Far too soon for optimism over Illinois’ nice 2-1 start

By Daniel Johnson

Before any one gets too giddy, remember, we’ve only just finished week three.

Illinois has already equaled its victory total from last year in that three weeks time but take note of the competition. The Playoff Subdivision Western Illinois and subpar Syracuse haven’t exactly challenged the Illini. While I feel like I should be more optimistic, there are some small things – that seem small with the team lead as big as it was – that could come back to haunt the team.

It has been impressive to see the Illini run all over the two schools for a combined 655 yards in the games. What’s more impressive is that the Illini were able to rush for 101 more yards against, in theory, a more capable Syracuse defense.

As much as most people thought that Rashard Mendenhall would be the featured back in the offense, more and more it seems that Daniel Dufrene and Troy Pollard will be getting a good amount of carries. Dufrene didn’t have his best showing on Saturday but has been more than capable of spelling Mendenhall when need be. After Saturday’s performance Pollard will likely be game planned for by opposing teams now, too.

Juice Williams and Eddie McGee both looked good on Saturday, even if it was only for 130 yards. The stat that should be more encouraging is that neither threw an interception. I can live with the paltry passing offense totals when the team is rushing as well as it is.

Williams was very effective on the first drive, both on the run and through the air. He was making good decisions in the pocket and his touchdown pass to Jeff Cumberland was a testament to his arm strength. Not too long after the first drive, the ESPNU broadcast team was describing the Syracuse offense, or lack thereof, as a “comedy of errors.” There really isn’t a better way to describe the Orange first half.

That “comedy” is what is worrying me.

Syracuse more or less lost the game with laughable play in the first half, not really giving the Illini a chance to face any adversity. While it is good that they didn’t even put themselves into a situation that would require them to “dig deep,” they will undoubtedly be put into those situations in the coming weeks. What will happen if the running game stalls completely and Juice Williams is forced to throw 40 times in a game and lead a comeback drive? He has shown flashes of his potential, I will be the first to admit that, but until he sustains great play it will be hard to have complete confidence in him.

The Illini go into Bloomington, Ind., next week and face an underrated Indiana team, and a crowd that won’t resemble that of the Florida Marlins, whose fanless stadium appeared in last week’s DI. While Indiana might not be nearly as good as the Penn State team that will be coming to Champaign in two weeks, its offense is averaging more than 44 points per game led by a dangerous Kellen Lewis.

The Hoosiers’ three victories, much like the Illini’s two, have come against less than dominant teams in Indiana State, Western Michigan and Akron. Indiana has done a fair job of stopping the run in the three games, averaging less than 100 yards against for each game but hasn’t faced a team with the depth and skill of the Illini backfield. Illinois does have a very good chance to win the game against the Hoosiers next week; however, it will need to clean up in some areas of its game to be fully ready for Big Ten Conference play.

Plays that may seem insignificant during the course of the game can cost the team in the Big Ten season. Small things like Antonio Steele not wrapping up Chris Brinkley on a tackle can lead to bigger plays and scores, as happened on Brinkley’s 62-yard reception in the third quarter. The little mistakes can haunt a team if they continually happen, and if the Illini expect to make a bowl game, the mistakes need to be eliminated.

Daniel Johnson is a junior in Communications. He can be reached at [email protected]