Despite trailing in the fourth quarter, the Illini rallied to score in the final minutes to down Ball State 24-21.
Big days from Mike Epstein (11 carries, 54 yards, 2 TDs, 2 catches, 32 yards) and Patrick Nelson (5 tackles, 1 fumble recovery) helped the Illini hang on at the end. Many fans seemed concerned about the season as a whole after the Illini struggled on opening weekend, something they didn’t see last season.
The concern can’t come without context here. As our good friend Ryan Evan (@IlliniSwami), pointed out, double digit freshman started the game. Plus, over 20 freshman played in the game.
Translation? This team is young, and growing pains are likely when your team is that young. Fighting Illini fans must be patient and watch this team grow. Eventually, they will get results in the win column. For now, Illinois is playing the long game.
First Week Observations
The defensive line is young, but they look like they can be a productive group this season. Bobby Roundtree and Isaiah Gay are two freshman to watch along the front. They combined for nine total tackles and each had a tackle for a loss.
Linebacker Tre Watson is a key cog for the defense. He amassed 12 total tackles (four solo) and picked off a pass. His partner in crime at linebacker, Del’Shawn Phillips, amassed 16 total tackles and notched 0.5 sacks. That’s not a bad way to start off the season.
Mike Epstein could be last year’s Kendrick Foster. Foster burst on to the scene last season after the job was though to be KeShawn Vaughn’s, and now Epstein looks to be the next breakout player at running back. He made a strong case for a start last weekend.
Best Thing I Saw
While the touchdown caused a celebration, the nostalgia and emotions set in after Mike Dudek’s catch in the first quarter. Dudek has come a long way after multiple ACL tears, but it seems he’s ready to be the player we saw three seasons ago. He is an important piece for this offense.
The Chayce Crouch Debate
This will also be addressed on our weekly show, which debuts Friday. Chayce Crouch, who I have not been high on as a quarterback, got mixed reviews on Saturday. Many believe he was unfairly criticized for his play. He finished 10-19 for 145 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Here are my thoughts.
The interception clearly wasn’t his fault. Neither receiver was looking when Crouch fired his pass over the middle, and Ball State made a good play on it.
Ball State’s OLB Anthony Winbush dominated the offensive line, and he got consistent pressure on Crouch. That throws off the rhythm of an offense and is hard for a quarterback to deal with.
While many believe he didn’t do too bad, I tend to disagree. As a aspiring scout (I definitely don’t have all the answers or analysis, so I’m not trying to sound like I know it all), the little things caught my eye from his play. First, his footwork clearly needs work. Some of his throws came when his feet were either 45 degrees to one side or set parallel to each other. Consistency will never happen for Crouch if his footwork isn’t fixed. He took a shot down field early in the game, and his accuracy wasn’t good. Why? His feet were facing towards Ball State’s bench.
He also needs to work on accuracy. There were times he threw behind receivers. That part of his game will come with footwork and timing.
Crouch needs to keep working to improve before I can acknowledge him as a legitimate quarterback as far as the Big Ten standard goes.
Ahead To This Week
Western Kentucky, like Ball State, will surely provide another challenge for a young team. But, the nerves are gone. The freshmen have a game under their belt. The confidence should only grow, and the improvement will show.
Jake Schyvinck covers the NFL, Illini Football, and the NFL Draft for The Sports Guys. Follow him on Twitter @JSchyvinck13.