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TCR State of Mind: A Midseason Roundtable

We have now hit our bye week and are more than halfway through the season. The TCR staff looks back at the season that's been, and ahead to the future.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Man, time flies when you're watching Illinois Football--It's Week 8 of the season already.  The staff thought this bye week would be a good opportunity to sit down and discuss some of the major headlines surrounding the team. Thank you to everyone who participated!


Bryce: We are now seven games into the season, what expectations has the team met or failed to meet for you? I’ve said this earlier, but I don’t like the shotgun offense we were running with Lunt. Bailey was running more read-option and maybe that will help us score some more. The offensive lineman have the chance to be more aggressive when we are running the ball, that could also help them. Overall though, this season has definitely not been what I was expecting.

Brad: Afternoon gents, hope your Mondays are as good as a Monday can be.  I’ll jump on the offense train to start and say that I agree with Bryce in that the offense hasn’t been as consistent as I thought they would be.  As a fan of the mobile QB idea, I was a bit skeptical about Wes working his way into the offense from the start.  Nate (don’t mean to drive too far into last season) was the guy we really liked to see take over where Juice (so much for not going too far back) left off in ‘09, and it really was fun watching him fix broken plays with his feet.  While Wes may have a better arm, I just don’t think he’s the BEST quarterback to fit into Cubit’s offense.  An Aaron Bailey looks really good as long as he’s able to throw the ball well.

Bryce: Yeah, agreed on most points. It was a weird transition from Juice to Nate to then Lunt. Really it would be okay if Lunt was just a pocket quarterback. The problem is he has absolutely no mobility at all and that really hurts us. Aaron Bailey reminds me more of a Juice than a Nate, because he’s a little bigger and has a cannon. To harp on the mobile QB debate, in college football if your QB has no mobility whatsoever then you're playing 10 on 11. We aren’t good enough to play 10 on 11. The inconsistency of the entire team has been alarming as well. We never seem to be able to play to expectations, like regular teams. We should beat teams we are supposed to beat and lose to teams we are supposed to lose to. Instead we lose to Purdue and beat #1 Ohio State.

Brad: Couldn’t agree more with the 10 vs 11 point.  In the B1G, the QB with the highest ranked (as of 10/13) rushing attack is Tommy Armstrong Jr for Nebraska (#12).  Then you’ve got Tanner McEvoy (#19) of Wisconsin, J.T. Barrett of Ohio St (#21), C.J. Brown of Maryland (#22), and Chris Streveler of Minnesota (#25) in the top 25 of all rushers in the conference.  For reference, Josh Ferguson is 10th and Donovonn Young is 34th.  Aaron Bailey is now 53rd after his performance against Wisconsin, and he’s played one quarter of football this season. Reilly is 91st, and Wes is dead last at 128th.  If I’m a coaching the Illini offense, it’s time to give AB the ball.  He’s your best chance at the QB position to win football games.

Bryce: Yes, if Aaron Bailey doesn’t start the next game, I don’t know what I’m going to with myself.

Jim: Bailey needs to start the next game simply because I can’t watch another down of O’Football. The Baildozer may not be the best fit, but Cubit has to make the necessary adjustments and tailor some sort of makeshift offense for him. Do I think he’ll make that much of a difference in the final outcome? No. But at this point why not make the change until Lunt comes back?

Brad: I’m curious Jim... Could you elaborate more on how Bailey isn’t the best fit for the offense?  I’m all about hearing the opposite side.

Jim: There were rumors near the beginning of the season that Bailey wasn’t even Cubit’s 3rd choice at QB--he apparently preferred Crouch over him. I personally think the offense would be fine with Bailey running things, but I can see why Cubit may have some concerns.  We’ve obviously been running a passing-centered attack this year and there have been some questions about AB’s accuracy and decision making (the INT against Wisconsin, for example).  The issue I have with this is that, for the most part, we haven’t been throwing the ball downfield much; Bailey shouldn’t have a problem with the short screens/flats/slants.  I think his mobility and arm strength can offset those issues.

Bryce: I feel like Bailey gives us a chance even if he may not be the best QB. We are only seven weeks into the season, but personally I’m a little tired of Lunt. But agreed, I’m not going to watch any more O’Football the next couple of weeks. I’m excited to see what AB can do when given a full game.

Trevor: If Lunt were to keep posting the numbers he was posting before the injury, I would not tire of him. Ever. He actually reminds me of Jay Cutler in several ways (Bears fans, feel free to cringe now). He’s not really a mobile guy and I suppose he’s kind of boring to watch from a fan’s perspective but he’ll also get you the most pedestrian and quiet 330 yards, two touchdowns you’ve ever seen. Throws the occasional bad interception, much like Cutler, but has a good arm.

Matt: I pretty much disagree with all of the thoughts on Bailey thus far. From what we know, he has a solid arm but cannot read a defense nor throw an accurate ball down the field 75+ percent of the time. He’ll learn how to do those things in time (hopefully), but every single throw in the Wisconsin game was cringe-worthy. As for the idea that Lunt’s mobility was a problem, I think that only really came into play because the offensive line has been so monumentally terrible.
If the OL could protect Lunt against any defense for longer than 1.5 seconds, which has happened at times this season, his mobility would no longer appear to be a problem. An offense of handoffs, quick passes, and the occasional deep ball would be completely fine with Lunt, but none of the blockers are doing any of the blocking. The only way in which Bailey is a better fit for the offense of the first six weeks than Lunt is because he has an ability to do something when the pocket collapses, which is does frequently, but he’s not an inherently better fit for the offense.

Bryce: I agree the line is terrible, but it is also hard when we never run the ball. It is easier on the lineman when we are running the ball because they get to run at the defense. On a pass play they wait for the line to come. Baylor’s offensive line runs at the defense on every play and it’s part of why they are so successful.

Trevor: I agree with Matt. I think it’s also important to keep what Bailey did last Saturday in perspective. He played a couple series against the second string Wisconsin defense; one of them resulted in a touchdown, one of them in an interception. The throws were consistently bad. I would try to not get too excited with what Bailey can bring to this offense because there was a reason Cubit preferred Lunt, O’Toole, and Crouch to him this spring. Not saying his performance was a total fluke, but I wouldn’t be touting him as the savior to the offense/team.

Bryce: Yep, agreed I’m a little too Bailey-happy right now. The thing with him is I just want to watch him play a full game so bad. He was a four star for a reason. And I totally agree on Cutler putting up pedestrian numbers.

Brad:  Fair points (and cringing complete)!  Very interesting that AB wasn’t even on the radar in the beginning of the year. My next question then would focus on the play-calling in general.  Is the pass-happy offense the best way for the Illini to be successful?  Or would you rather see more of the zone-read offense that we ran in the Wisconsin game last weekend?
Also, on the point of the Wes Lunt/Jay Cutler comparison, I feel like we really haven’t used the size of our receiving core to our advantage.  When you have players that are in the 6ft and taller range, they should be getting WAAYYY more looks than they are (see Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall).  Not sure if that’s a coaching thing, or an offensive line not giving our guys enough time to throw thing, but that needs to improve.

Jim: I would love to see us transition to more of a zone-read under Bailey; I think it could be extremely effective with the personnel we already have in place. We’d have a four-headed rushing attack with Bailey, Ferguson, Young, and Church getting touches. When we run PA passes, Dude-K and Malik Turner can be on the field for the quick bubble screens and slants. Then, of course, Allison will play the role of the deep threat and (hopefully) keep the defense honest.

Matt: I think all of these points are sound. With Bailey starting against Minnesota, Cubit has two weeks to put together a plan that can work for Bailey-- it’ll have to be very different from the current offense. I expect to see the read option and plenty of funky trick plays, combined with short/screen passes and easy reads in the passing game. Bailey has a chance to do well in an offense like that, but it unfortunately limits the production of two great receivers and relies heavily on the offensive line being good at something, which they haven’t been at any time this year.

Bryce: The problem at the beginning of the year was AB not getting enough reps. In Rantoul, he struggled, and was moved down with the 3s. Obviously there is no blocking there, so he wasn’t able to do a lot. It felt like he had kind of been buried, but he played better and worked his way up. I agree with Jim; if you’re going with Bailey, then pass-happy is not the way to go. Even with O’Toole we ran the ball more. Because of Lunt’s bad mobility it was our only option, but now we can’t throw every down. We need to run the read option with Bailey and get Josh Ferguson some openings. This is also easier on the lineman, who get to block downhill on run plays. Bailey can get the ball out quick on passing plays if we were to run that read option you are talking about Jim. I can just imagine Dude-K scoring on a post.

Brad: Would you then consider moving Bailey into a HB/WR position a-la Miles Osei?

Trevor: I would have absolutely no problem seeing that happen, but Bailey has made it abundantly clear that he is here to play the QB position, and he seems to refuse to play anything but that. I would imagine he’d consider transferring if Cubit came to him with the idea of moving him to a HB/WR role permanently. Though I’d love to see it happen. Imagine the trick plays we could run; O’Toole is in the backfield and throws a little screen pass out to Bailey who then throws it down the field or takes off running. I agree with Jim that I’d love to see an option or zone-read offense implemented and Bailey could be very useful at either QB or HB in this system. I just don’t think that’s going to happen, unfortunately.

Bryce: This is why we give Bailey a full shot against Minnesota. Who knows maybe he ends up playing like he did against Wisconsin, maybe he can’t beat a college defense.

Trevor: Minnesota has the 62nd-ranked pass defense and the 32nd-ranked run defense so I would imagine it won’t be too incredibly difficult for Bailey to work in reps in the passing game. Northwestern was able to throw the ball with ease against the Gophers last weekend (although it didn’t translate into a win). Their run defense is pretty good and our running game has been incredibly disappointing this season so I think the opportunity will certainly present itself for Bailey to get some reps in as a true QB throwing out of the backfield. He has a stronger arm than people think; with a flick of his wrist he threw several deep balls last weekend. It’s just about getting the reps to know where to place that deep ball accurately.

Bryce: Does having Bailey in there help our running backs and overall running game?

Trevor: That’s an excellent question. It’s really hard to say because we’ve only seen such a limited amount of action from Bailey. He has such an ability to run the ball that I would think defenders will have to switch some of their focus to him, which would leave Ferguson and/or Young with the opportunity to pick up some yards in the open field.

Bryce: Any chance we win that game, or other games this season if Bailey is at the helm? The defense seems to have gotten worse, but some of those earlier games might have been bigger blowouts. The thing that is so interesting between Lunt and Bailey is that the team becomes two different teams with either at QB.

Trevor: And yet at the same time I don’t really think having one or the other in at QB affects our chances of winning/losing any more games this season. After the non-conference portion of the year, most people had determined that our offense was good and our defense had shown no improvement whatsoever, maybe they were worse. Then Lunt went down and it looked like neither the offense nor the defense was going to be any good. Then Bailey comes in and from the small sample size we’ve seen, it looks like he’s returned the offense to their status from earlier this season; good but not great. So now we’ve become the same team we were before Lunt’s injury, essentially. The game-plan is different because Bailey is a totally different quarterback, but the dynamic of the team hasn’t changed: good on offense, terrible on defense.

Bryce: I don’t see how the defense is going to get any better. Since we are in the B1G opposing teams are just going to try to run the ball down our throats until we can stop them. We have to stack nine in the box and hope for the best. Looking down the road, we have Minnesota next, who’s going to run, run, and run. And basically every other team left is the same except for maybe Penn State.

Trevor: I was actually surprised at how effective stacking nine in the box was against Wisconsin. There were several three-and-outs where the defense just stopped Gordon three times in a row. Selling out on the run seems like the defense’s only chance to be successful from this point forward, because as you point out Bryce, every team left on the schedule has an effective run game except for maybe Penn State (which, by the way, is our best chance to win a game the rest of the season in my opinion).

Brad:  I’ve gotta stick with Minnesota for now.  Iowa was my pick, but after last week, I’ve changed my mind.  But on to the defense, there really is no reason why they shouldn’t sell out on the run.  That’s the weakest part of our defense and quite honestly, I’d rather get beat deep by a good throw or a solid play fake than be burned by 200+ yards on the ground. Looking towards future development and growth of the team, that’s the area I want to be most dominant.  You’re NEVER out of a game if your defense is rock solid.

Brad:  Diving more into the defensive side of the ball, what is the first step for us to improve defensively.  Do we instantly get better with a better coaching staff or is it a lack of talent that’s causing us to be inconsistent? For me, it’s clearly a coaching issue.  Once they announced that Tim Banks would return as our defensive coordinator, I really wasn’t sure what the mentality was from the DIA.  A good coach will be able to use the resources they have available to them to shape their team properly.  I feel like we have greatly under achieved in that department regardless of how bad we were last year, and I really hope that in the future, we’ll be a consistent team defensively.

Bryce: I agree about the defense thing, it never seems like we can have both a good defense and offense together. And sometimes we're just terrible at both (see: 2012). Could you imagine the 2013 offense with the 2011 defense? On that note, until this year's offense can prove otherwise I think last year's offense with Nate was better. It's not just the skill players, this year we have an upgrade there, it's the offensive line and running game.

Trevor: No matter who is implemented next season as DC and no matter how talented a coach they are, I doubt there will instantly be great results. Improvement? Sure. And I guess there is really nowhere to go but up when you’re one of the worst rush defenses in the nation. But I agree that the lack of consistency on the defensive side of the ball has everything to do with coaching and very little to do with the players’ talent level. Just look at Bryce’s post on the rush defense; it isn’t that the players aren’t talented, it’s that they’re taking poor angles on tackles, they don’t know where they should be lined up, and they’re not reading plays correctly. That’s on the coaching staff.


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