With a 3-1 record against non-conference opponents, the Illinois Fighting Illini are in good position to make a run at their second consecutive postseason. With the conference season beginning this Saturday, we take a look at how the Illini performed at each position. The focus is to analyze each position's performance through the first four games, and preview what they can do to improve.
(Rated out of five champagne bottles)
Wes Lunt has been our man this season, with him leading our offense since spring ball last season. In four games he has completed 88 of 146 pass attempts (60.3%), thrown for 856 yards (214 per game), tossed 6 touchdown passes and 2 interceptions. While he hasn't done anything remotely horrible for the Illini offense, he still seems to struggle with reads down field and show impatience when in the pocket. While he's only been sacked twice this season, it's been frustrating to see him overthrow a receiver or force a ball into double coverage. But it really is difficult to blame a guy when your receiving corps is still not on the same page. Having Chayce Crouch as an option threat has been a nice change of pace on short yardage situations, but the Illini need to establish a more consistent passing game if they want to be successful offensively.
The biggest surprise for the Illini offense has been the emergence of a fairly dominant run game. Both Josh Ferguson and 4-star Freshman Ke'Shawn Vaughn have gradually shown improvement from game to game, and the rushing attack has averaged 162 yards per game. That's up from last year's average of 117 yards per game, and that average looks to be growing by the game as Vaughn is showing more confidence between the tackles. He's brought his average yards per carry to 4.4 yards this season, and that has complimented Ferguson's average of 4.9 yards per carry. Throw in a receiving factor that contributes an additional 6.7 yards per catch, and the success of our running backs could very well determine how many games the Illini win in conference.
As I write this, there are no plans for Tyler White or Tim Clary to return to the lineup this week. Losing our top two players in this position has been nothing short of heartbreaking, especially since both players were contributing members of the Illinois passing attack (White has even found the endzone). Andrew Davis looks like our starter for the next few games, and we would like nothing more than to see him used as a viable target for Wes Lunt.
With the injury to Mike Dudek at the beginning of the season, our biggest concern was the player that would replace him in the slot. To say that Marchie Murdock has filled that role is an understatement; he's overflowing it. With 18 catches for 166 yards and 2 touchdowns, he's going to make it difficult for coaches to move him away from that position. Geronimo Allison is unsurprisingly the main target for Illinois quarterbacks, as he's caught 24 passes for 362 yards and a touchdown. It seems that dropped passes and missed routes are plaguing the whole corps as of late, and it's critical that Coach Bellamy and the staff work that out immediately. Lunt has thrown a handful of very good passes that should be hauled in a haven't. With the offense relying on the success of the passing game, that needs to stop ASAP.
Both Illinois quarterbacks have only been sacked 3 times all season, and we need to applaud the offensive line for improving by a total of 30 from last season. Sure it's only been 4 games, but the o-line has proved they have been developing and improving game by game. The emergence of a fairly consistent run game is also been a breath of fresh air, and it comes as a bit of a surprise if we're totally honest. In order for the line to earn the last two bottles, we would like to see them hold the pass rush a bit longer so Wes Lunt can relax in the pocket. That task will only get tougher as the year goes on, but we feel this line can handle the pressure.
This certainly has been a tale of two games for the offense. In the first two games, the pass offense converted almost every opportunity they were given while the run game struggled to get going. However, that script has flipped in the last two games as Illinois has stalled passing the football while running well. Missed timing on routes, overthrown passes, and the occasional penalty has been a little discouraging to watch, but it does seem like Coach Cubit's offensive scheme is close to taking full effect. Once it takes off, Illinois looks like they can hang with anyone. It's simply a question of when/if that will happen...
After a relatively relaxed non-conference schedule, the defensive line has only sacked opposing quarterbacks 4 times. That's good enough to be tied for 109th, and there are 128 teams in Division 1 college football. As for the rushing defense, Illinois ranks 34th in the country with about 112.3 yards surrendered per game. While those numbers are coming from weaker opponents, it is still nice to see us get a decent push up front. Dawuane Smoot has been the driving force in the Illini pass rush, as he has earned 3 of the 4 sacks this season. We would LOVE to see Jihad Ward and Chunky Clements join that party in the backfield soon.
Mason Monheim is our man in the middle, and he's played well in 4 appearances. T.J. Neal on the other hand has been fairly non-existent in the same 4 games, and that needs to stop immediately. Pending on Coach Banks and his blitz packages mid game, we would LOVE to see a blitz on the ends to test opposing offensive lines. With play makers like Neal and Monheim (and even Eric Finney or James Crawford at the STAR position), it's really a surprise we haven't used them as consistent pass rushers.
This a borderline one bottle ranking, but Taylor Barton and Eaton Spence need to be applauded for the 5 interceptions they've snagged so far this season (Mason Monheim grabbed the 6th INT). However, it's a concern when your defense is surrendering an average of 196 passing yards per game with multiple pass plays clocking over 20 yards a play. The secondary did not look too confident last week, and it sure would be a relief to see us boost our completed pass defense ranking next week (currently 70th).
In the total defense stats category, Illinois currently sits in the mid to low 30's based on certain areas of defense. While that would be a GREAT spot to be in come December, it is still early in the season with many of tough opponents on the schedule. The biggest emphasis is on the pass rush, as Illinois only has sacked opposing quarterbacks 4 times this season. Different blitz packages and complex rush schemes are the easiest improvements to point at, but can last year's worst Big Ten defense manage that?
With the exception of the North Carolina game, Taylor Zalewski has shown improvement this season with a perfect extra point percentage and a clutch 51 yard game winning kick last week. Clayton Fejedelem and Marchie Murdock are punt blocking machines that have provided not 1, but 2 scoop and scores. Ryan Frain has punted the ball well, but a 39.7 yard average should be over 40 if we had our way. V'Angelo Bentley has proven he can be explosive returning kicks and punts, but he has also shown a few lapses that could have been costly turnovers. Also, our punt return defense has shown signs of weakness with a touchdown already given up this season. For the most part, we can't complain (hence the 4 bottles), but there are certainly things to improve upon.
Here we are, a 3-1 record heading into the conference season. Regardless of who our head coach was, this was the first checkpoint of the season. With 3 wins under out belt, the team can confidently look to their conference schedule and try and find the remaining 3 wins needed to travel to their second straight bowl game. So far, Cubit and the coaching staff have done a nice job managing the team through the coaching situation. Moving forward, we would like to see more blitzing from the defense and less penalties on offense (current team average is about 6 per game).