Heat Checks and Hail Marys - Strong Weekend for Illini Football & Basketball

Mike Cagley, Co-Host IlliniGuys Sports Spectacular

Cover photo courtesy Illinois Athletics

November 27, 2022

The Illini football and basketball teams each had one-sided victories this weekend.

The Illini football team came tantalizingly close to winning the Big Ten West. All it would have taken to lock up the title would be an upset win by Nebraska on the road at Iowa on Friday, followed by an upset win by Indiana at home against Purdue, coupled with an Illini win in Evanston against Northwestern. Nebraska decided to double down on helping the Illini as they did in March.

For those not thinking basketball, on March 6, Nebraska's basketball team travelled to Madison, WI and upset the Wisconsin Badgers. The Husker produced loss allowed the Illini to climb back into a tie for the Big Ten regular season championship. The Badgers and Illini will forever be remembered as co-champions for the 2021-22 basketball season thanks to that timely Nebraska intervention. On Friday, Nebraska football added to the Nebraska pro bono resume, as the Huskers jumped out early on the Hawkeyes on the road and held on for dear life for the win. The next day, the Indiana Hoosiers went into halftime leading the Boilermakers 7-3 at the half before a second half collapse resulted in a 30-16 Purdue victory. For their part the Illini took care of business defeating the Wildcats 41-3. The Big Ten West title was so close and yet so far as it now resides with Purdue for the 2022 season.

The basketball team also took care of business dismantling Lindenwood 92-59 on Friday night. With a team back from a successful Las Vegas tourney and wanting to get back on the winning path, the Illini did what good teams do. They beat a team they were supposed to beat, and they did it handily.

Hail Mary #1 - Turnovers Rule

Sydney Brown courtesy Illinois Athletics

The Illini defense took a new path on the way to holding a team to no touchdowns for the game. Instead of smothering the Wildcats and keeping yardage to a minimum, the Illini played more players and used turnovers to keep the Wildcats out of the end zone.

The Illini came into the game holding four teams to no touchdowns - Wyoming, Virginia, Chattanooga and Iowa. Northwestern became the fifth to fail to score a touchdown against one of the nation's top ranked defenses. Too add insult to injury, the Wildcats become the sixth team to only score in single digits against Illinois. Previously, Wyoming, Virginia, Chattanooga, Iowa, and Nebraska were held to nine points or less. Northwestern joined that hapless club as well and almost become the second member of the shut-out club (with Chattanooga).

The Illini defense forced five interceptions and one fumble to effectively neuter the Northwestern Wildcat offense. Sydney Brown led the turnover brigade by scoring two touchdowns in 3 minutes and 17 seconds of game time in the 3rd quarter. He picked up a Cole Freeman fumble and motored 53 yards for a touchdown. Less than four minutes later, Brown intercepted Cole Freeman and raced for a 39-yard touchdown return. Brown also intercepted another pass earlier in the game during the second quarter.

Brown wasn't the only one to snag two interceptions in one quarter. Devon Witherspoon picked off Freeman twice in the second quarter. He even had a dramatic interception return of 58 yards that was one tackle shy of being the first pick six of the game. Tyler Strain picked off a pass in the fourth quarter to shut down any more opportunities for Northwestern to score this season.

Tommy DeVito courtesy Illinois Athletics

Hail Mary #2 - Tommy DeVito Gives Illini Sales Ammunition

Tommy DeVito transferred to the Illini from Syracuse. It was a transfer that didn't catch the attention of many football fans outside of the Illini or Orange fan base. DeVito finished the season with a pedestrian 12 for 18 for 136 yards with 1 interception and 1 rushing touchdown, but the team won big 41-3. For the year, DeVito completed almost 70% of his pass attempts for nearly 2400 yards, threw for 15 touchdowns, ran for 5 more and only had 4 interceptions. The tough-nosed New Yorker was exactly what the Illini needed for a successful season. They needed a quarterback that the team could believe in and rally around. The Illini needed someone who could lead by example, help develop a room of young receivers and perform under pressure. DeVito was the right quarterback to lead the team to its first winning season since 2011 (7-6) and its first chance to win 9 games since 2007 (9-4). The 8-4 Illini would not have happened if not for Tommy DeVito transferring to Illinois.

When Bret Bielema goes to sell another transfer quarterback on the benefits of transferring to the Illini, he can point to DeVito instead of only being able to point all the way back to Russell Wilson at Wisconsin (2011). A prospective quarterback will be able to look at the offensive line play under Bielema, the support of a strong running back room under Bielema and the strong defense that Bielema teams demonstrate. Most importantly, DeVito had his best year of his collegiate career and that includes being coached by the passing-minded Dino Babers.

Bret Bielema should have plenty to sell to a transfer looking to improve his lot in the football world and win some football games.

Heat Check #1 - The Skyy Isn't Falling

Skyy Clark courtesy of Illinois Athletics

Skyy Clark hasn't been playing poorly. He's been doing something that generally a coach has to beg or even teach and then beg a freshman to do, play within themselves. Try to explain to a former high school superstar that they don't have to "do it all" at the collegiate level. All they need to do is stay calm, look for opportunities to contribute that the opposing team gives you, and then take advantage of said opportunities and not force the game to come to you. Skyy Clark has been doing that and he's been doing it well.

What Skyy (and all other collegiate players) cannot control is the expectation of the fans. Clark has high expectations. He was ranked somewhere around the 9th best player in the country down to the 15th best player depending upon the scouting service before he injured his knee. After that injury, he was ranked in the upper 20's or mid-30s. One of the reasons he came to Illinois was to take advantage of the best Strength and Conditioning Coach in the nation, Adam Fletcher. After working with Fletcher for nearly six months, a segment of fans has expected to see Skyy Clark play at his pre-injury level. That expectation is hard to even define as the players and teams he played against as a junior in high school in no way can be compared to the competition he is playing against as a freshman in the Big Ten conference.

For those questioning the freshman, Friday night against Lindenwood he demonstrated there's little to worry about at this point in time. Like previous games, he was able to take what the opponent gave him. He was also able to showcase the speed and elevation he can get on his surgically repaired knee.

Clark hit 8-9 from the field. This included 3-4 from three-point land. As per his typical performance he contributed in ways beyond just scoring. He also had 3 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 block and 1 steal. It was another well rounded and strategically calculated performance from the freshman guard. To top it off, he threw down a monster dunk as if to tell the fans, his teammates, and opponents, that "he's more than alright" physically.

It was another good night for Skyy Clark.

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