I watch a lot of bad football.
That's not a shot at our Illini, although they haven't helped the situation. No, these past few years before the Illini start their games late on Saturday mornings, I'm watching my nephews play junior football.
Youth sports, when your child isn't one of the competitors, is a special form of torture. I love my nephews and have enjoyed watching them -- the older one first playing all the way until high school, and now the younger one playing up a year so he can get in on the action -- but pretty much everything else about it is awful.
The most frustrating part is that very little else matters besides athleticism. If one nine-year-old is naturally bigger, faster, stronger than his peers, he'll likely dominate. Junior football league schemes are no match for the kid who can just race to the edge and burn down the sideline.
There's a moral here, I promise. The moral is: at a certain point, athleticism wins. Athleticism is a trump card.
This past Saturday, the first thing that jumped out at me watching the replays of AJ Bush's 41-yard touchdown scamper and Reggie Corbin's 73-yard sprint was the athleticism. Bush and Corbin just looked faster than anyone on Rutgers' defense.
And man, that's a nice edge to have. Rutgers isn't much of a measuring stick, but it's a Big Ten team (even if in name only), on the road, and the Illinois offense, behind their athletes, imposed their will on the ground.
Let's talk about it:
-And let's start with the running game.
There's not much else to say that Robert didn't detail in his post on the game, but if there's a larger takeaway that doesn't get lost in the weeds, it's that Rod Smith has committed to getting the ball to his best players.
Corbin is proving that he's one of them. I lied about getting into the weeds -- here's one more statistic to illustrate that point: in seven games last year, Corbin was the recipient of 27 touches; through five games this season, he's touched the ball 66 times. And he's averaging 7.6 yards per touch with five touchdowns. Go figure.
And it extends beyond that. Epstein's talent we know. Bush's speed is an added dimension. Even in the passing game, which was neither impressive nor needed Saturday, when they needed a big play on third-and-goal they went to their best receiver, Ricky Smalling. There's nothing more to Rod Smith's playing-time hierarchy than talent.
-I don't watch the offensive line a ton, but I did notice Kendrick Green getting to the second level and helping spring Corbin on his long run. It's been said from the beginning, but while pass blocking may still be a work in progress -- though at least one of Rutgers' two sacks was really a coverage sack, so they didn't have a bad day when asked to pass protect -- they can move in the run game.
-The lack of a defensive pass rush is still a concern. You can benefit from the inexperience and relative talent gap with guys like Artur Sitkowski, but those guys are few and far between the rest of the way.
One bright spot was Owen Carney, who seems to be blossoming into a serviceable member of the defensive line. He barely registered on the stat sheet, officially credited with just two solo tackles and a pass break-up, but he also had the team's only two quarterback hits on record. Brian Barnhart and Martin O'Donnell made mention on the radio call of how hard Carney hit Sitkowski on a play early in the third quarter, and the BTN broadcast gave Carney kudos, too, for his disruption.
(Aside: Brian Barnhart and Martin O'Donnell are the best. I hope Barnhart never retires, but I fear we won't have Martin around for much longer given how good he is at the gig. He should be moving on to better things sooner than later.)
Especially with Bobby Roundtree and Isaiah Gay's disappearance, Carney emerging as another pass-rush option is welcome for a defensive line that's been a disappointment thus far.
-Welcome back, Jamal Milan. The run defense missed you.
-If the defense wants their identity to be a bend-but-don't-break, opportunistic one, I'm good with it. It's frustrating at times, and they'll have some drives and periods where they look completely helpless (especially without a pass rush) -- the Rutgers drive at the end of the first half, where the combination of a soft defense and no pass rush allowed Sitkowski to cut through them with little issue, comes to mind -- but takeaways change games.
To wit: the first two interceptions led to 10 points, and the third iced the game. Let's call that a 17-point swing -- 28-24 is too close for comfort at best, and could easily have been even closer if the game went differently as a result of those situations having different outcomes.
How do we feel today about a 28-24 win in which Rutgers punched it in late and Illinois had to recover an onside kick to hold on? Decidedly less good.
-I'm not sure Quan Martin's play pushed Tony Adams to safety -- a move that I love, both for Adams' playmaking abilities and because it gets liability Stanley Green off the field -- but it certainly didn't hurt.
His first two interceptions were the product of being in the right place at the right time -- the first, off a Kent State receiver's hands; the second, popped up in the air after a collision between defender and South Florida receiver -- but his interception Saturday was just a good play to undercut the receiver's route and snag the ball. If the first two took mostly awareness, the third required athleticism and instincts.
His development is exciting for the future of the position. With Nate Hobbs on the other side, guys like Ron Hardge still in tow and Marquez Beason on the way, corner seems to be one position the Illini can feel good about moving forward.
-As said in this space before, I don't bet on the games, but I like to pay attention to the lines.
Coming off a fairly convincing road win, and given Purdue's struggles to date, and with the fact that next Saturday is Homecoming, I figured Purdue might be a small favorite when the line came out. In fact, I wouldn't have been surprised if it was even money or the Illini were small favorites for the reasons listed above.
So I was surprised when the line opened at Purdue -10. I'm sure the oddsmakers have their reasons, but I expect the game to be close. Maybe the final score justifies the line, but what I don't expect to see is one team or the other running away with it. We'll see, I guess.
And we'll see -- "we" being myself, my buddy AJ and some other good friends -- in person, as we make our yearly pilgrimage to Champaign to act like we're all 18 again. I can't wait to sing "Hail to the Orange" from the stands, check out the new and improved Illini Inn and somehow still miss out on making it to Papa Del's even though it's basically the only thing I ever want when I get back to Champaign.
If you're tailgating in Grange Grove, stop by and say hi. I'll be the dad in the Littyville hat.
Until then, Hail to the Orange.