It's not much, but it's a rung on the ladder. This football program of ours - worse than Rutgers the last ten years, look it up - was at the bottom of the ladder in the Big Ten. After today, I think you can clearly say that we are definitely ahead of Rutgers. It's not much, but it's something.
Why am I opening with "we're number 13!"? Because it's the first real sign of something. Anything. We're in year three (kinda sorta more like year two given the time of year Lovie took over and the lack of a first recruiting class), they're in year three, we're 3-2, they're 1-5, we played head to head, at their place, and won, 38-17. They're almost certainly going 1-11, we're probably going 4-8 or 5-7 (do I hear 6-6?), and when we get together again next year in Champaign, I'm guessing we'll be a double digit favorite.
We've built with freshmen, they've built with transfers. That allowed them to be a tiny bit ahead of us last year. But now our freshmen are getting more and more experience while they're just now turning to theirs, which means we're probably headed up and they might still be going down.
And it feels good to step on someone's hands on the ladder, right? I mean, how long has it been since we could put our foot on someone's head and try to shove them back down? Again, it's not much. Even Indiana is further up the ladder laughing at us. But it's a thing. We're a rung above Rutgers - our rebuild is more promising than theirs - and now our sights are set on the teams above us.
And remember - we're setting those sights on those opponents with a team that's nearly all freshmen and sophomores. The point of the last 25 games was to take our lumps early instead of late. If this thing does turn around - please, someone, tell me it's turning around - it gets better for the next 30 games. If we're trying to climb more rungs, those opponents will be swapping out seniors, attempting to maintain, and we'll pretty much have the same team, only a year older.
The Rutgers game next year in Champaign? It's the same defense - just swap out Washington transfer Milo Eifler for DelShawn Phillips. Everyone returns, which means everyone should be taking a step forward. Some players won't, of course, but many players will.
For now, that just means we're above Rutgers. That's a laughable thing in the college football world. Some Iowa fan is going to read this and refer to it as "cute". But it's our first real thing. It shows that dumping the upperclassmen and playing the freshmen was probably smarter that Chris Ash's transfer plan. We're looking up the ladder and Rutgers is still sliding down.
Which presents a very real opportunity next week. Jeff Brohm also played the upperclassmen and added transfers, and next year he's looking at something maybe a little similar to the Rutgers mess (Purdue won't be nearly that bad, but they lose eight seniors from this offense and will be starting the kids for the first time, much like Rutgers is doing right now). If Illinois can beat Purdue next week? Then we might be able to declare that Illinois will beat Purdue three years in a row as Purdue reaches the guts of their rebuild.
(We might also get blown out by Purdue next week and have to declare that Brohm's offense is 73 times better than Lovie's defense.)
But as of this evening, we've taken our first step. We are now one rung above Rutgers. We appear to be building towards something while Rutgers is reeling. And other Big Ten teams on our schedule appear to be fairly wounded right now (Minnesota, Nebraska), so now is the time to make those 25 games of playing the kids start to pay off.
OK, yes, the payoff is supposed to be 2019 and 2020. This is the building year. But if we could crazy-bounces-go-our-way our way to six wins? Look out above.
+ Let's talk about those crazy bounces. I mean, the Turnover Fairy absolutely loves us this year. To wit:
- AJ Bush fumbles the snap, it drops to the ground in front of him, it bounces right back to him like it's a basketball, and he scoops it up in stride and scores on third and one.
- Carlos Sandy muffs a punt yet it doesn't bounce away. The ball stays close enough to him that he can pounce on it, preventing Rutgers from getting great field position.
- Rutgers throws a backwards pass (we were completely fooled - they had two blockers and we had no defenders over there), but the tailback can only get one hand on the pass (er, lateral). If the ball hops around and stops, it's a fumble, and he still scoops it up and scores easily. Instead, it bounced out of bounds.
- AJ Bush is about to get blindsided on a sack and he's hanging the ball out there in one hand with the defensive end reach to swat it away (he had no idea the guy was there). But just before the guy can slap it away, Bush swings his arm forward (to start to run) and the guy misses the strip sack by an inch.
I've complained for years about how we never seem to get the bounces. This year, we're getting nearly every bounce. Love it. Keep it up, Turnover Fairy.
+ I'll be honest - I was worried we wouldn't be able to run the ball today (I mean, I predicted we'd lose). Rutgers run defense was just about the only thing they had going for them (they held Indiana, who has a solid rushing attack this year, to 163 yards rushing last week). So to see us put up 330 yards on the ground - very encouraging. Statistically, Rutgers' defense has been better than Purdue's so far (when balanced for the competition they've faced), so should we expect even more yards on the ground next week?
OK, I won't get ahead of myself. But here's a fun statistic:
Illini leading rushers 2017 (12 games)
Mike Epstein 346 (in his 5 games)
Kendrick Foster 266
Cam Thomas 233
Illini leading rushers 2018 (5 games)
Reggie Corbin 464
Mike Epstein 387
AJ Bush 258
Let's make that a little crazier. I just added up the rushing yards last year and...
Illini rushing yards in 2017: 1,281
Illini rushing yards in 2018: 1,304
More in five games this year than all of last year. Insane. I'm going to go tweet this right now.
Also, I'm going to go to a birthday party for a friend's wife right now. I really, REALLY wanted to get this written up before leaving for the party, but I have so much more to say that I just can't post this yet. I have no idea why I'm telling you this.
OK, it's four hours later now. Again, no reason for telling you this. I shall continue.
+ I'm giving a game ball to Trenard Davis. On a team desperate for receiver help, he's really stepped it up. Is he the leading receiver so far this season? He might be. Let me go look it up.
He is not. But he almost is. Sam Mays has 14 catches for 139 yards. Davis has 13 catches for 123. And Ricky Smalling has 11 catches for 150. Raise your hand if you had "Mays and then Davis" as the top two in catches through five games.
Today, Davis had 5 catches for 59 yards including a few big third down catches. And he seems to be the most sure-handed of the receivers so far this year. Others, including Smalling and especially Green, have had some drop issues. Davis seems to grab everything.
This is what I mean every summer when I say "recruit some athletes, move them around, and see what you have when they're a fourth-year junior". Davis was a safety, a cornerback, and a quarterback his first two seasons. Now he's settled at receiver as a fourth-year junior and is really contributing.
+ I think this was the first game where we saw the Rod Smith offense I expected to see. Mostly because he had his running quarterback back in the lineup. 330 rushing yards and 89 passing yards? Yeah, that's what I was expecting.
I think that after five games we can declare that Corbin and Epstein are a THING. Like, when you think of the 1996 Illini you think of Robert Holcombe. That was the THING that year. 1999? Kittner to Lloyd. 1994? Howard-Hardy-Holocek-Rice. 2010? Feed Five.
2018? Corbin and Epstein. Corbin is putting up 7.9 yards per carry and Epstein 6.8 yards per carry. The first thing I'm going to check in the morning is the updated NCAA stats site. Coming into this week we were 18th nationally in rushing yards per game. We put up 330 yards in this one, which means we're now averaging 261 yards per game on the ground, which means that when the new stats come out we might be... 9th nationally? That's some crazy improvement.
You know, I should probably add Bush in there. Bush is averaging 5.9 yards per carry (and that includes negative 48 yards from sacks). So if we use a sack-adjusted number, we have three guys in the backfield all averaging around 7-8 yards per carry. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a THING.
+ And then there's the defense. The Rutgers offense, averaging 281 yards per game, put up 386 on us. The run defense was improved (I think Jamal Milan returning had a lot to do with that - so disruptive in the middle), put the pass defense was an issue. Zero sacks (zero!) and a freshman QB who could be rattled being given all kinds of time to just sit back and throw. If that's what the pass rush looks like next week, David Blough is going to throw for 572 yards again like he did against Missouri.
I think that's concern #1 and #3 on this team right now. The pass rush should not return nearly all of the line and then get significantly worse. The only thing one can do is look squarely at rookie defensive line coach Austin Clark and suggest that he might need to find a way to drastically improve the pass rush over the next 7 weeks.
Now, that's a bit unfair because there was clearly a gameplan today. Rush 4 and drop 7. When you drop 7, this freshman quarterback is going to throw some interceptions. Let him complete this and that here and there. Where we'll turn the game is by dropping 7 and picking him off. Three interceptions later, here we are with a 38-17 victory.
Still, the defense remains the big concern. This is the worst offense we'll face the rest of the season. If Rutgers is going to throw for nearly 300 yards, then every other quarterback is going to be able to throw for nearly 500 yards. We have to get to the quarterback at some point.
But since I mentioned interceptions, well, yes, I saved the best for last.
+ Let's just start with a list. I started tracking Illini interceptions in 2012, and I've always looked at ten year spans, so I have data on my spreadsheet going all the way back to 2003.
And here's the full list. Seasons with the most interceptions all the way down to the seasons with the least.
2007 - 17 interceptions
2015 - 13
2010 - 11
2018 - 10
2011 - 10
2006 - 10
2004 - 10
2017 - 9
2016 - 7
2014 - 7
2012 - 7
2008 - 6
2009 - 5
2005 - 4
2013 - 3
2003 - 2
This is now the fourth-highest interception total of the last 16 seasons, and the season still has seven games left. It's everything I've ever dreamed about.
Quan Martin now has three interceptions in his freshman season (this one being the best of the three - he read the route and jumped it). I'm pretty sure that leads the Big Ten. Or at least tied with... DelShawn Phillips, who also has three.
Basically, this is the defense we were promised. Bend but don't break. Give up yards between the 20's but force field goals. And as you're forcing those long drives, grab some turnovers. Those "3+" shirts the coaches have been wearing the last two years? We're starting to see that.
Unfortunately, we're also starting to see way too many yards between those 20's and way too many touchdowns at the end of drives. If there's one thing to watch for the rest of the season, it's how we find ways to improve the defense. Because as of right now, we're probably looking at giving up 450+ yards to every opponent left on the schedule.
All in all, though, we put the Big Ten losing streak to bed. We now have a very real opportunity to make a statement on Saturday. We have a defense that gives up yards consistently but an offense that gains yards consistently. Fix the former and we might be able to use the b-word. (Don't fix the former and we're not going to win again.)
But in order to not win "again", you have to win first. Which we did. And that feels great.