Would the Real Fighting Illini Please Step Forward?

Benji MaurerContributor ISeptember 18, 2008

After a hard-fought, yet disappointing 20-17 win over Louisiana-Lafayette, the verdict is still out on this year's Fighting Illini football team.  Sitting in the stands at Memorial Stadium in Champaign this past Saturday, I just could not figure out why this team just hasn't gotten it going yet.  

It seems as though they choose to excel at something different every week.

Week One against an awfully good Missouri team showed some monumental weaknesses defensively, even though it was against the Tigers, who could be the nation's best on offense.  If these guys are considering themselves to be a legit program, they must turn in better performances than that.

Despite getting torched defensively, they showed some guts being down 18 in the second half of that game with an aerial show of their own, and they ended up losing that game by just 10 points.

Then came their big unveiling of the new Memorial Stadium against Eastern Illinois the following week.  They turned in a 47-21 rout of the Panthers in Champaign, but this game also had its glaring disappointments.

I guess I could have looked at it from a glass half-full perspective in seeing that Illinois surrendered just 278 yards of total offense.  But then I'd be ignoring that 185 of those yards that came on the ground from senior running back Travorus Bess on just 15 carries.

No school that claims to better than the previous season's Rose Bowl team can be allowing 12 yards a carry to a Division I-AA running back.  That just can't happen, especially when P.J. Hill and Beanie Wells are just weeks away.

Thankfully, the Illini offense racked up 533 yards, including a whopping 399 on the ground, and the Panthers were never a real threat.

Then came the Cajuns.  We all know that Illinois won, but if this game had been five quarters long, the Illini would be 1-2.  It was a complete flip-flop as the defense really came to play, which was very encouraging.  The defense put pressure on the QB all game long and once again allowed fewer than 300 yards of total offense.

The problem this time was the Illini offense just couldn't get it going.  Although they moved the ball, they had a real problem finishing drives and with penalties.  More than anything, it was their passion that was lacking.  At times it seemed as though they didn't care to be there, and that they were playing not to lose rather than playing to win.

With all that said, the non-conference slate is history, and I think Illinois is very fortunate to be idle this weekend before they kick off conference play on the 27th against Penn State at Beaver Stadium.  

This team needs to regroup.  The real season begins in a week as they begin play in a conference that looks to be up for grabs.

So far, the Big Ten has once again disappointed with Ohio State and Michigan both getting trounced last weekend in their high profile matchups.  It's the other teams like Michigan State, Purdue, and Northwestern that have been surprising.  Wisconsin seems to be the only team living up to preseason hype.  

Outside of Ohio State on Nov. 15, Illinois plays the best teams in the conference all on the road.  If this team can play to its potential, I don't think there's any doubt it can challenge for a Big Ten title.  Although they did lose two key players from last year, they have also returned as much talent and experience as anyone in the conference.

The biggest concern for this team is definitely the defense.  Zook said before the season started that the defense was going to end up being the strength of this team, and we have not seen that.  Although they've put some good pressure on the quarterback, they are still far too vulnerable to big plays, which have often put them in situations that they can't get out of.

Offensively, the Illini have as many weapons as anyone.  However, I think that for them to improve offensively, they have to get Arrelious Benn the football.  Through the first three games, it seems as though offensive coordinator Mike Locksley has been using Benn as a runner as much as a receiver.  I DON'T GET THIS!

Benn's strength is catching the ball, running after the catch, and breaking tackles.  Right now, he doesn't seem to be getting those opportunities.  When the Illini look deep, they are not looking to him.  They do have more talent at receiver with Chris Duvalt and Will Judson, but Benn is this team's best playmaker.

For them to improve on offense, they need to find him more.  It's really that simple.      

Penn State is up next, and this is a team that has looked mighty impressive, especially offensively, where their lowest yardage output so far is 454 yards.  In fact, you could argue that they look better than anyone in the Big Ten right now.

The outcome of this game should paint a fairly clear picture of whether or not Illinois should be considered in the race for a Big Ten title.