Postscript, Penn State
Words are my livelihood.
I write and edit a ton of words for my day job, editing a mid-sized daily newspaper in southwestern Illinois. I write even more words as a fantasy baseball writer for Rotoworld. And then for fun, I write even MORE words about a mediocre football team we all desperately want to see become not-mediocre in the very near future.
So yeah, words are important to me. And the best way I can think of to describe the difference between the South Florida game and the Penn State game is with two relatively similar words separated by a big distinction -- wordplay, if you will.
Last week, Illinois was leading South Florida in the second half.
This week, Illinois was beating Penn State in the second half.
What a difference a week makes, for both the on-field product and the mental state of the fan base. After the South Florida loss, it was hard to see this team making noise in the Big Ten schedule. The defense was porous, the offense was unimaginative and the freshman quarterback struggled with his decision making.
How's a reverse pass for a touchdown to take the lead in third quarter for imaginative? How's a confident strike to Ricky Smalling in the end zone for decisive?
Suddenly, everything seems possible as we enter the bye. Sure, a 63-24 loss is bad optics, and anyone watching the fourth quarter or taking a cursory glance at the final score would be inclined to say something about the same old sorry ass Illini, but those paying attention saw a lot about which to be encouraged.
Let's get into it:
-MJ Rivers was the most improved player on the field.
I was hard on Rivers and the conservative gameplan last week, but this game represented a marked change in both. Rivers was accurate and decisive with the ball, often putting it where only his receiver could get it. The word I used to describe the first scoring drive was "clinical," and he was integral in it.
As a runner, Rivers looked more athletic and agile as well, and Rod Smith played into that with some designed quarterback runs that we didn't see last week against USF. Where last week Smith tried to protect Rivers with high-percentage but low-upside quick passes and screens, he took the governor off this week and Rivers responded well. It's still unclear how long AJ Bush might be out, but if they have to continue to roll with Rivers, I'm much more comfortable -- excited, even -- with the idea.
-In the end, the game came down to the talent gap between the two teams. Outside of a few plays -- the long, winding run by Reggie Corbin, or as my buddy AJ calls him "Reggie Reggie Phone Booth," comes to mind -- the Illini generally got what a play gave them. On the other side, Penn State skill players, typically running backs, broke arm tackles or found ways to turn short gains into longer ones.
If recent returns and recruiting successes are any indication, that talent gap is slowly closing. If Friday's game was played two years from now, it would be interesting to see how things might have played out in the second half.
-The running game remains a huge plus, and is helping the team put up points.
A lot was made of the team scoring more points in each of its first two games than they did at any point last season, but consider this as well: they scored 24 points twice, 23 once and 20 once last year. Through four games this year, they've scored at least 24 points in three of them. That's consistent, legitimate progress.
-Carmoni Green's presence being felt upon return was shocking not only because he was the team's top receiver, but because he'd never shown anything like what he did Friday. Green made eight catches for 75 yards last year, with four of those catches and 28 of those yards coming in one game against Iowa. He appeared in only six games all year, and didn't make a catch after the Minnesota game on October 21.
On Friday, he was all over. His speed is sorely needed at the receiver position, and he used it to turn a few quick passes into longer gains. Without Mike Dudek, Green could be a huge part of this passing game if it's to be successful.
-The game was a perfect snapshot of Stanley Green: a forced fumble with a jarring hit, and literally nothing else.
-It was nice to have the suspended players back for this game, but it would have been nicer if this wasn't their first game back. Carmoni Green showed up, but Lou Dorsey, Bennett Williams and Nate Hobbs struggled to make an impact. That should change coming out of the bye week and with a game under their belt, and it will need to if the Illini are to make some waves during Big Ten play.
-As far as the Big Ten schedule goes, there now exist few games where you don't feel like this team could find a way to win.
Illinois can't go on the road and beat Rutgers, who have been beaten by Kansas and Buffalo the past two weeks?
Illinois can't beat Purdue on Homecoming?
Illinois can't go to Camp Randall and...next slide.
Illinois can't beat Minnesota and their true-freshman, walk-on quarterback, or Nebraska and their team of, uh, seriously, what's the deal with Nebraska?
You get the idea. Maybe that's not six wins and a bowl, but what's now the realistic worst-case scenario? Four wins, doubling last season's win total? A few other competitive games that go down to the wire?
Of course, all that is subject to change if they come out of the break and fall flat against a bad Rutgers team in Piscataway. If Illinois loses to that outfit, throw all those good feelings out the window.
But right now, this feels like a team on the rise. This feels like progress.
what a difference a week makes, indeed.
Hail to the Orange.