In Illinois’ (presumably) final game of the 2017 season where the Illini (2-4, 0-3 Big Ten) were the favorites, the home team got thrashed by bottom-feeder Rutgers in a game that wasn’t as close as the 35-24 score indicated.
The Illini couldn’t stop the run on defense and couldn’t establish the run on offense, which is the exact opposite of Lovie Smith’s coaching philosophy. Let’s take a look at how each position group fared in the loss:
Much like the score of the game, starting quarterback Jeff George Jr.’s numbers look much better than he played, thanks to some late garbage time stat-padding. George Jr. was 20 of 38 for 302 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
In his career, George Jr. now has 12 interceptions in 199 attempts, which is a six percent INT rate. For comparison, now-graduated quarterback Wes Lunt had 12 interceptions in his Illini career in 954 attempts.
There is some good here. George Jr. showed an ability to subtly move in the pocket to give his linemen a better angle to block and let routes develop, and he has a cannon for an arm and isn’t afraid to fire it downfield. His strong arm cuts both ways, however, as sometimes George Jr. gets sloppy with his footwork because his arm is usually good enough to make the throw anyway. It doesn’t matter how good your arm is: inconsistent footwork is going to lead to inconsistent accuracy, and that’s one of George Jr.’s biggest struggles right now.
In the first game of the season without Mike Epstein, Ra’Von Bonner soaked up nearly all of the rushing carries with limited success.
The freshman tallied 19 carries for 62 yards and a touchdown, but he’s not the type of guy that is going to rip off a long run. Bonner averages 3.0 yards per carry for the season, and his longest rush of the season is just 19 yards.
I would think that Reggie Corbin would be a nice complement to Bonner’s physical, grind-it-out style, but the sophomore received just one carry for zero yards. Instead, Dre Brown had his first career carries as the backup running back, amassing 11 yards.
Ricky Smalling was great with 111 yards and a touchdown, and Dominic Thieman added three catches for 59 yards, while Trenard Davis hauled in a 50-yard reception late in the fourth quarter.
The two receivers who would have been expected to lead the Illini this season, Mike Dudek and Malik Turner, combined for four catches for a total of just 27 yards. One of George Jr.’s interceptions was to Dudek in the red zone. His pass sailed much too high for the 5-foot-11 Dudek, and the ball glanced off his fingers and fell into the lap of a Rutgers defender.
Illinois kept essentially the same group as last week against Iowa, featuring four freshmen and Nick Allegretti. The Illini also used Christian DiLauro to come in as a sixth offensive lineman at times to try to juice up its rushing attack.
As mentioned above, the Illini couldn’t quite get the running game going, tallying only 86 yards for the game. Illinois’ pass protection was pretty good for most of the game, allowing just two sacks on more than 40 dropbacks.
James Crawford had an absolute whale of a game with two recovered fumbles, one forced fumble, one sack, four tackles, one pass breakup and another quarterback hurry.
As for the rest of the defensive line, it wasn’t pretty. Rutgers rushed for 274 yards, which is 100 yards more than its season average. The Scarlet Knights pounded all five of their touchdowns in on the ground.
Tito Odenigbo was another small bright spot with 1.5 tackles for loss.
Usual starters Tre Watson and Del’Shawn Phillips rarely saw the field as Lovie Smith opted instead for a rotation that included walk-on Jimmy Marchese, Dele Harding and Ayo Shogbonyo.
The subs did not pay off as Marchese — despite having nine tackles -- could’ve have a few more and missed tackles burned the Illini badly. Nothing against Marchese, he played valiantly, but I’m very confused as to why two of Illinois’ best run stoppers in Watson and Phillips weren’t in the game against a team that only passed 12 times for the entire game.
Shogbonyo forced a fumble, one of three on the day for the Illinois defense, that kept Rutgers from turning the game into a total laugher.
The Illini came into the game short-handed with safety Patrick Nelson and nickel corner Tony Adams both out with injuries.
Illinois’ defensive backs weren’t called upon much in pass defense but gave up some big plays through the air. The Scarlet Knights averaged 17 yards per pass completion, which allowed them to keep drives moving down the field.
Stanley Green led the Illini in tackles and forced another fumble; he really seems to have a knack for knocking the ball out of ballcarriers’ hands.
Chase McLaughlin doinked a 54-yard field goal off the upright but made a 43-yarder later in the game.
Nate Hobbs showed some promise in the kick return game, an area where Illinois has been extremely docile in the past. Carmoni Green made one of the more head-scratching plays of the season when returning a punt by allowing the ball to bounce and roll a few times before trying to dive on the ball at the last second, missing, and allowing Rutgers to recover. After that debacle, the Illini had Malik Turner back deep to field punts.
Blake Hayes was his usual reliable self when punting the ball.