Facing the reigning MAC-champion Toledo Rockets was a tall order for Illinois on Saturday night, but they pulled through with a 30-28 win at Memorial Stadium in their season opener.
It was far from perfect throughout the contest, but in the end Illinois was able to get a few key stops and a handful of key plays from their offense, and it led to a 1-0 record as they prepare for a Friday road trip to Lawrence, Kansas.
Here is what we observed in Saturday’s game
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Luke Altmyer sets expectations for season ahead
Luke Altmyer replaces Tommy DeVito as the Illini quarterback, and though there were hiccups, his performance is largely in-line with fans can realistically expect this season.
He ended up 18-of-26 for 211 yards and two touchdowns in the air, but just as impressively, he rushed for 69 yards, picking up a few key first downs and showing mobility that could serve him well against some of the tenacious pass-rushes he will face this season.
Altmyer’s accuracy was one of his highly-touted traits, and while he missed on a few throws, he was largely pinpoint accurate through much of the game.
Illinois’ defense still faces questions
A team that lost a ton of quality players in its secondary struggled at times against a Toledo team that returned its starting quarterback from last season, with Dequan Finn passing for 230 yards and two touchdowns in the game.
The real challenge for Illinois was containing him when he opted to leave the pocket, with 75 rushing yards to his credit in the game.
In all, Toledo was 7-of-15 on third down and converted both fourth downs it faced, including in the second quarter when they converted near the goal line to take a halftime lead over the Illini. The Rockets racked up 416 total yards of offense.
There was some good news on the defensive side for Illinois, however. Tarique Barnes had two tackles for loss and was a constant threat all over the field, and safety Miles Scott had six tackles, as well as his first career interception and touchdown at a key moment in the third quarter.
Johnny Newton and Keith Randolph were relatively quiet, but they will both remain huge keys to Illinois as they move forward through a tough part of their schedule.
Receiving threats should balance the offense
Isaiah Williams came into the year as arguably the biggest threat in the pass-catching department for Illinois, and though he did have five receptions on Saturday, two of his teammates really stood out.
Pat Bryant was banged up during the game, limping around on the sidelines at times, but he also stood up with six catches for 64 yards and a pair of touchdowns, cementing himself as a strong option for Altmyer.
Casey Washington also had four catches for 54 yards, and he made arguably the biggest play of the game as Illinois faced a fourth down situation in the fourth quarter. On fourth-and-four, Altmyer immediately got pressured up the middle of the field and had to throw a ball down the right sideline, where Washington jumped up and hauled down a 33-yard reception to keep the game alive.
Caleb Griffin would ultimately make a 29-yard field goal to give Illinois the victory.
Shooting themselves in the foot
If there was one thing that Illinois will need to learn from in this game, it was their complete lack of discipline, as they committed 10 penalties for 100 total yards in the contest.
That became especially painful late in the second quarter as Toledo took the lead. Illinois would have gotten off the field with a three-and-out, but cornerback Tahevon Nicholson committed a pass interference penalty to extend the drive.
Nicholson would get hit with another pass interference flag near midfield on the drive, and Toledo ultimately scored with four seconds left in the half to take the lead.
If there is a silver lining, those types of mistakes would likely have been enough to doom other iterations of this Illinois team, but the fact they were able to persevere and still win shows how much the team has improved its depth and resiliency.