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Special teams shines in Illinois’ loss to Minnesota

A sputtering Illini offense led to the team’s fifth-straight loss

Illinois v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Despite playing its most competitive game in a month, the Illinois football team couldn’t pull out a win on the road against Minnesota in a 24-17 defeat at TCF Bank Stadium.

Illinois certainly had its chances, but ultimately couldn’t stop the run and couldn’t cash in touchdowns when it mattered most in the loss.

Here’s how each position group graded out for the Illini:

Quarterbacks

Grade: C-

Once again, Illinois is back to having a quarterback controversy with the introduction of Cam Thomas to the active roster. The freshman rushed for 79 yards in his first career game, but threw a interception that was returned for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter to essentially seal the game.

Jeff George Jr.’s numbers look good: 18 of 23 passing for 128 yards and a touchdown with zero turnovers. However, those numbers are artificially inflated because George Jr. accumulated 65 yards and a touchdown while chasing two touchdowns with under four minutes to go.

Running backs

Grade: D

Ra’Von Bonner continued his remarkably consistent 2017 campaign — unfortunately, he’s consistent in averaging just three yards per carry. Bonner toted the rock a team-high 18 times for 57 yards and a touchdown. (Quick side note, Illinois’ last nine (9!!) touchdowns have all come from freshmen. The last time a non-freshman scored for the Illini was against South Florida).

Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin cancelled each other out as Foster gained 10 yards on one carry, while Corbin lost 10 on a pair of carries.

Wide receivers

Grade: D-

The Illini averaged an extremely conservative 8.1 yards per completion Saturday, and there were no real chances for big plays down the field.

Malik Turner caught four passes for 17 yards, while Ricky Smalling led the way with eight grabs for 71 yards and a touchdown. The freshman has gone from not playing to the Illini’s de facto No. 1 receiver in just a matter of a few weeks. Illinois was without Mike Dudek, who left the Rutgers game with a lower body injury.

Offensive line

Grade: D+

The big guys up front for Illinois allowed three sacks, including two to the Gophers’ Carter Coughlin.

The Illini’s rushing attack showed much more spice with Thomas under center, and designed quarterback runs is how the freshman mostly made his living Saturday. On plays like that, the offense has an additional blocker because the running back can help out in blocking, which seemed to make it a little easier for Illinois to move the ball against Minnesota.

Rushing for 3.4 yards per carry and completing passes for 8.1 yards a pop makes it difficult to sustain drives and score points.

Defensive line

Grade: C-

The Illini gave up 292 yards rushing, including 153 yards to Kobe McCray and 103 yards to Rodney Smith.

The defensive line also rarely got the opportunity to rush the passer, as Minnesota attempted just 15 passes a team Saturday. Illinois did a good job to keep Minnesota off the scoreboard, but the Gophers had five drives of at least eight plays and a pair of 12 play drives in the second half that led to points.

Bobby Roundtree led the group with five tackles.

Linebackers

Grade: D-

Tre Watson was out with a knee injury, and Del’Shawn Phillips and Dele Harding were both also out of the lineup, leaving some of Illinois’ best defenders in run support out of the mix.

Julian Jones led all linebackers with nine tackles and a tackle for loss, and Ayo Shogbonyo had four stops. Both players just seem a little hesitant out on the field and that split-second delay can be the difference between stuffing a run and getting blocked.

The Gophers asserted their physical dominance in the second half by running the same play (wide receiver motion, fake the give to the wideout, then hand off to the running back on a counter) over and over and over again. Sometimes you don’t have to be creative if you can just control the line of scrimmage.

Secondary

Grade: B+

Bennett Williams was the best player on the field for the Illini, coming up big in run support. The freshman had 15 tackles, a forced fumble and a pass breakup in the red zone that saved a touchdown.

Fellow safety Stanley Green had 14 stops, along his first career interception. Cameron Watkins also made a heck of a play along the sidelines to reel in an interception, as well as get a foot down in bounds to secure the catch.

Special teams

Grade: A

Blake Hayes is a superstar, no other way around it. He averaged 52.5 yards per punt on five attempts, including a long of 59 yards. He also pinned three of his kicks inside the 20-yard line to force Minnesota into poor field position.

Chase McLaughlin missed a 42-yard field goal and made a 28-yarder later in the game.