Illinois head coach Lovie Smith greets Malik Turner after the junior WR hauled in a TD pass from QB Wes Lunt Saturday afternoon in Champaign, Ill.
1. Better than advertised Can’t read too much into beating up on a middling FCS level opponent, but the Lovie Smith Era at Illinois started in style Saturday. In fact, it went even better than most had hoped. From efficiency on offense to domination on defense to almost 50,000 showing up at Memorial Stadium on a beautiful sunny afternoon, it was about as ideal as ideal gets. In particular, it was good to see Hardy Nickerson, the ballyhooed MLB transfer from Cal, live up to expectations, if not surpass them, right out of the chute with 11 tackles and a sack, and it was, well, kinda spine-tingling to see what backup RB Kendrick Foster has to offer. Umm, not only were those two 56-yard scoring jaunts exactly four minutes apart in the second quarter the fatal blows in this one, but they give future opponents reason for concern. Not bad, considering the kid wanted to transfer less than 10 months ago.
2. May be a payoff after all When QB Wes Lunt transferred in from Oklahoma State three years ago, the idea of a homegrown talent sparking a resurgence for the Illini football program didn’t seem too far-fetched. The kid had the tools, the rep and even the college experience courtesy of starting for the Cowboys to warrant such thoughts. But, then, the reality of others’ weaknesses, not to mention Lunt’s own, particularly in the “wheels” department, hit home the past two seasons. Now, though, his skill set appears to fit what OC Garrett McGhee wants to do – which should take advantage of that wonderful right arm belonging to Lunt. Against the Racers, he needed just 21 passing attempts to account for 226 yards and three TDs. He completed 15 aerials, and spread things around to nine different receivers. Could be the start of something special.
3. Not for nothing Even with adding the grain of salt “level of competition” disclaimer, Illini fans almost have to pinch themselves while wondering if new AD Josh Whitman’s “We Will Win” plan is coming together – even faster than anyone could imagine. Yeah, Illinois has had early-season blowout wins to raise eyebrows in the past and then fallen off the planet, and yesterday wasn’t perfect. The search party is still out for All-American DE candidate Dawuane Smoot. But this deal isn’t just an on-field thing. It’s about attitude, atmosphere, buying into what Whitman and Smith are selling, all in order to make winning, big-time winning, possible … and from all indications, including Saturday’s effort all around, that already exists. Also helps that Smith and Co. get it. Opting for the orange-blue-orange unis – you know, c’mon. That is spot-on “money” right there.
- Jack Kerwin | email@example.com
BY THE NUMBERS
515 Total offensive yards gained by Illinois
165 Total offensive yards allowed by Illinois
68 Longest pass play of the day, between Illini QB Wes Lunt and WR Malik Turner
56 Longest run of the day of the day, done twice by Illini RB Kendrick Foster
11 Tackles for losses registered by Illinois defense
2 Sacks for Illinois graduate transfer DT Gimel President