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
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.