With much to learn from loss to Hawkeyes, Illini should look to offense to fill gaps

By Daniel Johnson

With all of the talk of Illinois possibly entering a “trap game,” it seemed that the Illini were nowhere near the possibility of having a letdown and dropping this game to Iowa. But Illinois’ lack of a balanced, consistent offense finally came back to bite a team that had been riding its running game for the first six games of the season.

But after a tightly contested game and an active second half, the game came down to Illinois’ last drive. After spelling the struggling Juice Williams, Eddie McGee came into the game and looked as if he may bring the Illinois back from the brink of a loss to silence the Hawkeyes and Kinnick Stadium.

McGee came out running and firing, picking up yards on the ground and completed two crucial passes to Arrelious Benn.

Illinois found itself in the red zone with one minute, 21 seconds left when McGee dropped back on second down.

As McGee scanned the field, the game seemed to slow down for me watching from the sidelines. You could see the wheels turning in McGee’s head, going through his progression, trying to look off defensive backs, doing everything he could to give him an advantage in the tightly packed north end of Kinnick.

But as soon as McGee released the ball, Iowa’s defensive unit converged. Brett Greenwood intercepted the ball and Illinois’ hope of gaining bowl eligibility Saturday, and in the process served Illinois a nice, big piece of humble pie.

The Illini have had a problem finding a balanced, consistent offense all season and it was finally exposed. A physical Iowa team gave Illinois all it could handle offensively, and kept the Illinois defense on the field, with almost 10 more minutes of time of possession.

If you look at Iowa’s ability to convert on third down, going 10 for 17, and its ability to run well on first and second down, you can easily find where the Hawkeyes’ extra time of possession came from. Honestly, if you want to find a stat that is indicative of this loss, I really don’t think there is more searching you have to do.

The frustrating thing is that the defense played well scoring-wise, but had problems with getting the Iowa offense off the field to give the Illini offense opportunities. And it is easy to point a finger at the Illini passing game this week, a unit that undoubtedly deserves some of the onus of the loss.

That being said, it is just further proof that the quarterback tandem – and the team as a whole – is still learning and growing. Both Williams and McGee showcased their exceptional running and throwing abilities, but also showcased immaturity. As hard as it is for fans to swallow, especially Bears fans who are going through their quarterback problems of their own, the play of the Illinois quarterbacks is going to experience some growing pains.

Not too many players have instant success at the position right off the bat; look up how Peyton Manning did in Indianapolis his first year if you think otherwise.

This game is a testament to how competitive the Big Ten can be in conference play. As coaches and players were saying all week, the team hasn’t really proved anything so far. While this was true because the Illini are still working to meet their goals, it is hard as a fan not to get overly optimistic when the team was playing as well as it was. I was more than confident that Illinois would be able to win this game handily.

Looking ahead is often the cardinal sin in sports, and I think that myself, along with most of the proverbial “Illini Nation,” was doing that.

Don’t jump off a bridge, the sky isn’t falling. The team is still 5-2.

Illinois will come back this weekend against Michigan at Memorial Stadium with a chip on its shoulder after this week’s demoralizing loss and looking to put the hurt on Michigan.

If they don’t prepare well for this game, the Illini could be in line for another disconcerting loss against a Wolverine team that is still a very capable team making its way back up the rankings.

But if the team does progress the way it has, Saturday’s loss will just be another step for Illinois becoming a team that will be facing a lot more – and, hopefully, winning – potential trap games in the future.

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