Aaron Rench stopped by to discuss the Illini, competing in the Big Ten, what to do (or eat) in Chicago and his prediction for Saturday’s contest at Soldier Field.
1. With home wins over Kent State and Western Illinois, the Illini are off to a 2-0 start. For anyone that wasn’t able to take a peek at those two games, how would you assess the teams overall performance so far this season?
I personally think that this team is about where we thought it would be going into the season. This is a very young team. The offensive line has one upperclassmen and the starting defense includes only one senior. So they tend to make plenty of rookie mistakes. The Illini have started slow in both games so far and there’s been way too many penalties. And I’ve seen our guys get pushed around by hopefully inferior talent.
Yet in both games, they’ve turned it around by at least halftime. They’ve truly looked somewhere between decent and above decent in those moments. The question remains though if their slow starts are too detrimental or their moments of quality came from talent and skill or because of lesser competition. I guess we’ll see this weekend.
2. Mike Dudek, who broke Illinois’ school record for receiving yards by a freshman in 2014 and has been a force ever since, unfortunately suffered another season-ending injury in Week 1 of his senior season. Who will/can replace him?
If you’re asking who can replace that 2014 Dudek, the answer is nobody. He was easily the most exciting player I’ve seen at Illinois since Juice Williams. He could catch the most ridiculous passes and he never settled for simple yardage.
But the very sad news is that after his 2015 ACL tear, or his 2016 ACL tear, he was never the same. Still good. Just not nearly approaching the game-breaking ability he had before.
Our top receivers right now are Sam Mays and Ricky Smalling. They both have talent enough to be threats – Mays is on the big side, Smalling is on the fast side – but they haven’t shown consistent production on Saturdays. But that may be from a lack of a quality quarterback.
3. What can you tell us about the quarterback situation? Is AJ Bush expected to start after a hamstring injury last week? Or will they go with the backup true freshman MJ Rivers who was impressive filling in?
AJ Bush, if healthy, is our clear starter, which from the news I’ve seen, he is expected to start on Saturday. He’s a former 4-star recruit that spent time at Nebraska and Virginia Tech. The new offensive coordinator for Illinois, Rod Smith, had the same role as last year at Arizona. Yes, he was the guy that coached up Khalil Tate. Bush fits the mold of Tate: he’s got the wheels to run as a QB and his passing is acceptable. Sometimes it looks like he waits too long before he throws (i.e. on a comeback route, he sometimes doesn’t even start his throw until the receiver is turned around and set; that ball should be hitting them in the hands by that point). And he does excel at throwing on the run, which is an exciting form of football to say the least.
The backup, MJ Rivers, got to play a whole half of football last week and Illini Nation seemed collectively excited. He stays in the pocket more than Bush and has the Big Air arm. He is a freshman so I’m not 100% sure he’s got everything under control just yet, but he does show promise for the future.
4. Defensively, is Lovie Smith running a Tampa 2 defense? Who are the playmakers we should know about on that side of the ball?
On defense, you’ll find a few guys that stand out but it feels like there are many young players who we’re waiting to take the next step up. Like sophomore DE Bobby Roundtree. He’s got the measurables to be a quality B1G player and he’s shown sparks of true talent. Jake Hansen is a sophomore LB for us who had six TFL in Week 1 and he’s been probably the best surprise of the season so far. Finally, I’d point to senior LB Del’Shawn Phillips. He’s not the fastest or strongest but he is one of the few seniors on this team and he’s a leader. When he makes a great play, you see the rest of the team react. If Phillips is on, so is the defense.
5. A lot of have tried (Mike White, Ron Turner, Ron Zook) and a lot have failed in trying to turn Illinois football into a consistent winner in a very tough conference. What is the state of this program? What do fans realistically think the end game is for Lovie Smith?
This is a big point of contention within the Illini fanbase. Lovie has not won much since he got here – one solitary B1G win in two full years doesn’t promote confidence. Some are already putting him on a short leash. But that’s foolish.
The roster he inherited when he got here was filled with roster holes, jucos, and players that didn’t fit his scheme. And the thing is that the coach before him inherited something not great. And so did the coach before him. We haven’t had a winning coach here since the early 90s. Since then Lovie’s flooded the program with young talent, starting the most freshmen in the country last year. He’s purging the old regime and starting completely over. He’s making Illinois into something it hasn’t been before because he has the backing from our Athletic Director. Lovie’s essentially growing a new kind of Illinois, one that will rely heavily on upperclassmen along both lines. This plan takes time. Possibly five years from the day he started.
But some still aren’t willing to wait that long. And I don’t understand that because there are very, very few coaches who could turn this program into a sustainable winner within this time frame. Illinois has a recent history of being a bad football school. Might as well build it right this time.
6. USF fans are expected to travel in droves to this game. It’s no Champaign, but any suggestions for must-see’s/must-eat in the Windy City?
I was born and raised in the southern half of the state so I don’t get up there as much as I’d like. But I asked a few of my other TCR colleagues and they had some good recommendations. A river boat architecture tour seems to be a good way to see the city. And of course: pizza. However, a single pizza place could not be decided amongst my comrades – it seemed to be somewhere along the lines of Giordanos or Lou Malnatis. And there’s Portillos a restaurant for burgers and, uh, salads (I mean, who comes to Chicago to eat salads?).
From childhood memories of vacations past, I remember eating a Chicago-dog from a vendor by Lake Michigan as we were going to the Field Museum and Shedd’s Aquarium, all while being able to see Soldier Field, the home of the Bears. Felt pretty Chicago to me.
7. Prediction for the ballgame?
To be honest: Illinois loses.
There is a chance that if all our injured and suspended players come back and our coaches have a few hidden concepts to reveal, we might stand a chance. As good as AJ Bush has been, we haven’t really seen him go for any big, huge passes. And our running backs are actually quite good but they haven’t been fed the ball to a satiable degree so far. I mean, it could happen. But I doubt it.
We’ve started out slow every game and I don’t see that changing just yet. We’ll put up a fight in the third quarter, to the degree that a friend might shoot you a text, but in the end USF goes back to Florida with the flawless record. Something like 13 points on the spread sounds about right to me.
Illustration provided by Aaron Rench, the artist of You Are Looking Live, an art blog devoted to college sports. If you would like to see more, go to tumblr, Instagram, or Twitter. If you like the work and would like to support it, please check out the Patreon.