Defense won the day Saturday afternoon as the Fighting Illini kept Western Illinois off the scoreboard while allowing just 141 yards of total offense. On the other side of the ball, the first-string offense was clicking throughout the first three quarters of the contest and was able to post 44 points and over 500 yards of offense. Overall, there were a few things that'll need to be addressed before next week's big game against North Carolina (i.e. ball security), but this was a very solid effort against an in-state foe.
Here are our Week 2 Fighting Illini position grades (ranked out of 5 champagne bottles):
Both Wes Lunt and Chayce Crouch did a nice job running the offense yesterday; pretty much anytime you put up over 350 yards in the air, your offense will find a way to be successful. However, Lunt threw a few passes into double coverage that were unnecessary and was fortunate to only have one interception on the day. Crouch looked a little better compared to Week 1, but he did a LOT of dancing around in the pocket.
The Illinois running backs struggled to run between the tackles on Saturday. Josh Ferguson and Henry Enyenihi both found the endzone from a yard out, and it was nice to see them be able to punch it in against a weaker WIU defense. But from scrimmage -- and even in the redzone -- it seemed like the Illini struggled to gain any sort of momentum running the football. Some of this may fall on the offensive line, but there seemed to be a lack of push towards the outside where speedy backs like Ke'Shawn Vaughn and Ferguson have shown their quickness.
With the exception of a few fumbles in the third quarter, Illinois' tight end play was solid once again. Tyler White caught another touchdown pass, and Tim Clary provided another option for the quarterback(s) over the middle of the field. From the goal line package, it's clear that Bill Cubit intends on using White and Clary as optional reads for Lunt to throw to in short yardage situations. Having a reliable check-down option like that will certainly help the Illini continue their red zone efficiency, and hopefully prevent defenses from stacking eight or nine players in the box.
Even though he's typically considered a running back, it should be noted that Josh Ferguson is now the all-time leading receiving back in Illinois history. Having a player in the backfield that can make plays on check down throws and screen passes is a vital component to any successful offense, and the Illini have taken advantage of that talent.
As for the actual receiving corps, Geronimo Allison continues to lead the way in receptions; his 124 yards in the air were impressive, and you can expect him to continue to be Lunt's go-to receiver in the absence of Mikey Dudek. Marchie Murdock certainly impressed us yesterday, with 6 catches and a touchdown to boot. He's certainly made his presence known in the slot, and there's no doubt he will be used in that spot for years to come.
The offensive line did an OK job protecting the Illinois quarterbacks. Like last week, they did fine for a majority of the game, but both Lunt and Crouch were exposed to a few huge hits. The quarterbacks may be holding on to the ball a bit longer than they should be, but nevertheless it's still an area that can see some significant improvement.
Turning our attention to run blocking, Illinois' struggles on the ground stemmed from the offensive line's ability -- or lack thereof -- to establish a push up front. The Illini found some success when running plays off of Ted Karras, but one man does not make an offensive line. The Illini will need to find a way to generate better running room for the backs if they want to create an effective rushing attack.
Can't say enough about the turnaround our defense has made. Staring with the front four, the Illini held Western Illinois to 98 yards rushing for the entire game. Chunky Clements was the leader in tackles for losses on Saturday, and the line did a nice job pressuring Western's quarterback all afternoon.
While TJ Neal Jr was the only linebacker to find a tackle for a loss, both him and Mason Monheim combined for 13 tackles on the day. Between the linebackers and the defensive linemen there were no sacks, and that's really the only thing we'd like to see next week.
Besides a pick-6, there really was nothing more the defensive secondary could have done yesterday. From a coverage standpoint, V'Angelo Bentley played well and Clayton Fejedelem tied for the lead in tackles with 7. But the player of the game had to be Taylor Barton, who snagged his second and third interceptions of the year -- that's worth 5 bottles in any game.
There was good, and there was bad. Ryain Frain and Taylor Zalewski were good; Frain's average yards per punt increased to 43.3 yards and Zalewski was a perfect 3/3 in field goals (long of 39 yards). You also have to love a blocked punt for a scoop and score, so well done special teams!
However, V'Angelo Bentley and the kick returners were bad. The only other time I have felt that insecure about our kick returners was with Jarred Fayson and the 2009 special teams, and those are not happy memories. Something tells me this was a fluke game for Bentley, but it's still a major point of concern moving forward if it doesn't get fixed.
Illinois has outscored their opponents 96-3 through the first two weeks of the season. Penalties were limited on Saturday and, with the exception of a sloppy third quarter, the team looked in control the whole game. The only improvements needed are in establishing an effective run game, and continuing to limit penalties. But when you're able to take the lead in a game and continue to build off of it, that's a sign of a well coached team.