Players need to retain confidence despite lows

Illinois+running+back+Mike+Epstein+runs+the+ball+during+the%0Agame+against+USF+at+Soldier+Field+on+Saturday.+The+Illini+lost%0A25-19.
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Players need to retain confidence despite lows

Illinois running back Mike Epstein runs the ball during the
game against USF at Soldier Field on Saturday. The Illini lost
25-19.

Illinois running back Mike Epstein runs the ball during the game against USF at Soldier Field on Saturday. The Illini lost 25-19.

Austin Yattoni

Illinois running back Mike Epstein runs the ball during the game against USF at Soldier Field on Saturday. The Illini lost 25-19.

Austin Yattoni

Austin Yattoni

Illinois running back Mike Epstein runs the ball during the game against USF at Soldier Field on Saturday. The Illini lost 25-19.

By Eli Schuster, Sports Editor

Illini fans beware.

After each game this season, I will put together something I like to call the Press Box Bundle. Typically, I share this in the days following Illinois football’s weekend matchup. It includes video footage, tweets, photos and observations.

After watching the Illini find a way to lose this weekend’s ball game in a heartbreaking fashion, I decided to share my raw observations from the USF matchup at Soldier Field in Chicago below.

First half observations:

The slow-start sickness only caught the Illini on the opening drive this game.

Rod Smith wasn’t fooling around to start the game. Instead of experimenting early on (something that was seen in the previous two games), he gave the ball to his running backs.

And wow, look what happened.

Illinois quickly demonstrated why the running back position has arguably the best depth on the team. Corbin and Epstein are two explosive backs who broke off over 30-yard runs for a scoring drive that took less than 54 seconds.

Oddly enough, while the Illini let the Bulls find the end zone, they made quarterback Blake Barnett work for it. The defense kept up with the no-huddle, fast play-calling relatively well. There were no massive plays early on like the ones that have become expected by a struggling secondary throughout the first two games.

Looking at the defensive line, having Tymir Oliver back is clearly a good thing. His presence was immediately felt. The pressure from Oliver and Bobby Roundtree made for a quality first-half showing that included back-to-back batted-down passes to stop a threatening USF drive.

Usually, it’s hard to grab people’s full attention on special teams, but the difference between these two squads was extremely noticeable. The fans and even those filling press row couldn’t help but be amazed by the good and the bad. For Illinois, Chase McLaughlin is continuing his incredible senior campaign. The man is 100 percent from over 50 yards this season. Meanwhile, punter Blake Hayes continues to pin opponents deep. The special teams play once again continues to be one of the most productive parts of this team.

As for the Bulls, the ball was kicked out of bounds twice on kickoffs and extremely short on their one 43-yard field goal attempt. The crowd let out a couple of laughs.

Finally, things were going the Illini’s way. Enough said.

Second half observations:.

Illinois found plenty of success rushing the football, but it took a step away from that as the second half got under way. The play calling wasn’t hitting as well, and a handful of plays for negative yards prevented the Illini from charging down the field. McLaughlin was able to salvage one drive with a 41-yard field goal toward the end of the third quarter, but otherwise, Illinois continued to be stopped in its tracks.

It was only a matter of time before the defense fell tired, and the USF offense then came to life. Barnett is an extremely accurate passer, and it began to show as the secondary showed his young and unprepared self once again. Barnett’s two scores in the second half came on two easy throws to wide-open receivers.

Illinois had multiple chances to put the game away, by either extending drives to milk the clock or merely handing the ball off to its playmakers, but poor execution on both sides of the ball allowed for the lead to slip away.

As the fourth quarter went deeper and deeper, the feeling of an inevitable USF lead loomed. Illinois began to get a confused look on defense, similar to what they had against Kent State and Western Illinois.

The blown coverage on the game-winning touchdown for USF is almost inexcusable. On a third and 20, a receiver was left wide open for a ball that a fan fresh from the stands could have hauled in.

The early-season struggles by the defensive backs couldn’t be covered up this time by the score on the jumbotron. Instead, a couple of missed reads ended up being the difference between a 2-1 start and the best start for the Illini since 2011.

Closing thoughts:

Illinois has tripped over the hurdle time and time again.

The USF game had the opportunity to be a program-changing performance, but when it mattered most, the team demonstrated why it has been at the bottom of the Big Ten in recent history. The inability to close out games has plagued the Lovie Smith-led teams.

The Bulls handed the Illini every opportunity to win the ballgame, and the Illini handed it back with a hardy “no, thank you.”

Eventually, it’s going to be time to work the legs out a bit and extend that vertical. If the Illini don’t act fast, the back foot of this team will continue to trip down the stretch.

It’s important to note that positives can be taken from almost every game, but it means nothing unless the negatives are fixed. The way for this team to prove that it can separate itself from those that came before it is to simply brush off the loss and put up competitive games throughout a favorable Big Ten schedule.

Last season, the Bulls’ loss set the course for the rest of the Illini’s season. Now, the Illini have to show that only they can determine their course.

@Schuster_Elias

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