So, a Power 5 Conference team is supposed to just roll over any FCS school, especially a directional school from your own state, right?
As former Indiana coach and current College Game Day analyst Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast!” Every year college football sees a Power 5 team lose to a lower division opponent, and last week Kansas (does Kansas football even count?) lost at home to Nicholls State. This past Saturday, Southern Illinois put up almost 700 yards of offense and 41 points against an SEC foe.
So, these games are not as easy as they seem on the schedule. But for the progress-starved fans of the University of Illinois, it just feels as though we need a convincing, blow-out victory against anyone.
But Western Illinois wasn’t having it. And I give WIU some credit. First off, the FCS athletes want to prove that they belong on the same field as the big boys. They will go to their grave telling their grandchildren that they were simply overlooked. The games against Power 5 teams is not only a way for the smaller schools to fund their programs, but it’s a way for the athletes and the coaches of the FCS schools to compete and to measure their own growth. A Leatherneck player is going to be far more excited to play on the Big Ten network against Illinois than they are to be playing on no network against Missouri State.
And let’s not forget: Illinois was playing with about 2/3 of a squad. Less than that at some positions. In the second half of this game, Illinois was missing their top 6 defensive backs….3 suspensions, 1 injury and 2 ejections.
So let’s get to the analysis, and it’s really not very pretty.
If I am preparing a game plan against Illinois’ defense right now…
I’m running jet sweeps at Isaiah Gay until Illinois stops it. Time and again, Gay was caught with his eye directly down the line of scrimmage, looking at fat dudes rather than looking at fast dudes behind them who might get the ball. In fact, if I’m grading Gay on this game, it’s a big fat F, and he earns a seat on the bench, because, once again, Owen Carney outplayed him, both in contain responsibility and in physicality.
Illinois appears to be making a concerted effort to better support their defensive tackles by emphasizing a squeeze technique by the ends.
The result is Illinois really isn’t getting gouged up the middle like they have in the past (good), but now Illinois is not getting any effective speed rush off the edge and Gay is just getting beat around the weak side edge. As I stated last week, football coaches at every level are copycats, so expect South Florida to stress Illinois in this way at Soldier Field on Saturday.
Illinois is also playing some very vanilla stuff defensively. They seemed determined to stay in man-to-man coverage exclusively as long as they could, but WIU proved to be effective with a lot of horizontal “man-busters” and Illinois probably loses this game outright if they didn’t adjust. Illinois didn’t show any line stunts, and blitzes, or any real coverage combinations in this game, basically lining up to show USF as little as possible, and also putting a lot of stress on depth-level defenders.
Western took the opening kickoff and marched downfield for a touchdown in 6 plays,
getting Illinois defenders horribly out of position on 5 of them. (This is a problem, as 2 main tenets of defensive football are alignment and assignment.) WIU used fast-motion to create alignment issues for Illinois, and as I mentioned before, Gay was playing poor assignment football on the first two plays. On the third play, last week’s star, Jake Hansen got caught peeking into the backfield and WIU executed a standard bootleg pass into the flat for a big gain. It was so successful that they ran another one on the very next play.
Then, they went right back to the jet sweeps that Illinois hasn’t ben able to defend. This time, walk-on safety Michael Marchese was up in the box as Illinois tried to adjust, and Marchese just wasn’t athletic enough to make the play in space….remember, he’s a walk-on for a reason. Other Illini defenders freshman Quan Martin, and junior Stanley Green overran the play, and then another freshman, Sydney Brown, badly whiffed on the tackle. Brown, who grew up in Canada and played his last two years of high school ball at a very low level of school in Bradenton, Florida, is athletic enough, but he’s taking faulty angles and is blowing coverage assignments. Again, he really shouldn’t be starting a game this year, and, really, should red-shirt if Illinois had adequate athletic depth on the squad.
Finally, the touchdown pass to put WIU up 7-0 again isolated Brown by flashing a hook route in front of him (which is the LBer responsibility), while the Senior QB for WIU threw a nice post pattern over Brown’s head. The post beat Marchese, who, like Brown, shouldn’t be out there to start a game for a P5 school.
As bad of a defensive series as Illinois began the game with, the offense was worse.
On the opening play of the game, QB AJ Bush threw a hitch route to the wrong side of the field. He threw to the side that WIU had a man-advantage on. Illinois had one blocker and WIU had 3 defenders. Still Trenard Davis was able to make the catch and get four yards. On the second play, it was another mistake by Bush. Bush locked onto his receiver immediately, rolls toward the receiver, but then RaVon Bonner whiffs badly (there’s that phrase again) in protection. Instead of heaving the ball out of bounds, Bush takes a bad sack, and leaves Illinois at 3rd and 13.
Offensive coordinator Rod Smith drew up a nice third down play, but, for the 3rd play in a row, Bush mangled it. Illinois went 5 wide and had 4 vertical routes on the play, effectively clearing out an underneath drag route for Davis. The offensive line did it’s job…there was NO pressure, but Bush took off on a scramble within a second and a half, never looking to the open crosser. I looked to see if any offensive linemen peeled out to lead block, as this would indicate a designed clear-out quarterback run, but Vederian Lowe and Kendrick Green were set up in straight pocket protection…meaning AJ Bush got 3 plays and screwed every one of them up.
The mistakes kept coming for Illinois defense following the punt.
Gay was immediately sucked in and lost contain on his 3rd jet sweep in 7 plays. Illinois got TWO 15-yard penalties on the same play, immediately putting Western back into scoring position. McGuire then makes his first mistake, thankfully, as he checks down on a boot pass, which fell incomplete, all the while a backside corner route by the tight end was uncovered. Would have been an easy WIU touchdown. Western ends up self destructing on the drive and has to punt. (again, this was to no credit of the Illini defense….this was a young FCS team on the road, making mistakes.)
Illinois’ second possession was as bad as the first. Again, Illinois starts out with a wide receiver screen, but this time, converted linebacker Justice Williams gets completely blown up by the WIU safety, and the completed pass is broken up for no gain. You would think a senior, who used to play linebacker would have the necessary physicality to block an edge defender for an FCS school, but Williams got DESTROYED.
Moving forward to 3rd down, Bush throws the ball to the correct (wide open receiver) guy, but throws it 10 feet over his head…another 3 and out.
The offensive game plan was confounding, to say the least, because no Illinois running back got to run the ball until 1:15 remained in the first quarter.
For a team who says it is committed to the run first, and for a team who has better quality depth at running back than any other position in this game, it is a curious strategic maneuver.
On the third possession, Illinois moved the ball a bit before stalling and then settled for a punt out of field goal formation, which resulted in a nice field position move to pin WIU back at their own 2.
At this point, the Illini defense finally started making some positive plays. and with the exception of one well-contested touchdown pass late in the game, WIU never threatened again. Even then, the well contested TD pass was thrown against DB who really are 7-12 on the depth chart.
At the beginning of the second quarter, true freshman quarterback MJ Rivers came in after Bush suffered a mild hamstring strain. Rivers missed his first read, but generally showed better decision-making than Bush. Rivers has played a lot more football the last 3 years than Bush, even at the high school level, live action trumps practice reps.
Then, the most Illinois-thing happened to Illinois…..
Edwin Carter, a true freshman wide receiver from Jacksonville (FL) Sandalwood, gets in his first game action, AND ON HIS FIRST PLAY catches a touchdown pass from Rivers. A great moment for the kid. It was more a function of excellent play design, and bad alignment for WIU because the post was uncovered, but still….first play, touchdown!
On the next possession, Illinois drove down the field and went back to Carter in the red zone, where Rivers thew high to Carter, but Carter made a terrific catch while getting blown up by the WIU safety. Touchdown #2 for Edwin Carter, who, in the most-Illinois thing ever, suffered a gruesome, season-ending knee injury on the play. Tough kid, great catch, and a sickening result for an Illinois receiver for the second week in a row.
The second half was more like what Illinois fans had hoped for, with the exception that this Illinois team still doesn’t have enough talented offensive playmakers to put space between them and any opponent. Illinois dominated on both sides of the ball, blocked a punt for a touchdown, ran the ball a little more to support the freshman quarterback, and sealed away a 20-point (spread covering) win.
So, what do we make of this?
First off, this was the second suspension game, and if it is the last suspension game, then, Illinois will be getting some really talented players back next week for USF. If it is the second of 3 suspension games, then it will be an ugly display for Lovie Smith’s squad in it’s return to Soldier Field, where the Illini crowds are less than what Mike Thomas thought they would be. (Of course they are…..Mike Thomas’ reign as athletic director was basically a toxic waste dump of an administration) Chicago is a pro-sports town. Illinois football hasn’t been competitive. Ain’t nobody got time for that. USF isn’t a sexy Power 5 opponent, so I expect to see a paltry crowd in Chicago.
Hopefully Illinois gets wide receiver Ricky Smalling and defensive back Tony Adams back from injury. Hopefully, the Illini’s top defensive lineman, Jamal Milan, is ready for a few reps. Hopefully, the 5 other Illinois starters are returned to the field from suspension. Hopefully AJ Bush is healthy and makes better decisions. Hopefully, the weather in Chicago is really nice and a few thousand extra fans decide to come watch the game.
And Hopefully, the Illini find a way to upset USF. A starving fan-base needs some positive vibes.