THE WHEN AND WHERE
Time: 3:00 PM Central Time - Saturday, September 20th
Place: Memorial Stadium - Champaign, Illinois
The all-whites looked pretty amazing against Washington, as expected, but unfortunately Illinois won't wear them at home. Back to the white/orange/white combination from the first two games.
THE INJURY REPORT
#75 RT Pat Flavin - Probable
#8 WR Geronimo Allison - Out
#34 LB Mike Svetina - Out
#93 DT Teko Powell - Out
#97 DE Paul James III - Out
Hopefully Pat Flavin feels good enough to play. Heitz may cut it at right tackle for this game, but not against Nebraska in a couple weeks or Ohio State later this year. Flavin needs as many game reps at RT as possible. G-Mo is out but this seems like a precautionary measure to me. From the practice reports/tweets I've read in the last week, he seems okay. Powell is a surprise to be out, and must've sustained an injury at some point this week. This isn't too tough a loss-- Rob Bain looked really good backing him up last week, and Chunky Clements has been solid on the interior as well.
After preparing for an exciting game like Washington, and subsequently seeing Illinois get slobberknockered, it's really hard to get up for Texas State coming to town. I honestly mean no disrespect to Texas State, but they just aren't a big name like Washington. And yet, I still think there's a chance they beat Illinois. Oh well. Their coach is a man you may know from Alabama and Texas A&M-- Dennis Franchione. He's on his second tour as head coach of the Bobcats.
DID YOU KNOW? Opponents are averaging 4.2 yards per carry against the 2014 Illinois defense? Yes, in spite of the constant griping about the defense on Twitter and by fans in general, this is an improved unit from last year. In the four non-conference games of last season, opposing rushers averaged 4.6 yards per carry. Illinois is being run on a lot this year and they've given up plenty of yards that way, because that's what teams believe will work (based on last year). It has worked to an extent, but the defensive line is a group that has made improvements (Yes, it's not hard to improve on one of the worst defenses in the country. Work with me here, people).
Why is this relevant? Because Texas State seems to be the type of team that would be willing to run it on almost every single down this Saturday. There are a couple of elements to Texas State's offense that you will recognize from past games. They frequently use and abuse the read option-- you may remember this from Youngstown State and Washington. Illinois has done well thus far defending option plays, but Texas State is equipped to run it as well as anyone.
Perhaps the best backfield duo in the Sun Belt Conference, QB Tyler Jones and RB Robert Lowe are just about perfect for Franchione's offense. Lowe is a very good runner, though perhaps not the quickest guy on the field. He's averaging 8.1 yards per carry this year and was around six per carry against their first FBS opponent, Navy. Impressive numbers, though it's still very early in the season. Jones is a good runner as well, and he seems to prefer the ground game a bit over throwing the ball (or, at least, his offensive coordinator does). These two will work hard to disrupt the defensive line with the aforementioned read option. You can expect to see them running all over the field.
Another element of Franchione's offense that you may recognize is the tempo. Western Kentucky sprinted to the line nearly every time against Illinois-- Texas State will try to do the same after successful plays. Getting tackles for loss is exceedingly helpful against no huddle teams because it forces them out of their rhythm and typically prevents them from running another play immediately. The Illini handled the tempo of WKU pretty well, and it'll be important to do so again here.
The passing offense of Texas State seems rather vanilla, though it has been successful so far. They racked up a bundle of touchdowns in their first game against pitiful Arkansas Pine-Bluff. Though, as I mentioned, Jones seems a bit more comfortable running the ball, he isn't a bad passer by any means. He seems to have an average arm, perhaps similar to what Illinois saw from Cyler Miles last week, but consistently seems to make the right throws at the right times.
Helping Jones is that the TXST playbook isn't too complicated. Like Washington, they like to keep the defense honest and ensure that teams don't focus too much on the run. They aren't afraid to take shots down the field, but would prefer to throw quick passes and get yards after the catch. Outside of Jafus Gaines catching the ball and C.J. Best running sweeps and operating in space, they don't have too many weapons on the outside that Illinois has to worry about.
The key with Texas State's offense is to make big plays. They aren't a particularly explosive team, which means the Bobcats will usually have to rely on long, sustained drives to score points. Illinois has been doing a much better job of wreaking havoc on defense this year than last, especially on that defensive line. A few big plays from athletes like Jihad Ward and Dawuane Smoot would put the Bobcats in uncomfortable down-and-distances--that's how Illinois can stop their rather impressive offense.
Defensively, Texas State is, well, pretty terrible. Per Bill Connelly's S&P+ advanced stat rating system, Texas State's defense currently ranks last (128th) in Division I football. That statistic receives our official "Not great, Bob" of the Week award. Keep in mind that it's hard to believe Texas State is really that bad: those rankings still include some of the preseason projections (TXST probably did not rank highly in those) and they're just two games into the season.
So why have they struggled? It always hurts to lose five contributing defensive linemen from 2013. That hurts both the run game and the pass rush. And the secondary is almost exclusively inexperienced young men who are still figuring out how to prevent big plays. That last part has been the toughest thing for Texas State thus far in 2014: avoiding the big plays.
Navy attempted seven passes against TXST. Five were completed. They gained 117 yards through the air on those five passes, for averages of 16.7 yards per attempt and 23.4 yards per completion. That sounds like a defense against whom Wes Lunt could really do some nefarious things.
Of course, with Navy, defense is always going to be difficult because their triple option attack is so unique. Navy only threw seven times, which meant Texas State was probably expecting a run on almost every single one of those downs. That means play action is effective and big plays can happen more easily. The pass defense is probably not quite as bad as it looks.
Navy also ran for over six yards per carry against Texas State, which is highly encouraging for Josh Ferguson, Donovonn Young, and the improving interior of the offensive line. That statistic again comes with the caveat that Navy runs a triple option attack so well that any defense is going to have a tough day, but it's a good sign nonetheless.
Texas State had a pair of fantastic returning linebackers this year in David Mayo and Michael Orakpo, brother of Brian Orakpo, All-Pro linebacker (I have made this joke at least four times this week and will not stop). In bittersweet news this week, Orakpo tore his ACL. Orakpo was the best pass rusher remaining from last year's team and the defense will sorely miss his big play ability. Mayo seems kind of like Texas State's Mason Monheim--he is going to run relentlessly after ball carriers and finish each and every game with double digit tackles. I've read a few articles on him this week and every single one referred to him as a "sideline-to-sideline" kind of player.
So how will Illinois try to attack this defense? Well, at this point, it seems like we know what Bill Cubit wants to do. Regardless of formation, Cubit likes to throw early and set up the run. This is a bit of a boom-or-bust strategy, but that might be just what the doctor ordered against a defense prone to conceding big plays. It's unfortunate that Illinois just lost their best big play receiver in Geronimo Allison, but I expect the other receivers to step up and play well in his absence.
Watch for Lunt to have an bounce-back day throwing the football and expect the ground game to continue to improve in this one. Texas State's defensive line is on the rise because they've filled in with JUCO players, but they're still first-year starters and should be punishable. The linebackers are a less-concerning group without Orakpo, but Mayo will likely find a way to make a big impact. The pass rush that terrorized Illinois last week won't be there Saturday (though Texas State does love to blitz), so I expect the Illini to have a rather nice day on offense.
THE NAME OF THE WEEK
I must say, I'm pretty disappointed in Texas State. They are certainly the worst team thus far in terms of their quantity of interesting names. After much consideration, the Name of the Week award goes to back-up cornerback, freshman Clarence Guidry III. His name makes me feel like I just walked into a Medieval Times. "Hello and welcome, good man. I am Sir Clarence Guidry III, and I'll be escorting you to your seats this evening." The name honestly doesn't look quite right without a "Sir" in front of it. Tell that man to get a name change.
THE #FATGUYTOUCHDOWN UPDATE OF THE WEEK
Much to our dismay, Shaq Thompson scored not one, but two touchdowns last week and is a pretty large dude. He doesn't quite fit the category, but we'll take it any way we can get it. Sadly, since Jake Howe is still nowhere to be found on offense, there's a very slight possibility of fat man celebration. The #FATGUYTOUCHDOWN Alert System has been downgraded to #FATCON5 for tomorrow's game.
THE FIVE KEY POINTS
1. Make plays. It's a lot more complicated than that, but that's the gist. This team will be vulnerable to big plays on both sides of the ball. Illinois has the better athletes and, though they're a bit undisciplined still, should be able to turn decent plays into great ones. Illinois' defense has been a bit inconsistent this year and this would be a great time for them to make a statement of progress.
2. Red Zone Defense. Illinois has yet to stop an opponent from scoring once they reach the red zone this year. That's not ideal, but holding opposing teams to six field goals on 12 trips inside the 20 is actually an okay effort. Illinois will need to hold Texas State to field goals once they enter the danger area, or this game may become nerve-wracking in a hurry.
3. Field Position. Kick and punt coverages both need to be much better. The further a team forces the offense to go before they reach paydirt, the less likely it is that they get there at all. Illinois must prevent the Bobcats from operating with a short field--that means solid kick coverage and a lack of turnovers.
4. Challenge the secondary. Last week, Cubit seemed to attack the linebackers more than the inexperienced cornerbacks of Washington. I'm sure there was a reason for that, but the Illini had much more success when they went after the secondary. That strategy should prove fruitful again this week facing a team with a much less threatening pass rush.
5. Quit it with the dumb penalties. While it's nice to see more aggression out of the defense, the false starts and holding and illegal formation penalties against the offense really need to stop. Stupid plays like that make it so much more difficult for an offense to operate. The penalties Illinois has taken on the defensive side of the ball have hurt a lot as well-- opponents have already converted seven first downs solely by Illinois penalties. Last year, opponents converted on Illini penalties 20 times over the course of the entire year. No gouda.
While I'm confident that Texas State is better than some of their statistical rankings may say, this defense looks like one that Illinois should really be able to abuse. We're talking 40, potentially 50 points could go up on the board here, depending on the pace of the game and turnovers. It will be a disappointment for me if Illinois is held under 30 in this game-- the Bobcats are just too inexperienced on that end to justify anything less. Even without Geronimo, Memorial Stadium should be hearing the fight song quite a bit.
On the other side of the ball, Texas State should be able to move it as well. Their running game is great and their passing game has some nice complementary aspects to it. Just as I expect Illinois to put up a lot of points, so too do I expect a nice performance from the Bobcats. They'll be able to churn out successful plays, which means it will be important for Illinois to stop drives before they get all the way to the endzone. One never knows with the Illini, but I am somewhat confident that they'll be able to do that.
It's hard to trust the Illini after a disjointed first three weeks, but I feel oddly confident about this one for them. Illinois covering the 14-point spread seems like the most likely outcome, though it wouldn't shock if this turns into a shootout early on and stays close until the end. Hopefully, Illinois can avoid the need for another fourth quarter comeback.