Undefeated! When we last met, people were up in arms over the horrifyingly bad rushing attack and disappointing performance in the first three quarters against a clearly inferior team. This week...well, everybody is complaining about the exact same things. Illini football!
THE WHEN AND WHERE
Game: Illinois Fighting Illini vs. Washington Huskies (-13.5)
Time: 3:00 PM Central Time - Saturday, September 13th
Place: Husky Stadium - Seattle, Washington
Okay, this was, in my opinion, the best-looking uniform during Nike's reveal event. In person, it was fantastic. I'm excited to see how it looks on TV.
THE INJURY REPORT
I'm not going to include everybody, but here are the notable injuries for Saturday's game:
CB #28 Jaylen Dunlap, Probable
LB #34 Mike Svetina, Out
LS #54 Zach Hirth, Out
DE #58 Kenny Nelson, Out
RT #75 Pat Flavin, Out
DE #97 Paul James, Out
It's unfortunate that Kenny Nelson remains out, but I have to say: I love watching Jihad Ward play. That dude is just a monster. Paul James remains out with an undisclosed issue. Take this speculation with at least three buckets of salt, because I don't want to discredit James if it's incorrect, but I'd hypothesize that James is out due to disciplinary reasons, potentially related to academics. There's no sources or anything here, but James had a bit of trouble getting admitted into the school, so it seems like fair speculation. Hopefully, he is able to get everything worked out or healed and get back on the field as soon as possible.
THE PASSING OFFENSE
Your name to know in the passing game comes from exactly the position you'd expect: quarterback. Cyler Miles, a sophomore from Colorado, was rather unspectacular throwing the ball in his first game behind center. Miles wasn't available to play in the opener against Hawaii, but against Eastern Washington he managed to put together a pedestrian stat line: 14-of-24 passing for 180 yards and a touchdown.
That comes out to a decent 7.5 yards per attempt, but that number becomes much less impressive when you take into account that nearly a third of Miles' passing yards came on a 55-yard screen pass to WR John Ross. (My sincerest apologies for the auto-play and advertisement, but I could only find these highlights on ESPN's game recap page.)
Without that, which was frankly a pretty weak throw from Miles, the UW offense only averaged 5.4 yards per pass against what seems to be a pretty inept EWU secondary. Just look at those two defensive backs falling over each other. Yuck. Coincidentally (OR PERHAPS I JUST EXCEL AT SEGUES!), this is the main key to defending the Washington passing attack: don't trip over each other.
In their first game with Miles at quarterback, Washington seemed to only use the pass game as a distraction from their potent rushing attack. Their passing playbook consists of a whole lot of wide receiver screens and short passes. Washington rarely dared to go deep against EWU, probably because Miles' arm leaves a lot to be desired. There will be some wobblers on Saturday and it's up to the Illinois secondary to take advantage.
Back to my main point: the keys to defending screens and short passes is preventing the opposition from gaining yards after the catch. Tackle well (that could be an issue) and get off blockers as quickly as possible. Illinois is probably going to be frequently using their safeties to help contain runs in this game-- that means it's up to V'Angelo Bentley, Eaton Spence, and company to prevent big plays in the passing game.
The Husky wide receivers seem to be a fairly average group. Nobody really sticks out as the go-to target, though there are a few names to know. John Ross, whom you just watched break the hearts of millions of Eastern Washington alumni, is the big play threat. He's speedy, to say the least. Jaydon Mickens was the favorite possession receiver of Cyler Miles against EWU; he totaled six catches for 53 yards in the win. Aside from that, the wide receivers seem to be a fairly nondescript bunch. Tight end Darrell Daniels is what you'd stereotypically call a "match-up nightmare": the sophomore stands at six-foot-four and weighs 235 pounds. He probably should play a part in the receiving game, but he's only had three catches on the year thus far.
THE RUSHING OFFENSE
Through two weeks, this has been Washington's bread and butter. The Huskies have accrued 546 yards via the ground game on 104 carries. That's an average of 52 carries and 273 yards per game. They've also scored eight of their ten touchdowns on running plays.
Washington's success in the ground game comes mostly from having an extremely experienced offensive line. Their amazing seniority is best explained by Washington's game notes for this week:
Washington boasts the rare distinction of returning seven players with starting experience on the offensive line. What's more: all seven of those players started at some point TWO season ago (in 2012) and were returning starters last season. Entering the season, UW offensive linemen had started a total of 123 games.
If you've followed my writing about this Illinois football team, you know that I harp nonstop about the importance of experience on the offensive line. Washington has it in spades, and it shows when they open up holes like this one for RB/LB Shaq Thompson:
Shaq Thompson looks pretty good here, but he won't be the running back you see most often this weekend. No, the most common accompaniment to Cyler Miles in the backfield will be either Lavon Coleman or Dwayne Washington. Washington is listed as the starter on the depth chart this week, but that may not mean much: last week's starter, Jesse Callier, finished with just six carries on the afternoon.
Coleman appears to be more frightening than the appropriately named Washington; Coleman is averaging almost six yards per carry and 100 yards per game compared to D.Washington's 3.3 YPC and 36.5 YPG. Both backs are pretty physically imposing, but it's difficult to measure their skill against the tiny EWU defense. Washington was considerably less impressive running the ball against a bigger Hawaii front (3.6 yards per carry) than Eastern Washington's front seven (6.2 yards per carry). This is good news for Illinois, but there was another key part of Washington's rushing attack missing in that Hawaii game: quarterback Cyler Miles.
Miles ran 12 times for 58 yards and three (!) touchdowns against Eastern Washington. This is mostly the product of the main run play that Washington uses: the read option. Illinois has been solid against the read option thus far, but neither Youngstown State nor Western Kentucky has the tools to run it like the Huskies. Miles is a rather speedy fellow and can certainly hold his own in the open field. He ran for a couple of key first downs last Saturday and is ready and willing to keep the ball if the optioned defensive end drifts too far to the middle.
This fits nicely into the key match-up for the Illinois defense against Washington. To have any hope of stopping this attack, the linebackers are going to need to be better than in the last two games. Confidence in Mason Monheim and TJ Neal is waning a bit as they've looked somewhat slow over the past couple weeks. Their inability to consistently get off blocks and wrap up the opposition has been a huge detriment to the performance of the run defense thus far. The defensive line will have their hands full keeping the UW offensive line away from the second level. If Monheim and Neal clean up their act a bit and the safeties continue to lay the wood on ball carriers, the Illini will be in business.
A couple more final notes before moving on to the (likely) more fun part of the afternoon: Washington has had some great fumble luck thus far. There have been five fumbles in their two games this season and the Huskies have recovered all five. This isn't sustainable, but that also doesn't mean their luck will immediately swing the other way. Teams are likely to recover around 50 percent of fumbles over a larger sample size, so Washington may actually be even worse than they've seemed in two close wins. If they lose two or three of those fumbles, as expected, they may be looking at 0-2 instead of 2-0. Lastly, watch out for Washington to run a couple of jet and fly sweeps with a speedster like John Ross. They did it to some solid effect in their first two games.
THE PASSING DEFENSE
Here's a huge relief for Wes Lunt and the Fighting Illini: Washington's potential All-American cornerback Marcus Peters was suspended for one game by head coach Chris Peterson (formerly of Boise State) due to his sideline rants during the EWU game. That's a big weight off the shoulders of Geronimo Allison, who probably would have been lined up against Peters for the majority of the game.
With the exception of Peters and senior CB Travell Dixon, everybody on the three-deep depth chart is a sophomore or younger. Peters is out, so this is basically the Illinois secondary from last year, save for Dixon. If you watched Illinois' secondary last year, you know that is an extremely good thing for opposing quarterbacks. Our friends over at UW Dawg Pound observed that the defensive backs struggle significantly more in zone coverage than man, so watch out for that on Saturday. Even in press man-to-man however, fun can be had:
I watched as much of this game as I could (the Pac-12 network didn't have a replay anywhere that I could find and DVRs are hard to come by in Champaign) and from what I saw, EWU straight up abused the UW defensive backs on go routes. Most of the touchdowns scored by Eastern Washington came from Vernon Adams tossing up gems; back shoulder fades, deep balls off his back foot (like the above), and threading the needle through the occasional tight coverage. Wes Lunt is capable of making all of these throws, but he won't do it as consistently as Adams did.
One thing helping the green UW secondary is their unbelievable defensive line. It is somewhat amazing that we've gotten this far without talking about senior nose tackle Danny Shelton. Shelton is a six-foot-two, 340-pound monster with no regard for human life. Shelton has six sacks on the year (in two games!) to lead the FBS. That's two-and-a-half more than the handful of guys tied for second place. The man is ferocious:
The interior of the offensive line will have their hands full with Shelton, but there's another name that will cause problems for the tackles: Hau'oli Kikaha. Kikaha plays the BUCK position for the UW defense, which is sort of a pass-rushing linebacker. Kikaha is better suited for the pass-rushing half of that title: he's not great in coverage but he can really get after the quarterback. Aside from Shelton and Kikaha, the defensive line isn't too impressive. That said, Shelton and Kikaha alone should probably account for three of the five offensive linemen on any given play. That will open up opportunities for the other pass rushers.
The big question for Illinois' passing attack in this game is whether or not Wes Lunt will be able to hit those touch passes down the sidelines. EWU's Adams did a truly incredible job of hitting those passes with consistency, so much so that it seems impossible to expect such a great game from Lunt. If the wide receivers can get space, and the offensive line holds up just enough, the Illini will have a few opportunities for huge plays in this game. They'll need Lunt to capitalize on those. The intermediate and deep passing games have been good for Illinois thus far and that will have to continue on Saturday.
Again, one last thing: Lunt will need to have solid decision-making in the face of pressure. It's hard to ask that of any quarterback, but it'll be crucial in this game. Shelton is going to come up the middle like a freight train a handful of times during the game and Lunt cannot panic like he has the last couple weeks when presented with interior pass rushers. That leads to interceptions, and since Illinois is going to have to play close to their best to win, Lunt will have to keep errant throws to a minimum.
THE RUSHING DEFENSE
Opponents are running at about 4.3 yards per carry against the Huskies, which isn't a spectacular number for a defense given the level of competition, but is certainly better than the difficulties they've had defending the pass.
Linebacker Shaq Thompson is the scariest member of this run defense, and he should be all over the field on Saturday. Thompson is second on the team in tackles behind Shelton, tallying 19 through two games. Between those two and senior LB John Timu, the interior of the defense should be very solid against the run.
What then, should the Illini do to counter that? A typical strategy for avoiding gigantic nose tackles like Shelton is to run stretch plays that force the opponent's big men to sprint to the sideline. This could work, but that would rely on the Illini offensive line to successfully execute a run blocking scheme. At this point, nobody knows if that's a possibility. Ultimately, I think rushing yards are going to be pretty hard to come by for Illinois in this one. Runs should be used as they always have been in Bill Cubit's offense; as a decoy to set up pass plays.
Frankly, the best way to open up the run game may be to take a page out of Washington's playbook: Cubit could try running some jet sweeps with Mike Dudek or Justin Hardee. He could try throwing some quick screens if the UW defensive backs are camped a few yards away from the wide receivers. These plays would force the linebackers to shade more towards the sidelines in fear of giving up big yardage, opening up running lanes in the middle. Those two ideas also completely take Shelton out of the play from the beginning: there's simply no way he's catching a wide receiver running full speed to the sideline or one of Wes Lunt's screamers on a bubble screen.
THE NAME OF THE WEEK
There aren't any fantastic candidates on this Washington squad, but a couple of names stick out. Starting safety Budda Baker has some solid alliteration going on, but that last name is nothing to write home about. I've always been a sucker for Hawaiian names, and there are two outstanding candidates from Hawaii on the team. The aforementioned Hau'oli Kikaha is the first. Kikaha is just an incredible last name for a pass rusher. "OH THAT'S KIKAHA WITH THE SACK" in Gus Johnson's voice is about as close to announcing poetry as you can get.
However, this week's honor goes to a different man from Hawaii. That man is back-up BUCK Psalm Wooching. A nice article from the Seattle Times dove into Psalm's parents' reasoning behind his first name:
Luki and Shannon, as you'd expect, got the inspiration for their son's name from the Bible. "Psalm sings and writes songs about God," Luki said. "And whatever passion our son had, he would be able to sing that."
That's awesome in and of itself, and when you pair that with a fun-to-say last name like Wooching, you have all the makings of a fantastic recipient for our Name of the Week award.
THE #FATGUYTOUCHDOWN UPDATE OF THE WEEK
Um, did you even watch that video of RB/LB Shaq Thompson earlier? While he could hardly be considered fat at six-foot-one and 228 pounds, Thompson is a defensive player and that's good enough for me. Even with Illinois DT Jake Howe having yet to take a single snap at fullback, optimism is as prevalent as the aroma of bacon in the land of #FATGUYTOUCHDOWN's this week. Accordingly, the #FATGUYTOUCHDOWN Alert System has been upgraded to #FATCON3 for the upcoming game. Be sure to do your part and pray to a stick of butter in the moonlight tonight, as is tradition. (This rather educational preview has really gone off the rails, hasn't it?)
THE FIVE KEY POINTS
1. Force Cyler Miles to throw downfield. This encompasses the run defense more than anything. Getting Washington into the occasional third-and-long seems like it will be an almost-certain punt, given UW's hesitation to throw the ball downfield. Of course, none of that will matter if the Illini don't...
2. Make tackles. There is going to be a plethora of dangerous plays on the edge during this game in which Bentley or Spence or Taylor Barton or Zane Petty might have to make a solo tackle on a Washington receiver. That is what Chris Peterson's offense with Washington is designed to do: create one-on-one match-ups on the outside by pounding the ball inside. If Ross or any other UW receiver breaks free more than once in this game, it'll be tough to come back from that deficit.
3. Stay calm. This applies mostly to Wes Lunt for his first road game in an Illinois uniform. The crowd is going to be loud and the defensive line is going to be incredibly intimidating. Whether or not Illinois gets blown out largely comes down to whether or not Lunt can minimize the damage when Shelton or Kikaha break through the line. Vernon Adams was able to use his mobility to keep plays alive; Lunt may just have to throw the ball out of bounds. Whatever it takes to keep from turning the ball over must be done.
4. Don't let Shelton take over. This is much easier said from the comfort of my girlfriend's dorm room than actually done, but Shelton has to be neutralized as often as possible. Quick passes and outside runs should be the flavor of the week for Cubit's offense. Shelton has the capability to completely destroy anything and everything the Illini are trying to do on offense; perhaps the best way to deal with him is to tire him out.
5. Take advantage of mistakes. This applies to most games, but facing a talented team like Washington, it's huge. Luckily, this team should be susceptible to slight errors. Miles may miss a throw or leave one hanging, one of the defensive backs may blow a coverage: whether on offense or defense, the Illini will need to take full advantage of these opportunities if they want a chance of winning.
This is a tough one. I was scared of Washington initially, but having seen parts of their game and dived deeper into the stat sheets, they frankly don't look nearly as good as I anticipated. Their passing game seems weak, the run game is quite good but they don't have a special playmaker like Bishop Sankey last year, their passing defense could be anywhere from decent to awful depending on the success of their pass rush, and their run defense seems solid but not great.
Illinois has the tools to take advantage of their weaknesses, and Wes Lunt could certainly carry the team to a victory here. Still, while I believe that Illinois has a better chance to win than most are expecting, the Illini could still definitely get blown out if they can't stop the run or create plays in the passing game. The most likely outcome seems like a one-score or two-score Washington win, under the 13.5-point spread.