In the seventh game of the season, Illinois has officially moved on to its third different quarterback.
Lovie Smith decided to burn the redshirt off Cam Thomas, who split time with Jeff George Jr., but it wasn’t enough as the Illini (2-5, 0-4 Big Ten) couldn’t pull out the win in a 24-17 loss to Minnesota (4-3, 1-3) on the road Saturday.
The Gophers rushed for nearly 300 yards for the game, and Illinois’ defense did a good job of bending but not breaking for much of the game, until Minnesota pounded the run in a 12-play, 75-yard drive to score the go-ahead touchdown with 4:20 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Thomas was then picked off on the first play of the ensuing drive and the ball was returned for a touchdown to seal the game.
George Jr. added a touchdown toss to Ricky Smalling to get Illinois within a touchdown with under a minute to go, but it was too little, too late.
Here are a few things we learned from Saturday’s game:
Cam Thomas needs to be getting the majority of the snaps at quarterback
The redshirt finally came off for the quarterback from Chicago, and he showed big play ability with his legs.
Instead of having a running quarterback like Chayce Crouch, who mainly relies on power when running the ball, Thomas is all speed. He’s 6-foot-2, but looks much taller when he is running with the ball. He almost gives off the illusion that he’s not running too fast because of his long legs. Check out this scamper:
The freshman had 79 yards rushing on 10 carries and wasn’t asked to pass much until the Illini fell behind late in the fourth quarter, leading to the game-sealing interception.
George Jr. again flirted with the turnover bug, as at least two of his passes were dangerously deflected and could’ve been picked off, and George Jr. also fumbled off a sack, which Illinois recovered.
I understand if Thomas isn’t ready to be the full-time quarterback because of his arm, knowledge of playbook, etc., but he needs to have a commanding role going forward.
The Illini defense showed heart and a knack for turnovers once again
Illinois may be playing a bunch of 18 and 19-year-olds that have trouble competing physically, but the unit played very hard Saturday and did a nice job of keeping Minnesota out of the end zone.
Sure, the Gophers pounded the ball on the ground, but Illinois forced three turnovers to snuff out drives and held firm inside the 5-yard line in the third quarter to force a field goal attempt.
Bennett Williams in particular was all over the field. The freshman had nine tackles in the first half alone, and his partner in crime at safety, Stanley Green, brought huge hits and a forced fumble — the fifth of his career — along with his first career interception.
That being said, Minnesota ran essentially the same play for much of the second half: wide receiver motion and either hand the ball off on a jet sweep or fake the jet, and hand off to the running back on a counter play. It really was a gift that Demry Croft threw the ball 15 times because Illinois really struggled to consistently get stops when Minnesota ran the ball.