It's tough to draw a narrative from watching ostensibly the same game a second time. Sure, there was a sharp contrast between the returning prowess of V'Angelo Bentley in each game, and the Illini offense came out with some different looks from what we saw against Kent State.
But just like against the Golden Flashes, the Fighting Illini defense destroyed everything Western Illinois tried to do. And now we get to talk about what it means.
A little over a week ago, the venerable Bill Connelly, SB Nation's college football stats and analysis guy, dove deep into the importance of returning starters and experience in CFB.
It's common narrative that returning the starters from an offensive line is almost a guarantee of improvement and success on that side of the football. Interestingly, Connelly's research found that the quantity of returning production at quarterback and wide receiver was a much better predictor for offensive success.
And on defense, much is made of returning the guys in the trenches. You can already see improvement Illinois has had this season, losing just one heavy contributor from last season's front four (Austin Teitsma). This has allowed for early leaps from light contributors last year like Rob Bain and Chunky Clements.
But Connelly's numbers say that returning production in one statistic may mean more to a defense than any other: passes defensed. The highest correlation between an improved defense and returning production took place in the secondary.
On Saturday, Illinois, which returned 29 of its 38 passes defensed last season (lost Zane Petty's 8, Teitsma's 1), held a WIU offense containing a talented FCS quarterback and FBS level receiver to a categorically insane 1.8 yards per pass attempt. In the last two years, the lowest YPA the Illini defense held anyone was 5.0 (Ohio State in 2013).
Western Illinois is an FCS team, and a bad one at that. And in 2012, Illinois allowed 1.7 YPA to Charleston Southern and ended up being a poor pass defense. Maybe this means nothing.
But it's hard to ignore just how good the secondary looks along with the numbers. With a better pass rush, V'Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence don't have to hang with their receivers quite as long and they've blanketed them consistently.
Taylor Barton and Clayton Fejedelem have been arguably the two best players on the defense through two games, allowing just one breakdown in coverage (which may have been Jevaris Little's fault) and rocketing up to the line of scrimmage to swallow running plays.
There have been no warning signs of potential let-down when faced with tougher opponents. Nothing to indicate that this is anything other than the best secondary Illinois has had in a long time. Any negative outlook for this secondary is based on its troubled past, not its enticing present.
Whether or not it comes through on its promise is a question that could be answered when faced with the six-foot-five Bug Howard and five-foot-ten Ryan Switzer this weekend.
It's time to talk about Chunky.
I have been about as down on Jarrod "Chunky" Clements as anyone in the Illini football blogosphere. He's been more inconsistent than most players on the team, showing flashes of incredible athleticism but bogged down by mental mistakes. Now, as a junior, Chunky appears to be doing things. Good things.
WIU's right tackle was being abused by anyone matched up with him on Saturday, but Chunky took advantage better than nearly anyone. And yes, this play was negated by a rather dumb roughing the passer penalty on TJ Neal, but it shows a level of awareness that I'm not sure Chunky had in previous years. Chunky blows by the tackle's right side with merely his initial burst, but has the mental fortitude to get his hands up immediately upon seeing Trenton Norvell cock his arm back.
Chunky wasn't just effective because of his improved football instincts though-- he found success through brute force and athleticism in acquiring two tackles for loss on plays where he was virtually unblocked. Chunky joins Rob Bain, Barton, Neal, Dawuane Smoot, and Carroll Phillips as players who look like they may be emerging as Big Ten level players in their junior years.
Phillips was a player who stuck out to me as much as any other on the entire defense Saturday. Phillips, the back-up LEO, got some extra playing time because of the blowout nature of the game, and proved his worth consistently. Some of this could be due to Western's struggling RT, but Phillips combined his trademark solid pass rushing skills with exciting work holding the edge in the run game. Watch him combine with TJ Neal for a tackle for loss after a fantastic swim move to the inside:
If Phillips can continue to improve his ability to stop the run, the Illini have a real player on their hands on that side of the ball. He was a solid help in the Illini's efforts to limit a weak WIU rushing attack to just over three yards per carry.
Western Illinois was 1-for-15 on third downs Saturday. For two years, the Illini have been one of the worst teams in the country when the opposing offense faces third down. Illinois was 87th in opponent third down percentage on 2014 and 105th nationally in 2013. As with anything, this must be adjusted for the lack of quality opponents, but it's still a huge step up.
Illinois is currently fifth in the country in third-down defense, and a large part of that is the excellent pass defense combined with good enough run prevention on standard downs. There's not much to say here that hasn't already been said above-- just keep it up.
This is a man who needs the football in his hands with space to run. Through two games of the season against low-quality opponents, it increasingly appears that the Illini offensive line is rarely going to be capable of providing him that space.
As one might predict, the offensive lineman struggling the most appears to be senior left guard Chris Boles. Boles can look lost on plays, unsure what to do when he is alone and needing to find a block.
Here is one of the best holes opened by the Illini line all day long, one that produces a very favorable situation: a twisting defensive tackle runs himself out of the play's intended direction, leaving Boles alone with a linebacker straight ahead. Boles hesitates, shuffle-steps two or three yards downfield, and that linebacker ends up flowing quickly to the ball and making the tackle.
Ferguson could have been more patient on this run and allowed Boles to get further downfield before making his cut, but there's no excuse for Boles not to block on such a simple assignment.
And Boles doesn't appear to be the only one guilty of this on the Illini offensive line. I mentioned center Joe Spencer in this column last week because he pulled frequently on outside tosses and counters. Last week, Spencer did a mostly good job of finding a man and quickly attacking him. This time around, not so much.
For whatever reason, Illinois was more reluctant to run to the outside against WIU and focused instead on pushing the ball through the trenches, with little success. On the few plays where Spencer and Boles pulled around the line, they often passed up linebackers who were slightly out of their way in favor of blocking a safety straight ahead downfield.
Why is this a problem? Because it's much easier for a running back to make a safety miss five yards down the field than a linebacker at the line of scrimmage. Jeremy Werner did a great job of breaking this down in his film review on Illini Inquirer ($).
The Illini need to work on blocking the front seven before turning to the second level. That will allow Ferguson and Ke'Shawn Vaughn to get their legs under them and up to full speed before having to face an unblocked defender. It's only going to get harder against the more talented defenses on the schedule.
The Illini offensive line does deserve credit for its protection of Wes Lunt through two games, though. The first string line has yet to allow a single sack on 65 passing attempts from Lunt. Last year, Lunt was pummeled even during the non-conference schedule, with much of the destruction of the offensive line occurring on twist plays (where one defensive lineman pulls out and attacks the other side of his teammate).
Here, you can see the Illini offensive line handling a WIU twist rush with ease:
This type of rush gave the Illini fits in 2014. But now, right tackle Christian DiLauro immediately diagnoses the twist and takes on the defensive tackle with help from Ted Karras. And Joe Spencer, who's not immediately approached by any rusher, keeps his head on a swivel and admirably takes a punishing first hit from the WIU DE coming around on his twist.
Excellent work from the right side of the line allowed a clean pocket for Lunt and plenty of time for Geronimo Allison to find a soft spot in the Cover Two zone. Lunt deserves some credit for avoiding sacks as well-- he's looked healthy and shown improved mobility in the pocket. That, combined with his usual confidence in making quick decisions down the field, is the reason he's taken only a handful of hits through two games.
Briefly on Tim Clary, the former walk-on fullback/tight end who will be out for a while with an undisclosed arm injury that required him to wear a sling after Saturday's game.
Clary was one of the best blockers on the Illini offense, primarily operating in the fullback/H-back role. He was second in line in my favorite Illini offensive formation, the Maryland formation, with two tight ends and a running back in an extended I-form backfield. Replacing Clary will be tough, because JUCO transfer Ainslie Johnson was the back-up at the fullback spot and he has very little playing experience in his first year at the D-I level.
Perhaps Bill Cubit gives Johnson a chance to prove himself, perhaps Tyler White is moved primarily into the backfield and Andrew Davis receives more playing time on the end of the line, or perhaps Illinois runs fewer heavy formations to mitigate the loss of Clary. Regardless of how it works out, the loss of Clary is a surprisingly damaging one for a relatively healthy Illini offense.
Slot receivers Marchie Murdock, Desmond Cain, and Dionte Taylor combined for 139 yards on 17 receptions, with the vast majority of those yards coming from bubble screens. But what is a bubble screen?
Generally speaking, a bubble screen is free yards. It also seems like something Lunt probably chooses to check to at the line. Illinois comes out in the I-formation, which encourages WIU to stay in their base 4-3 defense, and leaves Murdock (in the slot) alone with a linebacker shifting slightly towards him.
Lunt will check to this play if Murdock is clean and the outside receiver, typically Allison, Malik Turner, or freshman Sam Mays, is matched up with a cornerback lined up more than 5-7 yards downfield. On this play, Mays is line up on the outside and immediately prepares to block his receiver. Then, all Murdock needs to do is break one tackle to turn it into a significant gain.
Well first of all, Mays totally misses his block, which doesn't help Murdock. But still, Murdock seems too focused on getting upfield and not focused enough on trying to make the approaching safety miss. Though he still performed admirably and had a nice day overall, perhaps Murdock isn't the best option for these bubble screens.
He just doesn't quite have the same elusiveness that Desmond Cain and particularly Dionte Taylor showed during their receptions. Watch Taylor juke a defender out of his shoes during one of his few bubble screen receptions of the second half:
Though Taylor doesn't quite have the straight line speed to escape the pursuing linebacker, it's still a great gain and a first down because of his awareness. Cain also showed the ability to make the first tackler miss. Thus, we have the inaugural BUBBLE SCREEN POWER RANKINGS OF ELUSIVENESS AND EXCELLENCE.
BUBBLE SCREEN POWER RANKINGS OF ELUSIVENESS AND EXCELLENCE:
1. Dionte Taylor
2. Desmond Cain
3. Marchie Murdock
This has been the BUBBLE SCREEN POWER RANKINGS OF ELUSIVENESS AND EXCELLENCE. I really liked what Murdock showed outside of the screen game though. He appears to be Lunt's favorite non-GMo target right now (where has Turner been for these first two games?) and that chemistry matters more on the field than anything else.
The Illini offense was six-for-six in the red zone against Western Illinois, and is now nine-for-nine on scoring inside the 20-yard line for the season. Last year, Illinois struggled to score inside the RZ because it couldn't run the ball well enough as the shortened field limited Lunt's passing options. And, when the Illini were stopped, Taylor Zalewski and David Reisner were likely to miss the ensuing field goal.
Thus far, Zalewski is a perfect four-for-four on field goal attempts, including two-for-two on red zone field goal attempts. It's been really nice to see him kick with some confidence. When he eventually misses one, and he will, let's hope he can continue to stay positive and perform to his capabilities. As long as he keeps his spirits up, and stops kicking balls out of bounds on the kickoff, Zalewski will have a great year.
Illinois only had three penalties for 25 yards on Saturday, a nice rebound from a poor effort in week one. As expected, this was nothing to worry about, and the lack of offensive setbacks helped greatly increase the Illini's third-down conversion rate on offense (50 percent on Saturday). Keep it up.
Illinois fumbled four times on Saturday, twice by Bentley and one each by White and Vaughn. Some people are concerned about this in the long run, but I'm not. We'll get to Bentley in a minute, but Vaughn is a freshman and occasionally the ball pops out. As Cubit said after the game, it's not like guys are trying to fumble-- it just happens. White's fumble was a bit of a strange play as well. I don't expect either to have major fumbling issues in the future, and if they do, then it will be time to have some concerns.
Lastly, we come to the much-maligned V'Angelo Bentley. After having an incredible first week with two punt returns of over thirty yards, Bentley looked really uncomfortable fielding punts against WIU.
Here's what people aren't talking about with regards to this scenario: the WIU punter was absolutely terrible (sorry, bud), and finished with a net yards per punt of only 28.9 (!!!!!).
He really had trouble getting the ball down the field, which led to nearly every punt landing in a strange no-man's-land area. Bentley still needs to field punts cleanly, but he had to sprint 15 yards forward to try and get to some of those shanks, and that's where a lot of the confusion and struggles happened.
As for Bentley's fumbles, those are inexcusable. That said, he's never had an issue with not fielding punts cleanly in the past, and it only came about when Shanky McShanksalot lined up and booted it downfield. I can only hope this tough week hasn't shattered Bentley's jubilance and confidence, but I'd imagine it's quite difficult to accomplish that. Bentley loves showing off way too much to get the yips.