Asmussen: In the grand scheme of things ... It could have been worse

Asmussen: In the grand scheme of things ... It could have been worse

Bob Asmussen is in his 26th year covering college football for The News-Gazette. Here are his thoughts and observations after Saturday’s opening week of the season:

ON ILLINOIS
It would have been the worst loss in program history.

Worse than San Jose State in 2002. Worse than Ohio in 2006. Worse than Western Michigan in 2008.

Those are all FBS programs.

Youngstown State is in the FCS, a division that has zero wins against Illinois.

Eric Wolford’s team almost pulled the shocker. His team led in the fourth quarter before Illinois scored the final 21 points to pull out the game.

The smallish crowd cheered at all the right times. They hung around afterward to celebrate.
But deep down, they know the Illini got away with one. Like a pitcher without his best stuff who coaxes the batter to hit a line drive at the third baseman. Catch it or lose the game.

Illinois got away with a so-so game against Youngstown State, which started a new quarterback and didn’t have the same level of players on its side.

If Illinois plays like  that against Western Kentucky on Saturday, the record will quickly drop to 1-1. And bowl talk will be met with snickers.

Before Saturday, Youngstown State was considered a must-win for the Illini. It wasn’t supposed to be so close.

Western Kentucky is another in the must-win slot. So are games against Texas State and Purdue.
Illinois will be an underdog, maybe a heavy one, in games against Washington, Iowa, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Nebraska. That leaves Minnesota, Northwestern and Penn State as coin-flippers.

It is a long season. Illinois will make strides in some areas. Drop back in others.

Wes Lunt will be more accurate. The defense will force turnovers. The receivers will find more holes. The kickers will add distance. The penalties will dwindle. Do it all, and the crowds will get bigger. Maybe even enough to fill the Block Comma.

Is there enough talent and experience to improve on last year’s four wins? Saturday’s near miss against the Penguins seems like a “no.”

But it is early.

-- Tim Banks drew more than his share of criticism during the 2013 season. Some of it was unfair. Blatantly so.

On Saturday’s, Banks’ guys dug in and kept the Illini in the game. And waited for the offense to catch up in the fourth quarter.

“Any time you can hold a team to 17 points, we’ll take that,” Banks said.

It wasn’t perfect. Youngstown State converted three long plays. A roughing the passer penalty continued one drive. There were no interceptions or fumble recoveries.

“More than anything, we’ll look at where were the opportunties,” Banks said. “I know we dropped one later in the game that we should have had. There were some chances that we could have stripped the ball out of there.”

Overall, it was a winning effort by the defense. More pressure on the quarterback (three sacks). And a chance to grow.

“We’ve got to learn from our mistakes,” Illini STAR Earnest Thomas said. “We did a great job sticking together as a team today. There were certain little things that we know we can execute, know we can do better at.”

The play Saturday was solid. Two big pass plays against the defense hurt.

“That’s what we can’t do,” Thomas said.

When it goes wrong, don’t blame Banks. The players have his back.

“He’s a great coach,”  Thomas said. “He has taught us  a lot. We’ve finally got guys in this system who have been here two or three years. I think that is going to pay dividends throughtout the year.”

Past failures belong to the entire defense, not just one person. To his credit, Banks doesn’t dwell on the criticism. It is a new year and he has moved on.

“We’re concentrating on moving forward,” Banks said.

The Illinois defense will be tested by Western Kentucky.

“It’s a big challenge,” Banks said. “They are ultra skillful. The quarterback is dynamic.
“They will come in here feeling good about themselves coming off a big win. We’re at home. We feel like we’ll be ready for the challenge.””

-- Congrats to Youngstown State coach Eric Wolford, who had his team ready for a game against the Big Ten.

Afterward, he praised the performance of his old school.

“I think they have improved tremendously on defense,” Wolford said. “That showed today. They were stopping us in the red zone. We had to kick field goals there and that ended up probably being the difference in the ballgame.”

With Wolford in charge, the Penguins figure to win plenty of games in the Missouri Valley this season.

ON THE BIG TEN
-- In my Top 25 this week, I am going to flip Michigan State and Ohio State, moving the Spartants to No. 3 and dropping the Buckeyes to No. 6.

Michigan State earned the battlefield promotion with a lopsided win Friday against Jacksonville State.
The big game is Saturday when the Spartans travel to Eugene to play Oregon. Win that one and the Spartans can start dreaming about a playoff berth.

-- Next time someone asks, Penn State might want to pass on a trip overseas. Be it jet lag or too many pints, the Nittany Lions escaped with a 26-24 win against Central Florida in Dublin on Saturday morning. Blake Bortles is no longer with the Knights.

-- Penn State wasn’t the only team from the Delany Conference to sweat a bit on Saturday. Purdue edged Western Michigan and Iowa got past Northern Iowa.

-- More predictable were blowout wins by Nebraska against Florida Atlantic and Michigan against Appalachian State.

-- Face it, there are very few easy wins. For anybody. Lower division teams wait all year for a shot at the Big Ten. And so do schools outside the Chosen Five.

For Conference USA or the MAC, beating the Big Ten means prestige and campus joy. The downside is it makes teams less likely to schedule you.

The Big Ten is making a mistake in future plans to avoid scheduling FCS schools. Youngstown State played well against Illinos and provided the kind of effort that should be applauded, not avoided.

ON THE REST
-- Who is the best coach in the country? Ask college football experts and you’ll hear Nick Saban, Urban Meyer and Steve Spurrier.

But for my money, the top of the list belongs to Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin.

Illinois was interested in hiring him a few years back, but he moved to College Station instead. As Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans went to the NFL, it was supposed to be a down season for the Aggies.

Uh, no.

With Kenny Hill taking over at quarterback for Manziel, Texas A&M rolled Spurrier’s South Carolina Gamecoks on Thursday night.

Texas A&M still has some defensive flaws, but it might not matter. Not when it can put up 50 points in an SEC road game.

The Aggies are moving into In The Grand Scheme Of Thing’s Top 10 this week.

The schedule is brutal, so a run to the Final Four isn’t likely. But with Sumlin in charge, we should never say never.

--  Those are not your parents’ Boise State Broncos. With Chris Petersen now in charge at Washington, it is a new era on the Smurf Turf. And not necessarily a winning era.

Mississippi outscored Boise State 28-7 in the fourth quarter of Thursday’s 35-13 win. The Broncos have been sliding a bit in recent years but this could be the start of an outright free fall. Once the darlings of college football, the Broncos will have a difficult time ever moving into title contention.

-- Nice start by former Illinois assistant coach Jeff Brohm, now in charge at Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers pounded Bowling Green at home Friday night, scoring 59 points. Nice-guy Brohm learned well from not-so-nice guy Bobby Petrino, who left Western Kentucky for Louisville.

Smart move by Brohm to let the CBS Sports cameras in the locker room for his pregame talked. The Hilltoppers sounded fired up, then went on the field and showed it. With his talent for producing great quarterback play, Brohm might be at the school long. BCS schools should soon be calling.

First, Brohm returns to Champaign for next week’s game at Illinois. Of course, Brohm will be excited to be back.

You can reach Bob Asmussen at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

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jjohnson wrote on August 31, 2014 at 5:08 pm

Thanks for recognizing that the defense played well. As frustrating as a couple of those qb-up-the-middle runs were, the ground defense was excellent. The pass coverage was excellent, too; the missed tackle by Thomas and the long run after a short pass in Q2 were really the only blemishes on the defense's performance, I thought.