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I'm going to let you in on a little secret.
I don't watch virtually any baseball.
For most, that barely qualifies as a secret, and it's certainly not a terribly intriguing one. For a guy who has a side hustle writing about baseball, though, specifically fantasy baseball, it's perhaps a small bit more noteworthy.
Personally, I just don't have as much time as I used to. With two small boys and a wife who hates sports, it's not often I have a chance to sit down and watch a baseball game. My limited free time is just better spent on other things.
More pragmatically, the prevalence of information available in 2021 makes it easier to do my job without having to actually watch the action. Sure, I might be marginally better at the job if I laid eyes on a hitter's swing or how a pitcher is controlling his pitches, but between sites like Baseball Savant, Fangraphs, and where I write, Baseball Prospectus - among others - anything I need to know about a player's performance is pretty well quantified already.
Sometimes it does lead me to draw the wrong conclusions on a player. Carlos Martinez can go six scoreless and look great in the box score, but in the start he could have been effectively wild and have had no idea where it was going. Numbers can still lie.
If anyone had looked at the box score from the UTSA game, they might surmise that Artur Sitkowski had a decent game. Sure, 22-for-43 is pretty pedestrian, but three touchdowns to no interceptions while throwing for 266 yards looks pretty good.
The box score doesn't tell the whole story, though. For those who watched, they saw that Sitkowski was rarely accurate and often overthrowing or underthrowing his targets. Some of the catches that were made, like the Casey Washington catch along the sideline late in the fourth quarter, required impressive feats of athleticism. Even the wide-open touchdown throws to Deuce Spann and Daniel Barker weren't easy catches - Spann had to slow down to make the grab, and Barker had to dance to keep a foot in bounds.
Even going back to the Nebraska game, in which Sitkowski was 12-for-15 for 124 yards and two touchdowns, the sophomore wasn't terribly accurate. Winning cures all, though, so an athletic touchdown grab by Luke Ford is a highlight and not a warning sign.
If Saturday's game did one thing, it cleared up the question of whether or not Sitkowski was better suited to lead a Bret Bielema offense than Brandon Peters. It was at least a valid question after the Nebraska win, and if Sitkowski had turned in another "Wisconsin game manager" performance against UTSA it would probably be a debate in and around Champaign this week.
Now, it's clear Sitkowski is a capable backup, if only for this year at least, and that he shouldn't be expected to deliver much more than "pressed into action in a winnable game and plays serviceably" moving forward. Hopefully, Peters is back for Virginia and we can see this offense more closely resemble the one that Bielema and Tony Petersen expected to have on the field this year.
-It's hard to keep perspective after a loss like that, but it is worth remembering the Illini were without Peters, starting tailback Chase Brown, starting inside linebacker Calvin Hart Jr., likely starting receiver Brian Hightower and then lost starting defensive end Keith Randolph early in Saturday's game. That's a lot of absent "starting" to overcome, even against a Conference USA opponent.
-The most frustrating part of Saturday, at least for this Illini fan, was the inability or unwillingness to adjust to what UTSA was doing on both sides of the ball. UTSA head coach Jeff Traylor clearly watched the Illini game against Nebraska, came up with a gameplan to negate the things that worked for Illinois and put that into effect.
And Illinois had no answers. After getting to Adrian Martinez for five sacks in the opener, Illinois sacked Frank Harris just once. UTSA got the ball out quickly and in a variety of creative ways, and the Illini defense continued to allow completions and chunks of yardage.
On offense, the running game that gained 167 yards against Nebraska struggled to get any traction, and faced with stacked boxes the gameplan didn't adjust. Through two games, the team is averaging 148 yards per game on the ground; last year, they averaged 196.1 yards per game.
Maybe that was a function of being without Peters and Brown - without a quarterback you can trust, you have to turn more to the running game regardless of how the opponent is lining up, and without your best running back that strategy may be doomed to fail - but it didn't inspire a lot of confidence in the coaches' ability to make in-game adjustments, a perpetual frustration with the last regime as well.
-Isaiah Williams' transformation into a go-to playmaker on offense has been swift and impressive. I'll have more of the number One combo, please.
-Piggybacking off the previous point about the defense giving up easy gains, this was the first time, in my memory at least, that a team has so pointedly and brazenly gone after Devon Witherspoon. And, even more surprisingly, it worked more often than it didn't.
That's almost certainly a credit to Zakhari Franklin, who is probably on the short list of the best receivers the Illini will face this year, but it was shocking after Witherspoon has emerged as a bonafide, no-doubt starter at cornerback. To his credit, Witherspoon got better as the game wore on and I still have few concerns about his ability on the outside, but by that point the Roadrunners had already achieved their goal.
-I was actually disappointed, and I think Robert tweeted something about this as well, when UTSA got so vanilla with their playcalling on their final drive. After keeping the Illini off balance all evening - and in the wake of a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in which they imposed their will on the Illini defense with nine runs and just one pass - they got conservative and allowed Illinois to get the ball back and eventually have a shot at tying the game. If it would have cost them, Traylor likely would have never forgiven himself for going conservative when the game was on the line.
-I'm not sure if I'm alone in this, but I actually didn't hate the two first-down runs as the Illini were trying to mount a comeback. It's the last thing the defense is expecting in that scenario, and done well they could have yielded big gains. The result was suboptimal, but I understood and appreciated the process.
-Now, it's on to Virginia. If Illinois had taken care of UTSA, this game would feel like one we could and maybe should win. That would probably be folly - the team's first road game of the season, against a Power 5 school, and one that was 56th in SP+ coming into the season, no less - but that's likely what the feeling would have been, at least in some corners of Illini fandom.
After UTSA, I think the hope is just to see improvement, and a good dose of competence. If we can do that, there might still be six wins to be found on the schedule if you squint. If it's more of the same, there might be less squinting and more eye-covering in store for fans this fall.