If this Homecoming affair was any indication of the difference between Tim Beckman’s final Illini squad and interim head coach Bill Cubit’s first … wow, major props to the new guy, who likely was aided by the emergence of Grange Grove to heighten the game-day experience and the concert appearance of country singer Rodney Atkins there on Saturday. Frankly, though, the weather was a little rough, with winds making temps seem colder than they actually, compared to last Homecoming’s picture-perfect afternoon, so kudos really are deserved all around, from the administrative peeps for putting on a good show, the football team being a much more solid, legit operation and the fans for showing up. The announced attendance of 45,438 oddly seemed far short of the actual crowd size. No way Memorial Stadium was only 75 percent full – sorry, stats peeps. Last year, the announced attendance was 44,437. Not even close. This crowd crushed that one. Even the Block-I student section was filled – a rarity in this previously never-ending run of mediocrity at Illinois. Reality says that the Illini won last season against Minnesota and lost this time vs. Wisconsin, but the home team was far better this go-round, being just a small step behind the Badgers in the grand scheme of things, while it was, well, lucky in the previous Homecoming, benefitting from a fluky fumble return for the winning score. The Illini were solid against Wisconsin, actually taking a 13-10 lead in the third quarter on a 36-yard Ke’Shawn Vaughn scoring bolt. They just didn’t have enough to finish off the Badgers.
2. 'Fedj' for All-American?
The former walk-on and freakish physical specimen has made the most of his time in Champaign, but maybe never more so than in this game, during which Clayton Fejedelem recorded 19 tackles and an interception from his free safety spot. Not for nothing, but he may be the most physical defender on the team. He certainly is pound for pound. Decent in pass coverage, he is tremendous on run support, and that showed again Saturday. Not even getting dinged up while making a stop in the third quarter slowed him down. After being down for the count for what seemed a long time as trainers tended to him, “Fedj” ran off the field and returned for the next defensive possession. The team leader in tackles (yes, a FS leads the team in tackles … sad) later snared his second pick of the season.
3. (Lack of) speed kills
It’s going to be a bugaboo until the LB corps and secondary as a while start to show some better wheels. ILB Mason Monheim, gamer that he may be, is painful to watch because he is just too darn slow to make, heck, even the most routine of plays in Big Ten battles. Oddly enough, M2’s leaping ability thwarted a pair of potentially long TD runs by the Badgers. His running mate, T.J. Neal, always manages to get some props and actually was credited with nine tackles, but, frankly, he’s a non-factor the vast majority of these 60-minute affairs and almost always seems a step or three slow, either physically or with his ability to read a play. Behind them, Fedj and Taylor Barton have decent speed at the safety spots, but they’re definitely more along the lines of physical d-backs, capable of lowering the boom on ballcarriers – you know, if they actually can line them up and hit ’em. The one real burner back there is supposed to be cornerback V’Angelo Bentley, yet his speed seems to be lacking at times when covering a receiver or tracking down a ballcarrier out of the backfield.
4. Rare bad day for Bentley
The senior has been a staple in the Illini secondary for years, and his 11 tackles Saturday were second to Fedj’s 19, but, keeping it real, the guy had a bad game against the Badgers. He seemed out of it in coverage and in returning kicks, his specialty. You certainly can appreciate a guy with “take it to the house” skills wanting to do just that every time he touches the ball, but he made two ill-advised kickoff returns that cost the Illini field position, and a ridiculous decisions on returning two punts in the third quarter that likely would have bounced into the end zone but he fielded around the 10. Just too dangerous to attempt returns then. Frankly, he was embarrassed multiple times by Alex Erickson, on aerial routes and jet sweeps, as the Wisconsin WR totaled 96 yards on 10 receptions and 81 on four runs, including a 56-yarder that left Bentley pirouetting like a backup dancer in a long-ago-burned MC Hammer video along the visiting sideline. That futile effort by Bentley set up the Badgers’ go-ahead score in the third, and he later was the guy who knocked a Wisconsin runner forward two yards inside the Illini 10 on the play that sent Fedg to the sideline.
5. Appreciate the effort, but ...
No bigger fan of college football history than right here, especially when it comes to the Illini and Harold “Red” Grange, but can we drop the all-gray unis (with white helmets) as a way of honoring arguably the sport’s greatest individual figure of all time on Homecoming. Your truly is 2-for-2 in seeing Illinois in person wearing those, and, frankly, while the second time wasn’t as bothersome as the first, sorry, it was still annoying when you consider that the school’s primary color is orange and not a speck of it is seen on the uniform. Seriously, when the Illini are suiting up, the toughest-, sharpest-looking option ain’t going to be the Gray Ghosts that have infiltrated the last two Homecomings. Plenty of other better choices available, courtesy of last year’s rebrand effort by the university and Nike. White-orange-white, orange-blue-orange, orange-blue-blue, blue-orange-blue, orange-orange-blue, all-orange or all-blue. You name it, the Illini have it, and all of those and more would be better than white-gray-gray. Zzzzzzz …
- Jack Kerwin | firstname.lastname@example.org