NU, Illinois need another week to judge where they stand
After a long wait for the start of Big Ten season, the two local teams were left asking similar, opposite questions:
Is Northwestern really that good, and is Illinois really that bad?
The Wildcats made an eye-opening statement as they try to bounce back from last year's rough campaign. Their 43-3 victory over Maryland at Ryan Field was the team's largest margin of victory in a Big Ten game since 1970.
The Illini had higher expectations this season with so many multiyear starters in the program who joined in coach Lovie Smith's early days. So the 45-7 loss at Wisconsin was a big disappointment.
Starting with Northwestern, the Wildcats had to be very happy with the changing of the guard. Indiana grad transfer Peyton Ramsey had a successful debut at quarterback, throwing for 212 yards and running for 47. He had the look of a veteran who was able to quickly decide the best course of action, and he moved the offense efficiently.
A guy who could have been Northwestern's top returning receiver, Ben Skowronek, grad-transferred to Notre Dame. Last Saturday, he caught touchdown passes of 73 and 34 yards in an Irish victory at Pittsburgh.
So Ramsey turned to tight end John Raine (5 catches, 53 yards), another grad transfer who jumped to Evanston after playing at Florida Atlantic. The Wildcats haven't shown much big-play ability in recent years, so having Ramsey dump it short to Raine or scramble for first downs was an effective plan. NU also is operating with a new offensive coordinator, Mike Bajakian, who was at Boston College last year.
Northwestern lost left tackle Rashawn Slater, who opted out and declared for the NFL draft in the summer. He's widely expected to be chosen in the first two rounds.
To fill that spot, NU turned to freshman Peter Skowronski from Maine South. A true freshman starting his first Big Ten game at left tackle is beyond rare.
So while there are encouraging signs for the Wildcats in filling some key spots, it's tough to ignore Maryland's glaring lack of talent. This is head coach Mike Locksley's second season, so it seemed reasonable to expect more from the Terps. Alabama transfer Taulia Tagovailoa tossed 3 interceptions and showed little resemblance to his older brother.
Maryland is a 20-point home underdog to Minnesota this Friday, so Vegas isn't expecting much from the Terps, either. Northwestern will get a good measuring-stick game at Iowa this week. The Hawkeyes opened with a narrow loss at Purdue, so this is a chance for NU to show it can contend in the West division.
The feeling here is Illinois was more competitive than the final score showed. The Illini had some bad breaks and mistakes that turned things in the wrong direction quickly. They lost a fumble on the second play of the game, then Wisconsin seemed to get a good spot on a fourth-and-one before its second TD. Later in the game, Illinois got an unfriendly spot on fourth-and-one and had to give up the ball.
Once things start to go badly against the Badgers, they have a tendency to tilt the field in their direction, making it tough to recover.
"Did it surprise me that we performed like that? Yes, it did," Smith said this week. "We won't continue to play football like that. We're a better football team than that. I'm a better coach than that. I've got to get my team ready to go better than that, and I will."
There were a couple of alarming facets to that game, though, for Illinois. The defensive backs were basically noncompetitive. Wisconsin QB Graham Mertz got plenty of glory for hitting 20 of 21 passes for 5 touchdowns in his first start, but most of those were easy throws with no DBs in sight. Hard to say if that was Mertz's talent or the Illini coverage being almost nonexistent.
Illinois also needs more quality skill players. QB Brandon Peters seemed to do the best he could under the circumstances and ran for 75 yards. Smith sent in sophomore QB Isaiah Williams a few times, which didn't make much sense since Williams is a runner and Illinois was way behind.
"We wanted to get Isaiah a couple plays, but Brandon is our quarterback," Smith said. "A little changeup is all that is."
Needless to say, the Illini need a bounce-back game badly when it hosts Purdue on Saturday.
Carbondale calling: The state's only FCS game of the fall season will be played Friday when Southern Illinois hosts Southeast Missouri. The game can be streamed on ESPN3. Both the Missouri Valley and Ohio Valley are planning to play their conference seasons in the spring, beginning in late February.
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