In a game where it seemed Illinois had a legitimate chance to win, the results spoke of a different outcome. On homecoming weekend in Champaign, Illinois was not able to control Alex Erickson and the Wisconsin Badgers as they fell 24-13 Saturday evening. The Illini will now shift their attention to their roadtrip to Happy Valley to face the Penn State Nittany Lions. Before we begin to preview that game, let's take a look back at how the Illinois Fighting Illini fared in week 7 at each position.
(Rated out of 5 Champagne Bottles)
The tough part about Wes Lunt's situation is that he's our only proven threat on offense when Josh Ferguson is not in the lineup. With a run game that was only able to produce 55 yards of offense (36 of which was on a single play), it's critical that your passing game is able to pick up the slack. While there were your traditional flashes of brilliance downfield, there still seemed to be a missing dynamic from Lunt. He's certainly able to make throws that your average QB cannot, but there just seemed to be something missing from him against the Badgers on Saturday.
As stated above, Illinois was missing their star running back for the second straight game in Josh Ferguson. While Ke'Shawn Vaughn has show he's our stud back of the future, he was virtually non-existent Saturday. Even though he was able to break a big run for a touchdown and be the only player to find the endzone, 55 yards on 13 carries isn't exactly getting the job done. Now some of this can be attributed to the offensive line not creating as many opportunities for Ke'Shawn, but what you miss in Vaughn that you gain in an experienced Ferguson is the ability to catch the ball in the backfield and open space to support the pass game. It certainly is exciting to think that Vaughn can EASILY become that back in the future, but the time is now.
Tyler White suffered a knee injury during the game on Saturday, and initial review of his status hasn't officially been released. We wish him a speedy recovery and hope we see him back on the field in Happy Valley.
In yet another edition of the "Illini Injury Bug," Marchie Murdock was not in the lineup against the Badgers. With his presence in the slot absent, Illinois looked to Dionte Taylor to fill the role on Saturday. His ability to turn the corner on sweep plays was a REALLY nice dynamic to see, and one can hope the coaching staff will utilize that play more often. As for the rest of the receivers, there seemed to be a continuous lack of perception during plays. Whether it was being called for false starting or giving up on routes, the receiving corps seemed to be "off" as a whole. Sure, there were a few flashes of brilliance from Geronimo Allison and Malik Turner, but there still seems to be a constant conflict between Wes and the receivers.
Overall, the offensive line did a fairly nice job protecting Lunt and holding strong at the point of attack. The biggest concern was the lack of rushing ability from Illinois, which created a one-dimensional offense (doesn't work).
Saturday's game from a defensive line standpoint was a classic Jekyll and Hyde situation. With Joel Stave in the game, the defensive line was by far the best we've seen all season long. Their ability to pressure the quarterback was incredible, and it really was nice to see a defense command the game early. After breaking Stave and Bart Houston came in, the rush up front faded considerably. We would LOVE to see that same dominance we saw early in the game, as it was by far the best we've seen out of the orange and blue in a long time.
While it's a good sign that both T.J. Neal and Mason Monheim were leading tacklers for the Illini defense, it was a bit disheartening to see their run/pass sell out get slashed and gashed over the middle of the field. There were a handful of big plays that were developed off the edge of the defensive line that was never picked up by the linebackers and Wisconsin was able to take advantage of most of them. I'm not sure if it's an issue reading the offense or formations, but we need all the help we can get to prevent those plays from happening.
Clayton Fejedelem produced the 6th best day in FBS history with 19 tackles. Part of that is a really nice stat, and fans should be proud of his performance. On the other hand, when one of your safety's has a career day in tackles, something didn't go so well on defense. Overall though, there were a handful of nice plays from the secondary on Saturday, and hopefully we continue to see improvement.
For the most part, the special teams did their part against Wisconsin. Taylor Zalewski was a perfect 2 for 2, and Ryan Frain did a good job punting the ball (still would like to see a higher average yard per kick than 38.6 yards though). What could have easily turned into a nightmare with tough weather conditions, the special teams came to play.
Did anyone bother to defend Alex Erickson? He accounted for 177 yards against the Illini defense...and some say he's still running (along with Jordan Canzeri). The play calling late in the game was not good at all, the balance between run and pass plays was inconsistent (favored pass 43 to 13), and even when Illinois turned the ball over on downs, the coaching staff failed to use their 3 timeouts to try and extend the game.
Even though the Illini were never really "out" of the game until late in the 4th quarter, this loss has been the toughest to swallow so far this season as it feels like the biggest let-down we've had so far. You had a chance to beat a Wisconsin team that lost their starting quarterback in the first quarter and who's best player never even suited up. You gave free tickets to the student body with hopes they would fill the north endzone...and they did! The deck was lined up in your favor, and you couldn't get it done. Let's hope we can regroup and be ready for this coming week in Happy Valley.