessly drain the clock leaving Nebraska with little time to mount a comeback. The second half score was only a 6-0 advantage for the Illini, but the game outcome was never seriously in question.

Hail Mary #2 - Holding Trey Palmer to 1 Yard 1 Catch on 7 Targets

Illini Sydney Brown versus Nebraska courtesy David Craan, Illinois Athletics

Bill Belichick is famous for winning big games - like Super Bowls - by taking away the best player on the opposing team's offense. Bret Bielema spent a couple of years working with Bill Belichick after his firing from the Arkansas head coaching job and his hiring as the Illinois head coach. It seems this lesson was well learned by Coach Bielema.

Nebraska's star wide receiver Trey Palmer entered today's game ranked fourth in the country in receiving yards per game (111.6) and sixth in receiving yards (781). His big play ability was on display during Nebraska's 43-37 loss to Purdue. Trey Palmer had 7 receptions for 237 yards with 2 touchdowns (one for 37 yards and the other for 72 yards) and 1 rushing attempt for 60 yards. Against Indiana, in a 35-21 victory, Edwards had 8 receptions for 157 yards and 1 touchdown (a 71-yard pass). His big play ability was feared throughout the conference.

Trey Edwards was totally neutralized by the Illini defense. He was only targeted 7 times by Nebraska quarterbacks. Edwards caught one pass for one yard. That's it. One pass for one yard. Edwards was the lone consistent big play threat in the Nebraska arsenal. The Illini defensive plan designed by Ryan Walters and executed by the Illini defense and players like Witherspoon, Martin, and Sydney Brown made sure that struggling Nebraska quarterbacks didn't have the talented wide receiver to bail them out when they were in trouble. Nebraska without Edwards became a team that couldn't make it into double digits.

Another victory keyed by the formidable Illini defense led by its increasingly well-respected defensive coordinator.

Heat Check #1 - Illini Basketball Returns for an Exhibition Victory

Ty Rodgers courtesy Illinois Athletics.

The Fighting Illini debuted a team that only features five returning players - Hawkins, Melendez, Goode, Lieb and Serven. To make this year's team more complicated to integrate into a team for the coaching staff - and to predict the team's overall success for the individuals voting in the national rankings - Goode is injured and Lieb and Serven didn't really play many, if any, meaningful minutes last season. The preseason #23 ranking is a sign of respect to, and a show of trust for, the Illini coaching staff. Coach Brad Underwood and his staffs have led the Fighting Illini from an also ran team into a team with a Big Ten conference championship and a tie for a Big Ten regular season conference championship in the last two years. Over the last three years, the Illini have won more Big Ten games than any other team. The Illini have established themselves as a Big Ten force. The next step is for the Illini to have a tournament run and become a national force.

Against Quincy, the Illini started slowly, which isn't surprising. The team played in the State Farm Center for the first time and for their first time as a group in front of a crowd. The fact that 12 players who haven't played much together took some time get everything rolling isn't a big deal. The first half resulted in a 34-24 lead for the Illini. By the end of the game, the Illini had blown the game wide open with a 53-28 half. This was a good game for a team that is still getting to know one another. The defense held a small school team to 31% shooting. For game 1, that's a solid effort.

Individuals played well. Coleman Hawkins and RJ Melendez stood out and led the team with each player scoring 15 points. Hawkins added 12 rebounds to lead everyone on the boards. Newcomers from the transfer portal, Terrence Shannon and Dain Dainja, scored 12 and 8 respectively. The freshmen also had a strong evening. Skyy Clark scored 11, Ty Rodgers had 7 points and 9 rebounds, Jayden Epps had 7 and Sencire Harris had 4 points and no one on Quincy wanted to handle the ball if Harris was guarding them. It was a good night to have a ticket to watch this team's debut in the State Farm Center. The future is bright for Illini basketball as well.

Enjoy the two fantastic head coaches that the Illini have and the staffs that they have hired to help bring the Illini back into dual Top 25 rankings. It's going to be a heck of a year.

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