Champaign Dreams Volume 1, issue 2, by Don Glenn September 15, 2023
Here we are aging with volume 1 issue 2 of Champaign Dreams, a Bi-monthly look at Unversity of Illinois sports.
(Bear in mind I am writing this on Friday 9/15/23)
We are two games into the season, and so far, University of Illinois fans are asking many questions after a come-from-behind win at home against last year's MAC champion Toledo and an 11-digit loss on the road to Kansas. This year's version of the Fighting Illini is lacking something. Many fans speculated that this year's team might struggle. Still, many were encouraged That with returning players Josh McCray, Reggie Love III, Isiah Williams, Jer'Zhan Newton, Keith Randolph, and Tarique Barnes, and transfer QB Luke Altmyer. Many thought the first three games would be a test for this team. With Toledo the 2022 Mac Champion, A tough and improved Big 12 team in Kansas IN Lawrence, and BIG TEN power Penn State.
The Illinois Offense faced an issue with losing O-Line studs Alex Palczewski and Alex Philstrom—receiver Brian Hightower, and All-American Running Back Chase Brown. Also, with the loss of QB Tommy Devito, it is a new-look backfield. Hopes were high on returning backfield options: Redshirt Sophomore Josh McCray and Redshirt Junior Reggie Love III. Incoming Sophomore QB transfer Luke Altmyer was considered a good pickup. He has been a pleasant surprise and a proper bright spot on this team.
The Law firm returns to hold court.
The defense was stellar last year and boasted the return of Defensive Linemen, Juniors, Jer'Zhan Newton and Kieth Randolph. The secondary was apt to be suspect and considered a work in process with the losses from last year. Teams are averaging 253 yards through the air this year. Last year, it was 180 in the first two games. The rushing defense allowed 107 yards last year. This year is more than double at 224 yards. Some of this is the new defensive scheme by Defensive Coordinator Aaron Henry, who seems to have used a sort of read-and-react defense style in the first two games. Illinois doesn't have the team speed to run that style of defense. The law firm is at best when it iaggressiveve.
Winning the home opener.
The season opener vs. Toledo was much closer than most fans wanted as the Illini had to come back from a 19-7 deficit at one point in the third quarter. It took a momentum-changing pick-six by MIles Scott to jump-start the Illini, who retook the lead and then lost it again. Some late gamer heroics by Altmyer and Casey Washington put the Illini in position for the win. Now Toledo was the Mac Champion last year and could be again. It was a good first test for a rebuilt Illini offense and a Defensive secondary. Although having to win in the last two minutes of the game was not something that really should have happened. It was good to see the team show some grit.
Lost in Lawernce.
Last week at Kansas, The Illini looked lost and outmatched, as Toeldo should have been against Illinois the week before. Kansas jumped to a hefty 28-7 halftime lead. The only score came late in the half when Altmyer found Tip Rieman. The Illini defense did come into play in the second half. They held Kansas to only two field goals in the 3rd quarter. But other than Luke Altmyer, the rest of the team seemed to be on autopilot. Altmyer had the big play of the day. In the third quarter, on 3rd and 18 on their own 28. He took the ball and rambled 72 yards to bring Illinois within 19. The defense did step up in the 2nd half and only allowed 2 Field Goals.
BIG TEN Opener
Tomorrow, the Illini will host the Penn State Nittany Lions at Noon. The Nittany Lions are considered to be a challenge to Ohio St. and Michigan for the BIG TEN East crown and a possible Conference title. Illinois is the definite underdog here as Penn State comes ranked 15th in offense, averaging 509 yards per game. New QB Drew Aller has been outstanding, with a 78% completion rating and a 183 Passer rating. KeAndre Lambert-Smith leads the BIG TEN in receiving yards with 197 in two games on ten catches for 2 TDs. The ground game is also very solid, with Sophomores Katron Allen 154 yards in 29 attempts and 1 TD and Nicholas Singleton 117 yards in 25 carries with 4 TDs.
Good on both sides of the ball
The Penn State Defense overall is ranked 10th in the nation. 66th against the run, allowing only 114 yards rushing. They rank 6th in passing defense, allowing 110 yards through the air. That will be tough for Illinois, who ranks 89 on offense and 126th on defense. Penn State enters the game with seven sacks and 13 Tackles For Loss. Linebacker Curtis Jacobs and Adual Carter have a combined 15 tackles, two Tackles For loss, two sacks, and four QB hurries. Zane Durant anchors the Defensive line with six total tackles, one and a half Tackle For Loss and one Sack.
Can they win without nine overtimes?
The last time Penn State and Illinois hooked up was in 2021. It took 9 OTs, and the Illini won 20-18. That will not be the case here. Illinois would have to have a complete and drastic turnaround to have a chance to win. Things the Illini MUST do are come out hard and fast on defense. They cannot allow Penn State to have ANY early success. They need to control the line of scrimmage, be aggressive, and get into the backfield. At the same time, the Linebackers and Safties cannot allow receivers any open field.
On the offensive side, the O-Line MUST create space for the running game. Altmyer has been good, but not that good. This won't be pleasant if the Illini plays like the last two weeks! If they can step up, they could keep it close. I hesitate to make a prediction, but my outlook is Penn State 35, Illinois 20
Thanks for reading. Don't forget to check out other articles at www.gatewaycitysports.com
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