Let's first begin by introducing our new segment for Big Ten play! This is TCR's Bottle Service and it's where we break down each position group's performance in the previous game. Obviously our first conference game wasn't quite what any of us wanted to see, but there were a few things that the team did well.
(Every position is ranked out of five Champagne bottles)
Let's take a look at every phase of our team:
Now, let's first remember that we had our backup Quarterback in the game. I should start by saying that we all wish the best for Wes and Reilly and we also hope that the injury plagued Lunt doesn't stay away from our offense for too long, or it could be a really, really long season. The really painful part about Saturday was that when the Illini needed to put the ball in the endzone they instead turned it over resulting in Nebraska touchdowns. I really wanted to give Reilly two bottles for an otherwise okay day, but three interceptions sealed our fate in the 2nd quarter.
78 rushing yards and 114 total yards isn't getting the job done offensively. Yes, Nebraska's defense is stout and will probably finish in the top 20 nationwide, but there still is no reason why Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young should be under 150 all purpose yards in ANY game. Yes, there has been a lot of talk about the Cubit "pass heavy" offense and how we can't seem to generate offense throwing the ball. What we have yet to see is our Running Backs take control of a game with their ability. Boy it was a lot of fun to watch Josh scamper 41 yards for a touchdown, but he wasn't a factor for the rest of the game.
How awesome was Geronimo Allison's catch from Reilly O'Toole in the second quarter? With his size and ability, that should happen more than once a game. When you have a big target on your side of the ball, you should put every pass up high where only our guys can get it and let them make plays. Also, Mike Dudek played another solid game and though we were a little nervous when he was shaken up late in the game, you have to admire his aggressive style and passionate play. A good core needs to improve on catching as there were a fair share of dropped passes, but overall they played well against the Huskers.
Jon Davis was non-existent in the offense and as a member of the line had troubles blocking for Reilly or any of our backs. There is WAAAYYYY too much athletic ability at the Tight End position for us not to utilize it. I sure hope there are more plays over the middle of the field to Davis in the 4-5 yard range. With a guy at 6-3 240, he should be the easiest target for our Quarterbacks to hit.
Okay, okay we get it...our O-Line struggled in this one all game long. This is a line that we knew would have to improve in order for us to be successful on offense, and sadly we didn't see them step up in Lincoln. Different blocking schemes need to be put into the offense and a lot more plays to the outside will help us keep our run game going. One thing that our offensive line possesses is speed vertically, and if we can integrate more motion towards the sidelines and allow our backs to have some space to move, plays like this will happen.
Everyone knew that Ameer Abdullah was going to get the ball a lot last night. Coaching from my couch, it wasn't too hard to call out "RUN!" every time Nebraska snapped the ball (actually got quite comical at one point). That being said, I expected more from our D-line in terms of putting pressure on the Nebraska run game. 458 yards and 5 touchdowns later, we need to seriously look at our attack on opposing offenses. Is that partially a coaching issue, yes. But we still need to improve up front to provide some girth to our defense.
Overall, a tale of two sides to this position for our defense. On one hand, you have a squad that couldn't stop anything and had to make a TON of tackles on opposing RB's that broke through our D-line. There also was a squad that gave Tommy Armstrong all day to throw the football and run the ball effectively. That's not going to get it done.
BUT! Then you have the side of the Linebackers/STARs that came up with two HUGE turnovers early in the second quarter and kept us in the game (for the moment). It's plays like those that are new to the Illini defense this season and I really hope to continue to see these guys going after the ball.
Overall, our secondary only gave up 166 passing yards and one touchdown (a 63 yard TD catch for the record). On paper, that's not too shabby for a secondary that consistently got thrashed in Seattle two weeks ago. I'm not labeling this as an improvement for our guys, but I'm also not going to call it a step in the wrong direction. The focus of this one was strictly on our run defense so the fact that we only gave up one big play through the air is almost a moral victory.
This was the best part of the game on Saturday. With the exception of a David Reisner illegal procedure penalty early in the game and V'Angelo Bentley only getting one return, our special teams played well against the Huskers. Justin DuVernios had a career night averaging 42.3 yards per punt and a long of 74 yards!!!!! Yes, you should NEVER have your punter on the field 8 times in a game, but Justin helped swing the field position multiple times that evening. Also, Nebraska had a total of 4 returns for 16 yards. Well done special teams, you did a fine job.
I am SOOOOOOO going to hear it in the comments for giving the coaching staff two bottles out of five, but hear me out for a second. Nebraska was favored by three touchdowns before anyone found out that Wes Lunt wasn't playing. Nebraska at the time was ranked as the 21st best team in the country and my own Grandmother has even Nebraska picked to win the Big Ten this season (yes, that's a B1G deal). There really and truly was a slim chance that the Illini were going to win.
As a coaching staff knowing of our impending doom, there should have been only one thing on their minds...stopping Nebraska's run game. It's really not rocket science to figure out that the Huskers have one of the best rushing offenses in the country and for us to roll into Nebraska unprepared to take on the run was not good. I am a HUGE fan of stacking eight guys in the box and blitzing the heck out of a team till they throw the ball. When they finally do, you've got three guys deep to take away any "big" play. The fact that the Huskers ran for over 400 yards makes me a little sick, but then again our D is not ready to compete with a team that good.
Offensively, we had our backup QB in the game and tried to rely on our own running game that is yet to prove itself. To only have the Illini put up 14 points hurts, but I would like to think they would've EASILY scored again if we didn't keep relying on a weak rushing attack.
But step back and take a look at what this team is trying to do. Illinois wants to define this season's team as a "mid level Big Ten team." Michigan State, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State are out of our league and will be for awhile; you can label them as the best teams in the Big Ten right now. On the other end of the spectrum you have Purdue, Indiana, and Northwestern as the weakest teams in the conference. This leaves Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Penn State (throw out the remaining teams as we don't face them this year.)
In order for us to be in the "middle" of our division and the conference, we need three conference wins.
You SHOULD beat Northwestern and Purdue as they are the weakest teams we will face. This leaves one more win over a stretch of games against Minnesota, Penn State, and Iowa.
Coaches, get our team ready and prepared to face all five of those teams. We don't expect you to beat a Nebraska, Ohio St, or Wisconsin and quite frankly we don't expect you to come close this season. Use these games as learning experiences and coach-able games to be as prepared as you can for "the big 5." The year will be defined and analyzed by the success, or lack thereof, during those five games.
Thank you for reading and please tell me what you think in the comments below!
And as always, GO ILLINI!!!