CHAMPAIGN — Illinois football fans were not the only ones disappointed in Saturday’s hard-fought 42-34 win over Southern Illinois at Memorial Stadium.
Senior linebacker Jonathan Brown and his roommate, junior safety Earnest Thomas, spent their Saturday night watching the game.
“I wasn’t satisfied. I felt like we have things that we have to improve on,’’ said Brown. “We saw a couple of mental errors, little things that we can improve on like fitting better on defense. Overall, nothing too big. Everything I saw can be corrected.’’
But was it easier watching the film after a victory, the first for the Illini since a 44-0 win over Charleston Southern on Sept. 15, 2012?
“It’s definitely easier,’’ he said. “It might not have been the prettiest win, but it was a win. So it’s something you can build on. The morale around here is whole lot better. It’s always easier to watch the film after a win.’’
The Illinois defense, which will face a very talented Cincinnati team this week, gave up 17 points in the final 17 minutes, 48 seconds, and Illinois coach Tim Beckman pointed out that six sophomores or freshmen played in the defensive secondary for the Illini.
“We’re very, very young back there,’’ he said. “I’ve mentioned that from the start. I was real happy with the way we played in the first half. Now the second half is a whole another question.
“There are definitely things that we can learn from each W that we get. This program is about winning and we have to learn how to win.’’
And while the defensive secondary allowed 341 passing yards against Southern Illinois, an FCS school, Beckman said the entire unit needs improvement.
“Defensively, we gave up the long ball too much,’’ he said. “Experience, again, shows that we are going to have to improve that each and every week. Because, people are going to attack you off the things you didn’t do so well in your first game.
“I know that we worked hard on it (Sunday) night, and we will continue try to improve with the pressure on the quarterback and of course, the coverage that takes place.’’
But, defense isn’t the only area that Beckman is looking to make some big improvement this week.
The offense, which did score 42 points and roll up 464 yards, still had several breakdowns and only one offensive lineman graded out positively in the film.
“They didn’t play well enough,’’ Beckman said.
And what did he want to see, “a physicalness, a presence, moving people off the football.’’
That was evident in the numbers as Illinois (1-0) was held to just 49 rushing yards and the Illini quarterbacks were sacked five times on Saturday. But Beckman pointed out that it wasn’t completely on the five offensive linemen.
“There are times there were holes there, we just needed to hit it and take it,’’ he said of running game. “It wasn’t just DY (Donovonn Young) or Josh (Ferguson). It’s learning the structure of what we are trying to do offensively. I have no question that they can do it, because I’ve seen them do it. We just have to do it better.’’
Ferguson, who led Illinois with 49 rushing yards to go along with 102 receiving yards, echoed those same comments.
“From a running back standpoint, we need to be more patient and find the holes quicker,’’ he said. “Our linemen did all they could do. We made a few adjustments at halftime, which helped in the second half, we just have to build off of that.’’
Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who was named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week on Monday after a career-high 416 passing yards, admitted that he made some mistakes in his calls.
“On any protection issues that we had, two that I can think of were on me, not getting the protection slid the right way,’’ he said. “That’s something I have to do a better job of, and it will help me feel better waking up on Sunday.’’
Beckman said everything from Saturday would be evaluated and corrected, even the special teams.
While he was pleased with his return units, especially V’Angelo Bentley and his 100-yard kickoff return for a score, the other units like the punt team and kickoff coverage unit were not up to par.
“We did not punt the ball very well at crucial times,’’ he said. “And, we had five missed tackles on the 60-yard kickoff return. You are not going to be successful if you are going to miss tackles.’’
Heading into Saturday’s game against Cincinnati, a 42-7 winner over Purdue last week, Beckman is following the philosophy of Illinois basketball coach John Groce.
“We need to try to build momentum off of Ws,’’ he said. “Again, we are talking about positive energy. Just like my man John Groce talks about all of the time. We’re going to build on positiveness, and we’re going to move this program forward.
“We know we have a heck of a battle this next week against the Cincinnati Bearcats’’
Kickoff this Saturday is set for 11 a.m., the game will be televised by ESPN2 and it can be heard locally on WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1