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I Ate A Bratwurst At Halftime September 2, 2012

The last time I ate food at halftime of an Illini game was… maybe 2007? I’m a toxic ball of nerves during games, and as such, I never can eat. Too nervous. Too stomach-in-knots.

Today, I ate a brat. Because my stomach wasn’t in knots. True, we only led 17-0, and our offense had looked shaky, but for some reason, there were no knots. I don’t think you could have described me as confident, but something about how the first half played out made me completely at ease. Enough so that I ate.

Thinking back, I’m not sure what it was, specifically. Everything just seemed, I don’t know, under control. Now, this changed in the second half, especially after Nate went out, and we’ll get to that in a bit, but at halftime I was calm.

You know, I think I just figured it out. I was calm because nearly every decision in the first half fit with what I would do if I was the coach. And it’s so rare to watch an Illini game like that. Lots of time on the play clock at the end of the first quarter but don’t run a play in order to gain the wind? Yes. Call a timeout after the WMU third down just before halftime? Yes. Just let the clock run out after the holding penalty? Yes. Don’t try anything dangerous in the passing game once you’ve gained a lead? Yes. Keep it simple – the only thing that could kill us now is turnovers, so don’t give them any.

Because the first half flowed like that, I ate. I wasn’t agitated. I wasn’t quietly seething. Yes, we have lots to fix, especially on the offensive line – that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m saying that my halftime consternation over the past 7 years was due to a coach who ran a game different from common wisdom. Today, precision ruled the day before halftime, and because of that, $9 for a brat and a Diet Coke.

To the game:

+ My biggest takeaway was the number of young players on defense who played in key spots. The game ended almost 12 hours ago, and it’s all I can think about. I want to a blues festival with my wife tonight, and this one band was really good, but even they couldn’t hold my attention. I kept doing a mental inventory of all the young guys who played on defense. Not just played, but played in the middle of key WMU drives.

For the last two years, Vic Koenning played around 15-17 guys per game. Each of his starters got the vast majority of the minutes, a few of the special package guys (Green joining Hawthorne and Wilson, for example) played a ton of minutes, and then a few defensive linemen and linebackers got spot duty here and there. But the starters ruled the day. I’d say 85% of the snaps under Koenning were either all-starters or starters mixed with special package guys.

Today, I’d guess we only had 10-12 plays with the full starting defense. Nearly every series had backups mixed in. Sometimes, those series would include 5 starters and 6 backups. If you can’t tell, I was stunned by this.

Darrius Caldwell played a lot. Fellow redshirt freshman DE Kenny Nelson, too. True freshman linebackers Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina played a ton. Ralph Cooper, too. Austin Teitsma and Jake Howe. Eaton Spence, Jack Ramsey, and V’Angelo Bentley. Tommy Davis.

Put it this way. Here’s the starting 11 that everyone expected, followed by a few second-half player rotations I remember:

Buchanan-Foster-Spence-Staples, Bates-Brown-Ashante, Hawthorne-Sanni-Hull-Green

One series I remember:
Buchanan-Teitsma-Spence-Kynard, Svetina-Brown-Ashante, Bentley-Thomas-PNY-Green

Another one:
Caldwell-Foster-Howe-Nelson, Bates-Monheim-Ashante, Hawthorne-Thomas-Davis-E. Spence

Many times today, and by “many times” I mean the majority of the series’, we were playing 4 or 5 of our supposed starters and 6 or 7 backups. And we held Western Michigan to 259 yards and 7 points. Unreal effort by this 23-deep defense. A+

+ And now for the offense. I think it’s fair to say that the problems from the final seven games last season still exist today. And if they don’t improve, the season is sunk. Western Michigan had a very poor rushing defense last year, and we were getting consistently TFL’d today. (Part of the reason is their Johnnie Simon is a BEAST – 18 tackles today). If that doesn’t improve, we’ll be lucky to get even 150 yards against Ohio State. At that point, we’re back to the 1994 cheer – “score, defense, score”.

The good news is, this was game one. First time putting the offense on the field. First time Chris Beatty called plays since high school. First time on the field for Teddy Karras. First game at left tackle for Hugh. If this is a competent coaching staff – and I believe that it is – the line play and the offensive scheming will slowly improve from game to game.

But we have a long way to go. Given the way we played once Nathan got hurt, I can’t see any way we beat Arizona State with this offense. Even with spectacular effort from the D I still can’t see anything but a 13-3 loss. We had one big play and then 180 middling yards. And once Nathan was out, we had nothing. Our D played THAT well today, and Western Michigan still out-gained us. We’ve got a long way to go. And a short time to get there. Run, bandit.

+ I’ll be able to tell you the exact moment once I watch the tape, but my favorite defensive play today: a third down tackle by Justin Green. It was third quarter, and a big third down, and Green had to beat two blockers. No matter – he escaped the two blockers and made the textbook tackle to force a punt. I’m really excited to see what Hawthrone and Green bring us in their final season.

+ Special teams for the most part were fine. Some underwhelming punts, and a mis-play on the last WMU punt, but overall, well coached, well executed.

+ Three interceptions (which was nearly five if Hawthorne and Brown had held on to theirs). Four forced fumbles (plus two of the unforced variety). Five tackles for loss, five passes broken up, two sacks. And -6 rushing yards allowed. Yes, I’d say this is an aggressive, opportunistic defense just like you said, Tim Banks.

For the most part, this game didn’t move my needle very much. I’m very encouraged by our defense and very discouraged by our offense. I’m hoping there’s some way the offense can pick it up and hoping that the defense doesn’t lose their mojo.

Last night I picked us to be 6-6 this season. Watching the defense in the first half, it felt like 9-3 was in reach. Watching the offense in the 4th quarter, it felt like we were headed for 3-9.

So, yeah, 6-6 it is.

Steve September 2nd, 2012

Yup, our offense looks poor. Sometime in the 2nd qtr, I texted my son to say “we can run for sh*t”. And that stayed true right on through. So count me as very concerned about that. I hope you’re right about steady improvement. Because I’m not anywhere near the football analyst that you are. And when I notice something is missing, it is missing so badly that it is glaring.
But man its nice to win !!

illiniphil September 2nd, 2012

Unless we find a passing game, this is going to be a long season. Even just a little to keep defenses honest. I’m going with Beckman just wanting to keep things simple and don’t lose the football. Next week should be telling.

AHSIllini32 September 2nd, 2012

I don’t know that either of you guys are giving our offense enough credit. Let me start by saying, yes there is definitely room for improvement. There is no doubt about that.
However, considering everything you already mentioned Robert (new scheme, moving parts on the OL, etc) we still had 17 points on the board and had another trip to the redzone in the 3rd quarter on the drive Nate went out before that WMU DB made an unreal pick in the endzone. Don’t forget Immekus also mised a FG. So in 3 and 1/4 quarters with Nate we had a shot at at least 23 points.
I also think the play calling was ultra conservative (again as you said) especially once we were up 17 at half which contributed to it. With all things considered, I was just north of averagly pleased with the offense with Nate in there.
Without Nate?….(shudders).

illiniranger September 2nd, 2012

Robert, this post is spot on. We did the normal things you are supposed to do when you are managing the clock. I’m unreasonably giddy about that. It’s been years since I’ve seen us do the right things with the football and the clock running out. And how about letting the clock run down before snapping the ball in the 4th QTR. I can’t tell you how happy i was to see us not signal in the play until there were 15 secs on the play clock. Sure, ROT screwed it up pretty bad by having zero awareness of what we are doing and got a delay of game penalty, but we’ll fix that.
the offensive play calling was exactly what we all wanted to see; run the football a ton and be conservative. in a new offense with bad weather that’s precisely what we should have done.
I am really really happy with this game. Sure, we could have played a lot better, but we just looked competent. I think under this staff it will no longer be amateur hour in Champaign.
One question: was the wind bad enough to significantly affect the pass game? sure seems like it.

thegoah September 2nd, 2012

I was at the game but not down on the field, so I can’t speak with authority but my sense of it was that it was a little breezy–not like playing in a hurricane. The flag was always up but not being whipped furiously. I guess I’d say (and maybe someone can correct me) that the if you couldn’t throw in this wind, you’re going to struggle in the passing game–that it would only have significantly affected very long passes.

Lou-a-villini September 2nd, 2012

Very nice to be 1-0. (But) The office looked awfully zookian. So much so that I fell asleep during the second half and missed the final touchdown. I liked the defense and special teams, though. And I think I remember reading somewhere on this blog that there is a QB recruit on the way who is supposed to be quite exciting.

chief23 September 2nd, 2012

Love the defense. I feel much better whenever they take the field. I think the frustrating thing about the offense is the total lack of creativity. No vertical passing game, no passes to the tight ends, same play was run maybe 15 times. I know it’s just the first game and NS got hurt but it looked pretty similar to last year. I hope Beckman realizes a vanilla offense like that won’t win the big games or put fans in the stands. Next week should be a good test.

phytynlini September 2nd, 2012

But did the nachos improve? If not, fire Thomas!

I felt the same way as you, Robert. Just a steady, controlled, vanilla win. I think for the first time in a long time we will see a steady progression in our team as the season goes along. That will be quite refreshing and bode well for our future. You only have a month of practice without game planning a year. You must improve throughout he season to build year upon year. We have not seen that in some time.

Matt September 2nd, 2012

Great news re: defensive depth. That gives me hope for next year. Hopefully the offense can improve by then, and we can be solid on both sides of the ball.

Robert – Are you still going to do a “check the tape” article after every game? I ask because I don’t want to delete the game off the DVR until I read that article and, in fact, check the tape.

Joe John September 2nd, 2012

For the most part the entire Big 10 was bad this week except for Ohio State. So I dont think Illinois is that far with where they need to be relative to other teams.

Joe John September 2nd, 2012

Arizona State beat Northern Arizona (a FBS team) 63-6 to open their season…so maybe they’ll be over confident.

But in reality, i think they’ll be extra motivated to pay back Illinois for last year.

phytynlini September 2nd, 2012

Those are two well thought out, fairly positive posts from JJ. Now I am scared.

Ktal September 3rd, 2012

This team is competently coached. I don’t recall a single time in the first quarter when the team didn’t appear to know what it was supposed to be doing…which gives me confidence.
Like most of you I’d like to see a more reliable offense (two yards instead of TFL’s, and less of a drop-off from NS to ROT), but the fact that the players appear to know what’s expected of them…enormously satisfying. That alone tells me the Zook era is truly behind us.
This game should have built confidence in the players that they are on the right track, but also given them a sense of urgency about “putting it together”. I am happy about that. If they get incrementally better next week, I will start gaining confidence that this is a team (and coaching staff) that can play to their potential. When is the last time an Illini football team did that…2001?
I am fundamentally encouraged by their basic competence in the game. That is what I hoped from to see, so I think Tim Beckman is on the right track.
Go Illini!

hup_oranje September 3rd, 2012

LOL @ Joe John. According to the article I read about the game, Northern Arizona hasn’t beaten an FBS school since 1987 (yes, 1987) and they lost their starting QB and RB in the first half.

illinifanbobj September 3rd, 2012

Did Joe John finally say something positive? Insane.

GrogsBBQPepperoni September 3rd, 2012

When summing up this week’s games, the BTN crew said something to the effect of “the Illini looked impressive in their win” or “impressive win by the Illini” – something like that. I was kind of surprised to see that reaction, as opposed to it just being considered a ho-hum win. I feel like every win in our first 6 victories last year had some element of gloom and doom and this one really didn’t. Maybe that’s what happens when you remove the mad scientist from the sidelines. You’re not scared to death of your team doing the proper things to just win a normal football game.
No more quotes like this which sent chills through us all…”We were down five, right? Up five, I mean,” Zook said. “It was 20-13? Up seven? Maybe I didn’t know what the score was. That’s happened to me before.”

taz September 3rd, 2012

Grogs, exactly right. The Offense might be a little worrisome, but I didn’t Leah the game frustrated. No boneheaded plays, no boneheaded coaching decisions, very few mistakes overall. How many games in the zook era, win or lose, did we walk away frustrated? A vast majority is my guess. This coaching staff had the guys excited to play (something the snake oil salesman was good at), but they also had them prepared to play. Compared to wmu, they were extremely focused and sharp. We will see what happens with the offense, but I’ll take a win combined with prepared and sharp any day.

PeoriaBucky September 3rd, 2012

Robert, nice job jinxing Alex Carder. In the weeks leading up to this game you gave him nothing but huge praise, worrying about how this amazing QB was going to torch the Illini (WITHOUT THEIR STARTING CORNERBACKS OMAHGERD) for 500 yards. Then the quips about how maybe hurricane Isaac would save the day by killing the passing game.

So game time rolls around and the weather is borderline nice out, no sheets of rain and some breezes but nothing major, and I’m thinking OK, here he goes….and Carder comes out playing….average to poor. He looked pretty crappy. Could you believe how completely pedestrian he played? I watched most of the game and at least early on it didn’t seem like the Illini DL was putting tons of pressure on him, seemed like he just wasn’t making very good throws.

Plus his hairstyle cracked me up. Fan of the Beastmaster movies?

Congrats to the Illini, they played pretty well!