Monday, September 10, 2012

Week 2 Notre Dame and Illinois Recap

Sort of a mixed bag this week, as Notre Dame eeked out a win against a better-than-advertised Purdue squad, while Illinois got pummeled in the Arizona desert Tuco-style. It leaves fans of both programs wondering what direction the teams are going to head the rest of the season. For me, I feel that both results, whether it was an escape by ND against Purdue, or the embarrassment by Illinois against ASU, are not indicative of how those teams will play the rest of the season. I'll explain why, starting with the Irish.


Let's start by recognizing that Purdue is a much stronger team than the one that got killed by ND last year. There are college football pundits out there that think that Purdue could even be a darkhorse to steal their Big Ten division in what is admittedly a down year for the conference. Purdue is led by their defense, in particular their standout defensive line, led by DT Kawann Short. As a result, Purdue's game plan coming in was to neutralize the stout ND running game that we saw last week against Navy. If they could do that, the feeling was, they could then force rookie ND QB Everett Golson to beat them by himself.

Golson played well Saturday
It was a good plan, and it worked. Notre Dame struggled to run the ball the entire game, and Golson was forced to make plays. His inexperience showed at times, with the young QB being forced to read the defense, then slowly check the sidelines for hot reads from Kelly nearly every play. It slowed down the offense, and it was hard to sustain any sort of tempo or momentum that Kelly so desperately wants. At the same time, however, I felt that Golson played a great game. He looked comfortable in the pocket, and was able to move around and avoid sacks, extending plays in the process that almost certainly would have been sacks last season.

The fact that the offense didn't move the ball well was largely due to the ND offensive line having a less than stellar day. But keep in mind that they faced one of the tougher defensive lines they will face all season. That, combined with the lack of a running game for the same reason, allowed Purdue's defense to adjust and either sit back in coverage or line up defenders to attack Golson. Any way you cut it, it wasn't an easy start for Golson to have to make.

And then there were the injuries. Major starters were dropping like flies, with Senior captain defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore, Senior captain tight end Tyler Eiffert, Davaris Daniels, Sheldon Day, Jamoris Slaughter, and even Golson at the end of the game getting injured. Not to mention that starting running back Cierre Wood was serving the final game of his suspension. Thus, for me, it means a lot that ND was able to come together through all of that adversity and still beat a very good Purdue squad. I think it's going to mean a lot for the development of the team as a whole, the players as individuals, and the coaching staff as well. I'm confident that this Irish team can come out against Michigan State on Saturday and have a legitimate shot at winning the game.

Kelly is all in with Golson
One last thing - I hope people don't make too much of a big deal about Kelly inserting Tommy Rees at the end of the game. Rees, as you will remember, came in when Golson was injured and orchestrated the final game winning drive. I've read all sorts of posts of people claiming that it was Kelly lying about Golson being injured just so he could go back to a QB he fully trusts. Now, let's debunk this nonsense once and for all. First, Kelly has shown in the past that he has the gusto to substitute QB's on a moment's notice. He's done this his entire career, and did so quite famously at Cincinnati and last season versus South Florida. Why would he all of a sudden be so worried about a move like this that he would lie about an injury to his starter? Furthermore, Kelly came out after the game and clearly said that Golson is the starter. Not to mention that Kelly couldn't possibly fully trust Rees, not after Turnover Tommy last year and the offseason arrest this past summer. Point is - Rees is the clear backup QB, and it helps Kelly to know there is an experienced backup QB to go to if need be, or if Golson is injured. Kelly recruited Golson, he groomed Golson, and single-handedly anointed him the starter. Something tells me he wants to stick with Everett.

Regardless, I feel great after the win against Purdue. That's a game that ND would have certainly lost in the recent past. The adjustments by the coaching staff, and the ability of the team to overcome injuries to key players and the nonexistence of the running game show me that the program is certainly headed in the right direction.


I was at this game in Tempe, and really, there isn't much to say. The Illini got taken out back behind the woodshed on this one. We weren't in this game from the first snap.

It's easy for Illinois to look at this game and find excuses. First, there is the travel, but more importantly, starting QB Nate Scheelhaase was out for the game with an injury. That left a QB platoon of Reilly O'Toole and Miles Osei to handle the load in a tough road game. The problem was that although the offense struggled to move the ball the entire game, the defense is what dropped the ball.

Reilly underwhelmed, to say the least
There were few positives on offense. Both O'Toole and Osei looked lost at times and struggled to find more than just a dump off into the slot. They were bailed out numerous times by Josh Ferguson, who I feel is the most talented player on the offense and has the ability to be a major playmaker for this Illinois offense. One of the big problems is that there are few legitimate, established playmakers in the offense. Illinois is very weak at wide receiver, and it might be difficult to be consistent on offense as a result. Time will tell, I guess.

Tim Beckman's offensive philosophy is logical and simple - get the ball to playmakers in space. For the most part, O'Toole and Osei did that, dumping the ball off to Ferguson and other skill players on a regular basis. The thing is, that is all they did well. Both QBs threw terrible interceptions and took bad sacks. It'd be easy to blame a porous offensive line for the sacks, but I thought the line played well, considering how well Illinois ran the football. In reality, most of the sacks or quarterback pressures in general came from holding the ball too long. That indicates how uncomfortable both QBs were trying to make their reads.

I thought Osei did a nice job evading some pressure and scrambling for some key first downs, but I think Beckman was right in deciding earlier this season to utilize Osei's athletic ability at other positions, not QB. He does not have a future there. As for O'Toole, I'm not so sure as to his status as the future Illinois starting QB. Nate has two years of eligibility remaining, this year and next, and next year the highly touted QB recruit, Aaron Bailey, arrives. Bailey fits the spread style of offense that Beckman likes to run much better, and if O'Toole doesn't do more with the playing time he's afforded this season, Bailey might take the job from him once Nate graduates.

As for Nate, I think this game serves as a reminder to Illinois fans of just how important he is to this offense. It's ridiculous to think back to last season, and how horribly Ron Zook mismanaged the QB situation. How many times did Nate get pulled after establishing some momentum to just watch O'Toole come in and go three and out? I think from this point forward, if Nate is healthy, he needs to be the unabashed starter. Beckman shouldn't even mess around with a platoon. Nate is the guy. Period.

Brown and the defense must regroup
Ah, the defense. The defense has been the strength of this team for the past few years, sending players to the NFL and reloading every year. I almost want to give them a pass for this week's game, considering they had to make up for offensive deficiencies from the opening snap. But at the same time, good defenses are good no matter what. This defense is not.

It's hard to even pinpoint where the problem is. I thought that we were outcoached and gameplanned for sure. How many times did ASU have to dump the ball into the flat, or find the WIDE OPEN tight end before we adjusted to it? Ridiculous. Defensive coordinator Tim Banks did not have a good showing. Even more startling is the amount of talent still on the defense, and the fact that Beckman comes to Champaign with a reputation as a defensive coach. Yet what we saw on Saturday night in the desert were players out of position, bad tackling, a lack of coaching adjustments, etc. Talented players who will be playing for money on Sundays soon like Jonathan Brown, Michael Buchanan, and Terry Hawthorne were ineffective in bringing the defense together.

There really isn't much more to say. It was embarrassing, especially considering Illinois won a great game against ASU in Champaign last year. I hope that Illinois gets Nate back, the offense plays much better, and the defense regroups. It's a down year for the Big Ten, with Wisconsin and Iowa already losing, Penn State and Ohio State ineligible for postseason play, and the mere fact that Purdue could be one of the better teams in the conference. That's why it's important for Illinois to get these problems fixed, because if they do well and win this year, they could really build some positive momentum for the program. Right now, Beckman faces the first true test of his coaching tenure at Illinois. Let's hope he gets the team turned around and ready to go.