Not for nothing, but the biggest thing to come out of this game was the reality that, you know what, the Illini really can run the football when they put their minds (i.e., game-planning and play-calling) to it. Yeah, the team was energized by the return of senior Josh Ferguson – YDKJ’s favorite player in Orange & Blue for what it’s worth – but the reality is, he wasn’t even the most effective runner the team had all day. That honor belonged to freshman Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who has been the lone, albeit underused, force in the Illini ground attack the previous month as Ferguson recovered from a shoulder injury. Granted, Purdue’s defense isn’t exactly the Steel Curtain or the Monsters of the Midway reincarnated. But the success the Illini offense enjoyed running the ball against the Boilermakers, going by the eyes and mind behind these words, was a glaring indictment of the coaching performance by interim head coach Bill Cubit and right-hand man/son, Ryan Cubit the previous three weeks, if not the entire season. Look, yours truly likes a passing game as much as anyone else, but the 43 passing attempts per game with more than two-thirds of them geared toward gaining less than your average toss sweep … just sucks. Just being honest, it ain’t going to cut it over the long haul in a Big Ten season if a program hopes to be something other than middling to lame. Fact is, Illini have had the talent to run the ball; they just haven’t done so until this week. The 43-to-13 pass-to-run ratio against Wisconsin two weeks ago was the capper, highlighted, of course, by the Illini’s one TD being a 36-yard run by Vaughn. The feeling here, especially with this win, not in spite of it, is if Illinois AD Mike Thomas, or anyone else in authority, offers Bill Cubit the full-time gig, it would be a colossal mistake.
2. Got a shot at a grand here
For all the hand-wringing and concern about Ferguson being out, it’s almost comical how well Vaughn has played when given the opportunity to do something, anything. A surprise, and welcome, signee on the first Wednesday in February, the 5-10, 205-pounder was expected to have an impact on the Illini roster at some point, but he’s been a revelation at times. This 16-carry, 180-yard, two-TD effort against Purdue not only showcased his ability to bowl over and blow by would-be tacklers, but it proved the Illini actually have a guy who can handle the load with, or without, Ferguson. Good thing since the latter only has three regular-season games remaining in his career. Frankly, no, Vaughn is not the cat-quick, elusive talent that J-Ferg is right now, and may never be. But he’s a bigger back, and in a long-distance run we’re not talking slower by any means. He can’t catch like No. 6, either, but he ain’t bad at that already, hauling in one Wes Lunt aerial against the Boilers for a 23-yard pickup. With 665 yards on the ground this season, Vaughm amazingly, has a shot at 1,000 yards. Now, he’ll have to get the rest against No. 1 Ohio State, Minnesota and Northwestern in order to get it, but still … he has a shot.
3. The defense actually looked decent
Gotta say, as much as it is easy to point out how a former walk-on is far and away the Illini’s best defender, there is no denying the D as a whole looked pretty good against Purdue. LB T.J. Neal lowered the boom a few times, and racked up three tackles for loss, fellow LB Mason Monheim had seven tackles, DB Eaton Spence added six, SS Taylor Barton had a pick, as did Jevaris Little and the Illini sacked Boilers QB David Blough three times all told. They held Purdue to less than 300 yards of offense (263), and never let their hosts get going at any point. Still, you know the deal. One cat stands out above the rest. Even with getting bowled over on one play by bullish Purdue RB Markell Jones, Clayton Fejedelem shined well brighter than anyone else for the Illini on D, the senior FS racking up a game-high 13 tackles. Currently, after nine games, he has more than 30 tackles better than his closest competitor on the roster, leading the way with 100.
4. Major positives
Ferguson’s return was huge, not just in this game, but if he can contribute in similar fashion the rest of the season. A bowl bid, in a large way, likely hinges on his efforts. He is that dynamic a talent, even though he, shockingly, lacks “take it to the house” speed. Lunt’s acceptance of the run-oriented attack in the second half against Purdue was big, too. The kid has needed a break this season, and instead of Bill Cubit bitching about the receivers not holding onto the ball or about the linemen not doing their jobs, he actually steered the Illini in a direction they should have been going all along this season – via foot. The previous four games combined, the Illini only ran the ball 96 times while chucking it 175 times. Yo, Lunt may have the best arm in the Big Ten, but that’s putting him in the line of fire way, waaaay too much. In this one, the Illini ran 41 times and passed 38 times. The result that followed, the opinion here, was no accident. Should father and son truly grasp that, the Illini might have a shot to become bowl eligible after all, despite the difficult schedule three-game stretch remaining in the regular season.
5. Does not get any better
Cheesy or not, can’t beat the Orange-White-Orange combo the Illini wore against the Boilers. Ain’t a better road look in all of college football. Might not be a better one than their Orange-Blue-Orange at home, either, but that’s a different story. Kudos to them for breaking it out after bad results against Nebraska last season and North Carolina this season with wearing the O-W-O. Gotta say, Nike knocked it out of the park with the orange dome, capped with a white “I” that many old heads among the Illini fan base felt was sacrilegious. The overall redesign/rebrand might be more of an inside-the-park homer, or even a hold-your-breath triple, but that helmet, the O-W-O and the overall combo possibilities … that’s no-doubt-about-it stuff right there. If the Illini’s performance ever starts to match up on a consistent basis, their uniforms will be staples among the chic sports paraphernalia crowd.
- Jack Kerwin | firstname.lastname@example.org