KFHB 26 – Sunday, 3:24 pm January 1, 2012
Four hour fight. I can crank out 2,000 words on the game while on this flight, yes? Let’s try. I’ll make a numbered list, and I’ll see if I can get to 10.
1) I want to expound on what I (quickly) wrote in the last post re: our offense next year. We don’t know the coordinator, but I feel like we do know the offense.
I think it’s mostly a Scheelhaase – Young – Millines offense. Young steps forward and becomes the clear #1 tailback. Millines steps foward and becomes the clear #1 receiver. And Nathan is the clear #1 quarterback.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t have backups. I think Nate will share time with Reilly O’Toole again. Beckman used 2 quarterbacks at Toledo, and I think he’ll do the same in Champaign. Maybe something like a 10-12 play package put in the game plan for O’Toole each week. And there’s a safe bet that one of those plays will be that seam route to Matt LaCosse. The UCLA safety got his hand on it yesterday, but I’ve seen them complete that specific pass several times in practice. I’m looking for 5 of those (completed) next year.
And Young will share time with Josh Ferguson (who never really got a shot this year after his injury in Week 2). Ferguson should receive a medical redshirt, so it will be nice to have 4 years of his services. He’ll be the lightning to Young’s thunder. OK, maybe that’s a bit much for two underclassmen tailbacks still learning on the job. He’ll be the bottle rocket to Young’s M80. Or something.
At receiver, I think it’s still a short passing game, and I think it’s mostly Millines, Lankford, and Harris. Although I’m looking for a “who is #18?” burst on the scene from Jeremy Whitlow. I think Millines will be our slant guy, Harris our seam guy, and Lankford our settle-into-soft-spots-in-the-zone guy. Wilson and Davis get the majority of the tight end catches, with a few plays here and there for LaCosse.
So, basically, yesterday’s offense minus AJ. And Jeff Allen and Jack Cornell, too. Short passes. Probably a lot of zone read with Nate and Donovonn. And the occasional O’Toole series, heavy on the passing.
Maybe I should be offensive coordinator.
2) Even though it pushes him more toward the NFL, I’m thrilled – ecstatic, really – that Terry Hawthorne got the defensive MVP of the game (and the game-changing play). And a 10+ yard punt return.
I’ve been waiting for a game like this for a long time. I hate that injuries took half of his freshman year and most of his sophomore year (he played at 80%), but he had a fantastic junior year that went mostly unnoticed. I my mind, he’s 60/40 gone to the NFL (he has the numbers for the combine), but I’d love one more year. Especially if he’s returning punts.
And I’m still waiting for a few pass plays for him. He can be your superstar next year, Coach Beckman, if you can convince him to stay. Tell him you can earn him a lot more money in the draft if he comes back for one more (featured) year.
3) Speaking of Coach Beckman, it really is completely unfair to him what this defense accomplished this season. He could have a surprisingly good top-30 defense next year if he can get the new pieces to fit, and we’ll STILL compare them to this defense and wonder why they didn’t hold their opponent to 25 yards rushing.
What Vic Koenning did with this defense in 2011 is possibly the best coaching job in Illini history. Had the offense not fallen apart after 6 games, this could have been a Rose Bowl team. Much like 1994, this team only won 7 games, but could have won 10 or 11 with a good offense.
That’s how I’ll remember 2011. Zook lost the team (and then lost his job), the offense got in a funk and couldn’t get out of it, and the defense never played a bad game. We could have won every single game we played because the defense kept us in every single one. You’re getting a ridiculously good defensive coordinator, North Carolina. You have no idea how good you have it.
4) Which makes us turn to our own 2012 defense. And what Coach Beckman faces. Tavon Wilson, Trulon Henry, and Ian Thomas graduate. Whitney the Mercilus is certainly gone, Terry Hawthorne is probably gone, and there’s a chance Akeem Spence and Michael Buchanan go. If all 7 of those guys are gone, well, good luck Coach Beckman.
As it stands, I think 5 players are gone – Wilson, Henry, Thomas, Mercilus, and Hawthorne. Which leaves us in pretty good shape in the front 7. Buchanan, Spence, Foster, and Kynard make up a solid defensive line. Buchanan becomes the pass rushing specialist, and Justin Staples gets decent minutes as our third pass rusher. I think we’ll be fine there.
At linebacker, we’ll really miss Trulon Henry and Ian Thomas. Depending on the new scheme that the new defensive coordinator runs, Ashante Williams can be a solid option at Sam Linebacker, and of course we’ll have Butkus candidate Jonathan Brown in the middle. But Will linebacker is a mystery. I’d first say Houston Bates, but I don’t remember Houston Bates playing at all yesterday. In fact, I don’t remember seeing Houston Bates in San Francisco. Maybe he just missed the St. Anthony’s thing or the luncheon thing and I didn’t see him. Maybe he even played. Anyway, my guess for the linebackers in the first game against Western Michigan: Henry Dickinson – Jonathan Brown – Ashante Williams. But watch out for redshirt freshman Zeph Grimes. (And maybe even true freshman Keith Brown, if he ends up staying committed).
At corner, if Hawthorne is gone, we’re in trouble with Tavon gone too. Justin Green will be a solid option one one side. Maybe even a second-team-All-Big-Ten option. But on the other side, I have no idea. Jack Ramsey? Valdon Cooper? Eaton Spence? Come back, Terry. We need you.
Safety is fine for next year (Sanni and Hull return, with PNY backing them up), but after that, I have no idea who is behind them. Maybe it’s time for my favorite never-misses-a-tackle walk-on Ben Mathis to start getting some minutes.
So even with Vic, I think this defense would have taken a step back next year. And without him, well, good luck, soon-to-be-named Defensive Coordinator.
5) I said this during the game, but I really loved all of the FUN plays yesterday. Especially the throwback to Nathan. Had Graham Pocic gotten more to his block, that play might have gone for a touchdown. Loved the reverse to AJ, too.
After 6 games of the offensive stalling out and punting nearly every drive, I was happy to see us loosen up the playbook. I’m not sure if that was a Petrino thing or a Zook “don’t take any risks and we’ll win this game with our defense” thing, but it was nice to see us having some fun.
And even though it didn’t work, I liked the fake field goal with Dimke. And the 4th down call at midfield. We had to change our attitude after the last 6 games, and I think the go-for-broke mindset yesterday helped snap us out of it. The team attitude on the sideline appeared to be 180 degrees from where it was in the sideline shots during the Minnesota game. And I think our go-for-it attitude had a lot to do with that. Fun.
6) There was a stringer sitting next to me in the press box (“stringer” is a term that we press box insiders use for a guy who is working for some news service typing up a game story. I’m totally in the know, now.) He was in awe of Mercilus and Jenkins.
For some reason, when I watch our team a lot (and re-watch games on tape, etc.), I lose my sense of awe. I expect the good players to do good things. So when Mercilus gets a sack, I’m all “yeah, that’s just what he does”. That guy helped me realize that Mercilus and Jenkins are really, really good at what they do.
When AJ caught what turned out to be the winning touchdown, as soon as he caught it, I’m thinking “hang on to it, just get into field goal range” and the guy next to me said “gone – no way they catch him.”
Sometimes, I wish I could watch our team through someone else’s eyes. Because I should totally be in awe of what Whitney the Mercilus can do, not just watching a game expecting a few sacks and TFL’s.
7) I thought Ian Thomas played his best game of the season yesterday. Love that. Love seeing seniors go out on top. I wish I would have had a chance to speak with him this week. I tried to set down with as many seniors as I could, but I missed Ian. Thanks for four great years, sir. Enjoy your legacy as the starting middle linebacker on the best Illinois defense in a generation.
8) OK, I’m not going to get to 10 points. Only 8. I could stretch it out into two more points, but they would just be filler. And you don’t really want to read “I thought the elevators in AT&T Park were quite lovely” just so I can fill out two more numbered points. Or maybe you do. Maybe elevators are your thing. Maybe I’ve run out of things to type. OK – two more sentences:
Our second consecutive bowl win on the same day that Northwestern ties the record for consecutive bowl losses with Notre Dame, all while exacting some bowl revenge on UCLA. Best New Years Eve ever.