Mike Cagley's Heat Checks and Hail Marys - What are this year's Illini?

September 5, 2021

Tough loss for the Illini last night in Champaign. Playing a motivated and game UT-San Antonio team, the Illini survived a poorly played first half trailing by 20-14. The deficit could've been much higher, but the Illini managed to claw their way back into the game in a second quarter that was the team's best quarter from a points production standpoint. By any metric, the first and third quarters for the Illini offense were awful.

Owen Carney, Jr courtesy of Pat Pierson and Illinois Football

This year's team, helmed by Bret Bielema, features a huge contingent of super seniors. The challenging standpoint is that despite older leadership which is traditionally desired in collegiate athletics, this group of seniors has yet to learn how to win. Their record over the last four years is 14-31 with a B1G record of 8-27 over the same time period. Winning well is a skill that is learned - and they haven't had the opportunity to do so, yet. Fans were cautiously optimistic after the defeat of the Cornhuskers last week, but the travails of Nebraska coach Scott Frost had many Illini fans wanting to see what would happen when they faced a well coached team.

Last night, we saw what happened when Jeff Traylor led his team to a 37-30 win. The Illini made some key mistakes, and for the most part, the UTSA team did not. Unlike the Cornhuskers, the Roadrunners didn't allow the Illini any mulligans and kept the pressure on the Illini to keep pace the whole game. Next week Virginia awaits. Things won't get any easier.

Hail Mary #1 - Is this team is closer to the team that lost to UTSA than the team that beat Nebraska

Going into this season, there were concerns about the Illini defensive backs (too small), defensive line (not enough depth), wide receivers (least talented in the B1G) and quarterbacks (no true difference makers). It's hard to win when the defensive line allows opposing teams to impose their will by protecting their passer or punching holes in the line for their running backs - add to that the fact the defensive backs aren't accomplished at covering receivers in the passing game. Simply put, there's not a lot of defensive playbooks that describe what you do when you don't have enough talent at these key positions.

In college football, the game is designed to allow you to score points. With that said, it's still very difficult to score points when you don't have a difference maker at quarterback and you don't have a talented corps of receivers to catch what is thrown to them. This puts a lot of pressure on the offensive line to punch holes for running backs in defenses that are keenly aware of the offense's need to run the ball. If a team has an overwhelmingly talented offensive line this can work, but the Illini don't have that type of offensive line.

If Lovie Smith had recruited better, maybe Coach Bielema and his staff wouldn't be here now. As it is, this coaching staff is going to have to use every bit of their knowledge to develop schemes to hide the limitations of the team. It's not impossible, but the Illini cannot make mistakes like giving the ball back to a team because the ball ricochets off of a punt return special teamer and into the arms of an opposing punt coverage player. They can't give up points because the quarterback doesn't see open receivers. The staff has to find a way to maximize the skills of the players they have - even if that means coaching and then holding the players accountable for getting better results than the players have ever gotten before.

Hail Mary #2 - Brandon Peters needs to get healthy and stay healthy

Artur Sitkowski courtesy Justin Shen and Illinois Football

Brandon Peters is not going to win the Heisman trophy. Nor is he going to be an All-B1G quarterback. What he will do is get the ball out to an open receiver. Peters may not be a Kurt Kittner-like passer with uncanny accuracy, but an open player will get the opportunity to make a play. Too many times last night, Sitkowski missed an open receiver - by not passing to him. Opportunities for big plays and even touchdowns never happened. A better team can survive that. This Illini team cannot.

Art Sitkowski needs to be ready to play, but it's clear that there are legitimate reasons as to why Brandon Peters won the starting quarterback job. Peters needs to stay upright and be protected by his offensive line. He needs to avoid taking hits when he scrambles. The team cannot afford to have him out of the lineup if the Illini want to win games. Peters would've made UTSA pay for missed coverages by hitting open receivers - and probably to the tune of an Illini victory.

Upon Peters return, the starting quarterback needs to be protected - and the offensive line needs to demonstrate their skill level by keeping him healthy. It could mean the difference between a win or a loss.

Hail Mary #3 - Get the ball to the team's playmakers

Ford, Barker, and Sitkowski courtesy Illinois Football

This is easy to type and harder to execute - but it has to be done. Isaiah Williams, Daniel Barker, and Luke Ford are the most reliable and dangerous receiving threats for this team. Get them the ball early. Get them the ball often. The team needs to find ways to get touches to the players who have the best chance of making a game breaking play when they are on the field. The two times Deuce Spann has touched a ball this season, the shortest gain was 31 yards. These four receivers earned more opportunities to help  the team win. Give it to them.

If that means the team adopts a Denny Green-like offense from his Minnesota Vikings era NFL teams that were famous for the double tight end sets, then so be it. Get the players on the field that can help generate points and put pressure on the defense. The obvious winner is the running game, as it won't be so easy to key on and the offensive efficiency will improve. Give Brandon Peters the chance to add a multi-dimensional component to the offense to generate yards and points.

Wrap Up

Coach Bielema courtesy of Craig Pessman, Illinois Football

It's still early in the season, but last night's UTSA victory has been a wake up call to the Illini fanbase that this isn't a "one and done" rebuild.

Coach Bielema and staff need to be coaching at their highest levels to draw out improved play from the team. They also need to avoid the mistakes of the past and find ways to keep elevating the recruiting results. The staff must improve the talent level of incoming recruits and attract the talented players necessary to for the team to be successful.

Clearly, it won't be easy and nothing is a given - but there are advantages in knowing the challenges in front of an organization and finding ways to overcome those challenges. Fans have to be prepared that this is going to be a longer and tougher battle than they would've admitted just one week ago.



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