To celebrate Saturday's contest at Memorial Stadium as a great, program-changing performance may be a tad over the top. It’s not as if Illinois didn’t deserve the “W,” it’s just that “W” was not going to happen without Nebraska somehow imploding at the end to make it all possible. Ridiculous play-call decisions by Huskers head coach Mike Riley down the stretch opened the door for Illinois to get the ball with 51 seconds remaining and then a pair of pass-interference penalties on the visitors basically made it impossible for host Illini not to score in the waning seconds. Yeah, this was a far cry from the 45-14 setback suffered by the Illini last season in Lincoln, Neb., but, despite standing toe-to-toe, actually gaining more yards and controlling the clock, the Orange & Blue were looking at the same result – a loss – without some serious gifting by Nebraska. That poorly schemed coverage that allowed Malik Turner the opportunity to pirouette his way into hauling in a 50-yard aerial from QB Wes Lunt that got the Illini inside the 10 on the game-winning drive was one of the more generous as well.
2. Bad coaching trumps ... bad coaching
The clock-killing, third-down option pass ordered by Riley with the Huskers at the Illini 28 and the game just about over trumped anything his counterpart on the home sideline, Bill Cubit, bumbled all afternoon … and, seriously, there was a lot of bumble-age. If this guy doesn’t get by now that passing attempts to the sideline from the far hash mark that are traveling 25 yards to gain 2 or 3 on third-and-8s with the receiver completely blanketed by a defender are absolutely pointless, useless and dangerous, he never will. Watched him call the exact same stuff when he was Rutgers OC more than a decade ago. He ain’t changing. The fact he bitched at officials when the Illini turned the ball over after a fourth-down run in the third quarter because the chain gang had the down marker incorrect, are you kidding me? Coach, you gotta know what down it is before anyone else does. Either that, or have someone else on staff alert enough to handle that. Epic and embarrassing fail on that.
3. Upon further review
Despite my appreciation for Craig Bollerjack’s work as a play-by-play guy and Chuck Long’s as an analyst, the two of them have had better days. The overkill with pointing out that the Illini’s receiving corps was making no push to be part of a good hands’ team was silly when you step back and see that most of the drops occurred when wideouts, backs and tight ends were attempting to bring in passes that fit the description in takeaway No. 2. Yes, Lunt, typically, throws a nice, catchable ball … that is best received with not a defender in sight. When the intended target knows he is about to get decapitated, it’s not that easy to focus on catching a pass whose purpose almost seems to be looking pretty than actually getting there on time and with a chance to move the chains. Both Big Ten Network TV guys kept harping on Sam Mays’ 15-yard catch to kickstart the GW drive likely being an overturn casualty in the replay booth when, clearly, there wasn’t enough video evidence to do so.
4. Hidden gem
Lost in the hoopla surrounding the improbable comeback was Dawuane Smoot’s fourth-quarter sack of Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong Jr. The Huskers had driven to the Illini 35, and were looking to get in position for a FG that could have stretched their lead to 16-7 before the Illini DE exploded off the line on third-and-9 and then kicked into another gear to hunt down Armstrong and take him down at the 50, forcing a Nebraska punt and keeping it a one-score game.
5. Lotta question marks
The Illini ripped off a pair of 48-yard rushes … and didn’t score on either of them. They had the aforementioned 50-yard pass play … and didn’t score on that, either. Point is, the lack of breakaway speed, or the ability of those with it to take the ball to the house is alarming. Lunt’s deceptive inaccuracy and inability to hit someone in stride on a long ball is as well. Even in a pretty strong outing, the Illini defense still allowed 5.5 yards per rush by Nebraska. RB Josh Ferguson is now hurt (shoulder). Perhaps the biggest “huh” of all, though – what were the Illini thinking in not breaking out the blue helmet Saturday to make it a sharp, B-O-B showing? Missed opportunity there, fellas.
Jack Kerwin | email@example.com