Spring Game Thoughts April 25, 2010
I’ll have much more on Tuesday, chronicling my 24 hours of Illini Spring Football, but for now, here’s the main thought bouncing around in my head:
I hate that feeling. That “we weren’t crisp at all, were we” feeling. I told the people I was sitting with that I wanted something to get excited about. I wanted an eye-popping play that would stick in my head all summer and linger with thoughts of “you know, if we can just simplify the passing game and Feed Five, the defense might play well enough that we could…”
I didn’t get it. Not at all. First string offense against a defensive line of Nate Palmer (converted linebacker), Darrell Ballew, Wisdom Onyegbule, and Justin Staples (converted linebacker), and we couldn’t move the ball. And when we did start to move the ball, we’d turn it over (three in the first half by the Orange offense alone, if I recall correctly). If we can only put up 3 points on our own second string defense (which is really half third-string due to injuries to starters), well, then we might not score in the first half against NIU.
I was on the edge of my seat, Twittering with jittery fingers at the beginning. I slowly slouched back as the game went on.
There were bright spots, of course. Not “I really believe this team has a shot at a bowl” bright spots, but approving-nod bright spots. Hey, lets do an “Impressed/Just OK/Umm…” like last year.
+ I’m not ready to fully declare yet – I still want to take my official visits – but if I had to name a leader right now, it would definitely be the University of Nathan Scheelhaase.
Yes, he struggled today. One fluke INT (batted pass caught by a DE), one awful INT (threw into triple, maybe quadruple coverage). And he locks in to his receiver on the snap of the ball. If we were playing Iowa today, Tyler Sash might have had 6 interceptions. But let me tell you why I’m almost ready to declare.
First, this morning, I woke up at 6:15 and had a hard time getting back to sleep. Yes, because I was excited about the Illinois Spring Game. Yes, I realize I’m insane. Don’t care.
But when I read that Nathan Scheelhaase also woke up early, couldn’t get back to sleep, and headed over to the stadium early with roommate Steve Hull so they could run a few passing plays, well, kindred spirits, me and Nate.
And then, when he is so fired up and so wants to help his team win that he outraces his tailback and makes a fantastic block on TWO long running plays (yes, the plays bounced outside, and he was lead blocking), well, hand me my Letter Of Intent. The kid seems to care deeply about a winning football program at the University of Illinois. If he wasn’t playing, I feel like he’d be blogging about the Illini. And waking up before his alarm.
+ Star of the Game was easily Nate Palmer. Confused, buried-deep-in-the-depth-chart linebacker last year, active, pass-batting defensive end this year. He was all over the place, stretching out a running play here and getting a touch sack there. And he was doing this against our first string offensive line.
(Ah, the great Spring Game rub. Should I be excited about Palmer or worried about our offensive tackles?)
+ AJ Jenkins is our #1 receiving target, and it isn’t even close. This might say more about our lack of wideout depth than it does AJ. But just like the practices I watched this spring, he was by far our top receiver. He has that “how does he twist his body like that and still get both hands on the ball?” thing that you look for in a wideout.
+ Last year, in 12 games, we had 50 punt return yards. Today, in 5 punt returns, Terry Hawthorne had 81 punt return yards. Black Cat is fast, shifty, and fast, and he needs to field every single punt (and kickoff) this fall.
+ The running game was solid, especially in the second half. LeShoure’s acceleration is stunning when you see it – he ran away from Patrick Nixon-Youman and Joelil Thrash today like he ran away from Michigan’s DB’s in October and Fresno State’s DB’s in September. Feed Five.
And Jason Ford’s 56 yard touchdown was awesome. Much like his Michigan TD last season, he was in a crowd, hesitated, shoved someone out of his way, and took off down the sideline. Except this time, his QB was his lead blocker.
+ I’m putting the first string defense here mainly because they played the second string offense. Yes, they held the Blue team to 68 total yards. And Corey Liuget was in the backfield all day (he should probably be listed above this line). But there were still a few breakdowns I saw that left me concerned what Evan Royster might do if we made the same mistakes. Example: Hawthorne had Troy Pollard forced to the outside, but he shed his blocker that way, allowing Pollard to cut in and gain 20 yards.
+ We really, really need a second receiver to emerge. Chris James dropped a first down catch, Jarred Fayson wasn’t really a factor, and the Blue team was led in receiving by converted walk-on quarterback Eddie Viliunas. Fayson almost made a spectacular catch (ball was just out of his reach), and Eddie made an eye-popping one handed grab, but for the most part, it was AJ and the Try Hards. Let’s hope that nickname doesn’t stick.
+ Chandler Whitmer was more impressive running the Blue offense than Jacob Charest. 7-8 for 43 yards and a touchdown. It wasn’t anything eye-popping – mostly short underneath passes (and he was “touch sacked” 4 times), but it was a decent start. The 7-8 for 43 yards stat is important because…
+ Jacob Charest: 2-8 for 15 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT, 1 Fumble
Combine this with the last scrimmage and he’s 5-23. Even when he got a series with the Orange offense, he threw one bad pass and then dropped a shotgun snap. To make matters worse, didn’t even try to pick up the ball. The ball hit the ground, everyone around me was yelling “fall on it”, and he stood and watched while a defensive lineman recovered the fumble.
From most everything I’ve read and seen, he’s been really out of it the last two weeks. I have no idea why. I was really encouraged by his first 30 minutes of practice on Friday. But today, it just wasn’t there.
+ 3-0 halftime score. It was really, really sloppy. Nothing crisp. Bad turnovers. Third and long against our second string defense. Dropped passes. TFL’s by a third string defensive tackle beating a starting offensive lineman. Really bad.
And it didn’t appear to be scheme or assignment confusion. Just the old sinking Memorial Stadium feeling coming back. Lazy tackles. Illegal motion penalties. A wide receiver fumbling at the five (straight out of the Rose Bowl playbook).
If I added a 20th point to The Plan, it would be this: Make “Crisp” The Goal. I haven’t seen “crisp” in Memorial Stadium since Juice ran over a Northwestern linebacker at the goal line. I want crisp.
Derek Dimke makes a 44 yard field goal… and then proceeds to knock the kickoff out of bounds. The Orange offense gets the ball near midfield with 2:00 left in the half… and goes backwards. And the second string offensive line was tumbling backwards all day long. That doesn’t speak well of our depth (or our future).
Crisp. I want crisp.
+ Other negatives: Troy Pollard hesitating on kickoff returns. (Hit the hole!) Longest pass play was 22 yards. (We have to stretch the field at some point.) Poor tackling by the second string D (they’ll all be playing at some point, and soon.) Corey Lewis’ knee injury exposed just how thin we are at offensive tackle (Ryan Palmer switched to an orange jersey, and the new tackle for the Blue team – some walkon whose name escapes me – done got clowned by Michael Buchanan.)
Overall I have this to say: Ugh. If it wasn’t for LeShoure’s burst and Nathan Scheelhaase’s two downfield blocks (the type of play that tells you all the stories you read about the kid being the best leader and competitor on the team are absolutely true), I would have left the stadium really, really depressed. It was a solid C- performance on a day where I really, really wanted to see a B+. If we were playing Penn State today, I have a feeling the halftime score would have been 24-0 them, not 3-0 us.
I know I’m still in won’t-get-fooled-again mode. If I wasn’t, I’d probably be pretty pleased with the “look” of the revised defense. But overall, there was no buzz in the stadium. The looming rain clouds at the end seemed prophetic. We have a lot of work to do in Rantoul.
I’m behind you, Nathan. But you have a giant task ahead. Better set that alarm earlier.