A dark and gloomy day in Madison with absolutely zero expectations for the Illini set up a perfect opportunity to shock the Big Ten. And for a half, it appeared that Illinois would hang tough with Wisconsin until the final whistle. Just like what happened last season under Ron Zook, this game was a tale of two halves.
There were many positives from the first half of this game and Illinois showed characteristics that most experts believed would shine through all season. The front seven on the Illini defense held Montee Ball in check for a majority of the game, especially the first half. Although Ball may not be a Heisman candidate any longer, he is still the premier running back in the conference and will surely play in the NFL.
The play of Michael Buchanan and Jonathan Brown was exactly what Illini fans and coaches had wanted all season. Buchanan had two consecutive pass break-ups to force a punt and Brown finished with a team-leading nine tackles. After a strong season last year, Brown was expected to continue his high level of play but his performance has not met expectations thus far into the 2012 campaign. Most of the positive takeaways from this game came on the defensive side of the ball since both the offense and special teams continued to struggle.
Offensively, Illinois will not be able to threaten defenses until it is able to throw the ball downfield and make big plays. Nathan Scheelhaase is a fantastic leader and displays many vital attributes that a team leader needs, but he lacks one important skill that college quarterbacks need to succeed….arm strength. Opposing defenses know that Scheelhaase cannot successfully throw the ball down the field. His lack of arm strength was evident when he was intercepted by Devin Smith late in the first quarter. The receiver was open for a split second but the ball needed to be thrown on a line into the receiver’s chest. Instead, his pass hung in the air for a little too long and the defense was able to intercept it.
Illinois’ inability to stretch the field and hit the big play makes it very difficult for the offense to get in a position to score points. The two place kickers, Taylor Zalewski and Nick Immekus, both need time to improve their leg strength, so Coach Tim Beckman does not have the luxury of regularly hitting 45-plus-yard field goals. It seems that whenever Illinois gets the ball, they inch the ball down the field. Instead of eight-10 play drives ending in points and covering 60+ yards, the Illini are forced to exert all their effort into moving the ball 20 yards and punting. Especially Saturday, Illinois seemed to start each drive around their own 20 yard-line just to go 30 yards and punt it away. Beckman better start recruiting receivers who can stretch the field or else this offense may be stagnant for years to come.
Another question I have is, what happened to Jon Davis? Was he not Illinois’ top recruit two years ago? Davis is an athletic tight end who has the capabilities of making big plays in both the receiving and the rushing game. Davis ran the ball six times for 54 yards against Western Michigan and the Illini have not lined up in the backfield since. Why not? Nothing else seems to be working, so why not try what worked so well early in the season?
Lastly, Beckman’s chewing tobacco incident is the last thing he needs right now. With fans wanting him gone and a lack of top recruits coming in, Beckman can’t afford a lapse in judgment like that. Not only is it an NCAA infraction, but also it sets a terrible example for recruits and maybe more importantly, parents of potential recruits. As the leader of this program Beckman is responsible to set an example for his team and Illini nation as a whole.
Next week the Illini travel to Ann Arbor where they look for their first win against the Michigan Wolverines since 2008, when Ron Zook and company came out on top 45-20. Look for this game to be similar to the game this past Saturday. I expect Illinois to come out sharp and possibly take a quick 7-0 or 10-0 lead over a Michigan team who struggles defensively. However, Denard Robinson will prove again why he is one of the most prolific players in the conference and will lead Michigan to a 31-13 win. Let’s see if Illinois can pull off the upset.
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