Illini Football Found Lovie Smith Style Identity in Upset Win

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Maybe Illini football under Lovie Smith is now ready for prime time?!

A year ago at this time (in week two), Illinois hosted North Carolina under the lights and the result was a blow out loss to the Tar Heels. After that game, Smith remarked that he thought the team had been ready for prime time heading into it, but clearly the results conveyed otherwise.

A year later, maybe things have changed because now Illini football have pulled off a major upset (they were eight point underdogs coming in), beating Western Kentucky 20-7, to move to 2-0 on this very young season.

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They did so in a manner that could establish a winning formula moving forward, one that we are very familiar with from Smith’s tenure as Chicago Bears head coach.

It’s a time tested, tried and true football formula: play heavy defense, run the ball, get takeaways, chew up the clock. There was an announced crowd of 41,923, and they saw Illinois do all of these things.

“Nothing like seeing a football team celebrate in the locker room after a big win,” Smith said after the game.

There were no real “chunk plays” or “explosion plays,” but lots of steady, consistent gains that ate up the clock, and kept a usually explosive WKU offense off the field. Only three plays went for 16 yards or more, and the longest play from scrimmage was just 20.

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This was “three yards and a cloud of dust” on offense, total dominance at the point of attack on defense. Illinois held WKU under 10 points for the first time since losing 35-0 at Alabama in 2012.

The Hilltoppers six rushing yards were its lowest since at least 2000, as they saw their nine game winning streak end.

WKU had -5 rushing yards in the second half. Illini Legend and College Football/NFL Broadcaster David Diehl gave us his key to the game this past week while giving us an exclusive interview for our podcast: (let’s take a look at how that played out tonight)

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“When you have an inexperienced line that we saw in the Ball State game, if you don’t run the ball successfully, running play action does not help matters whatsoever, and I think that some of the early struggles that we saw offensively.”

“You have Kendrick Foster and Mike Epstein, which you know are your two best players offensively outside of (Chayce) Crouch, let those guys run the football, let your offensive line gel and ease into the game and start getting that going before you’re running play action because that was a huge factor in the first three quarters.”

“In the ten play action plays that they ran, it only equated to 18 yards, but it also equated to three sacks.”

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“If you want to take some of the pressure off of the offensive line and off the pressure on that group, you can’t let it come right in the A gap right down the bowel of the quarterback, if you do things running the football it will only make your offense better.

“It will make your offensive line settle in more, then play action will work better and that will be huge in time of possession in this game with Mike White and Western Kentucky coming in.”

More insights and analysis from Diehl over at this link.

How did it work out?

The Illini certainly did make their way on the ground; with 50 running plays versus just 25 pass plays. That’s a 2:1 ratio.

They dominated the time of possession battle, 37:54 to 22:06. Illinois definitely established the run that’s for sure with 193 yards on just under four yards a carry. True freshman RB Mike Epstein had 21 carries for 111 yards. His longest run was 13 yards.

“You want to see young guys take that type of step their second time out,” Smith said of Epstein after the game.

And of course, points off takeaways, as junior LB Julian Jones returned an interception for a touchdown in the second quarter.

Maybe it’s time to credit that “Peanut punch” contraption in the team room.

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All in all, if Illini football can further establish and execute these priorities: shut down the opponent’s run game, run the ball in a way that owns time of possession, get points off takeaways, they will be competitive in every single game that they play. They’ll also win more than they lose.

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank.net and TheBank.News, which is partnered with News Now and Minute Media. Banks, a former writer for the Washington Times, NBC Chicago.com and Chicago Tribune.com, currently contributes regularly to WGN CLTV and Chicago Now.

Follow him on TwitterInstagramSound Cloud, LinkedIn and YouTube

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