Heat Checks and Hail Marys - Who to Start or Not to Start

Mike Cagley, Co-Host Sports Spectacular and Big Sports Radio

November 13, 2023

Lots going on with Illini football considering the amazing come-from-behind, hold-them-off, overtime victory for the Illini over Indiana on Saturday. Highlighted by John Paddock’s 507 yard passing effort featuring 4 touchdown passes. Both teams were struggling defensively, but it was an entertaining game to watch as a football fan. With Luke Altmyer sitting for medical reasons and Paddock's record setting performance, this unlikely set of circumstances provides the Illini coaching staff a dilemma as to which quarterback to start.

Hail Mary #1 – Who Starts Against Iowa

John Paddock and Luke Altmyer courtesy of Illinois Athletics.

In my mind, Illini head coach Bret Bielema has a no-lose situation in front of him when choosing a starter against Iowa in Iowa City on Saturday. If Altmyer is healthy, he could be selected as the quarterback to start. Few old school coaches, and we all know Bret Bielema is old school, like the idea of having a player lose his starting position due to an injury. With this logic, it isn't hard to name Altmyer the starter for Saturday's game - assuming he's healthy and ready to go. Many fans could live with that, and considering Paddock's white-hot streak, some would be disappointed to not see him square off against the Iowa defense.

Or Bielema could go with the hot hand, the gunslinger who has come into town and settled all the old scores reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name character from his “spaghetti western” films. This time the Man has a name, and it is John Paddock. Either way, most fans would understand the logic and would be eager to see how Paddock performs against the Iowa defense that has carried the Hawkeyes for years and is doing so again this year.

I have no idea which way Bielema is leaning. I do know what I would do. I would start John Paddock. There are a few reasons that he makes perfect sense, even if the coaching staff must sell Altmyer and his people on the viability of the idea. We all know that no one likes “losing” their starting position. Sometimes handling the personalities of players involved is much more delicate and difficult than playing the actual games. This would be a situation where thought processes used must be carefully outlined and shared with Luke while having some degree of an expectation that the discussion could have tense moments during the conversation. That's okay, no one wants a player leading the team that doesn't care if they start as quarterback. But no matter the outcome, both QBs must be ready to contribute.

Paddock as the starter in his second start as the Illini quarterback makes sense. In his last two appearances, one full game as a starter plus one drive as a relief quarterback, Paddock has 592 yards passing, 5 touchdowns, two of which were game winning touchdowns. He’s on a roll and the team enjoys playing with him (as they do Altmyer). There is a clear logic in not wanting to "walk away" from a player who is on a streak of legendary proportions. Anyone who's been in Vegas knows that hot streaks can give and they can also take away if one rides them too long.

Additionally, there are a couple of key reasons that motivate me to start Paddock.

  • The Iowa defense is scary. It’s also very physical. With Altmyer coming off an injury, that is a target that the Iowa defense doesn’t need to have in front of them. The Geno Stone hit on Brandon Peters that angered then Illini head coach Lovie Smith enough for him to complain publicly still reverberates in my mind. Make sure Luke is 100% okay before he gets thrown out in front of an Iowa defense that is 3rd in the nation (and 3rd in the B1G) behind Michigan and Ohio State in points allowed at 12.3 points per game. There are better defensive units for a quarterback to make his return against.
  • If things work well for Paddock, there’s no need to rush Altmyer back. It’s not an issue with him as a starter but instead this is really about making sure Luke is 100 percent physically ready to be on the field. If Paddock were to struggle – and let’s be clear, this Iowa defense bears no similarities with the Indiana defense, Altmyer could come in and spell Paddock if needed.

The key is keeping the justification for Paddock to start away from the performance of Altmyer more towards continuing the roll that Paddock is on and being cautious with the starter's health as no matter what, the Illini have a surprisingly tough Northwestern team at home the Saturday after Thanksgiving. A second injury would not be a risk worth taking.

Psychologically, if Bielema were to start Altmyer and then had to take him out against Iowa, it would give the appearance that Luke has "lost" his starter status. Why go through that? Ride the hot streak with Paddock to its conclusion and then bring in Altmyer if the need arises. A combination of a hot streak and ensuring injury recovery is a much different perception than someone having to be replaced mid-game because they aren't having an effective game, or they've been knocked out by an aggressive defense. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor.

To compete in a bowl and win against Northwestern, a healthy Luke Altmyer is an asset that the Illini do not want to lose.

Hail Mary #2 – 2023 What a Year for Comebacks

This season, the Illini have done a much better job of managing late game situations. In an unusual role for Illini football, the team finds themselves winning four games by 3 points or less - with the winning score coming less than a minute left in the game or to close out overtime. While the team has frustrated fans and coaches with a ton of penalties, they have had the discipline to make plays late in the game when the pressure is on. Such are the perils and unpredictability of coaching 18- to 23-year-old men.

Here is what they have done this season:

  • Toledo – Illini got the ball at 2:55 left in the game. Kicked the winning field goal with 5 seconds left in the game.
  • Maryland – Illini got the ball with 1:31 left in the game. Kicked the winning field goal and walked off with the win.
  • Minnesota – Illini got the ball with 2:47 left in the game. Paddock TD pass to Isaiah Williams with 0:50 seconds left ends up winning the game.
  • Indiana – First possession in overtime where a Paddock TD pass to Isaiah Williams ends up as another walk off with the win.

One can only hope for even better results in the future when Luke Altmyer is a quarterback in his second and third seasons at the helm of the Illini offense. Assuming his development and the development of the rest of the offensive unit, the team could be more effective on offense than this season’s team. The biggest concern is whether the defensive line be good enough minus superstar Jer’Zhan Newton and Keith Randolph, Jr after they depart for the NFL.

It is also a fantastic change of pace to see the Illini aren't always the "snakebitten" team that has to watch the game blow up in the last few minutes of a game. This year's Illini team struggled against Wisconsin minus Newton, but beyond that has played well when the game is close down the stretch. Let's hope this is a new reality for Illini football, the ability to close games effectively. Learning how to win is a big deal. Next up, learning to beat the teams the Illini are expected to beat - like Purdue and Nebraska early this season.

Go Illini!

 

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