Illinois’ first taste of conference play in 2017 was a one-sided affair, as Nebraska downed the Illini 28-6 Friday night at Memorial Stadium.
Chayce Crouch and the Illini offense were able to move the ball into Nebraska territory but couldn’t put points on the board, while the Illinois defense couldn’t slow a balanced Nebraska attack.
Let’s take a look at how each position group graded out for the Illini:
Crouch played the entire game, despite some thoughts that he might be lifted in favor of his backup Jeff George Jr., who is more adept at passing the ball.
Crouch was 9-for-15 for 99 yards passing with an interception coming on a hail mary that didn’t make it to the end zone just before halftime.
While his numbers might not look that bad, it’s the lack of trust that offensive coordinator Garrick McGee has in the passing game that gums up the Illini attack. Illinois repeatedly ran the ball on third and long situations rather than risk a throw downfield, and when Crouch dropped back to pass, he was mainly limited to short, quick throws that have limited opportunity for big plays.
Shoutout to former quarterback, current wide receiver Trenard Davis for completing a pass on third down on a trick play.
Reggie Corbin made his season debut, carrying the ball four times for nine yards, and Crouch was easily the most effective runner on the team Friday night. With five sacks counting against his rushing average, Crouch compiled 37 yards on 18 carries and gave the Illinois offense life early in the game.
Freshman Mike Epstein was limited to 10 carries for 42 yards, and Kendrick Foster had a miserable day at kick returner, fumbling twice, although Illinois recovered both muffs, in addition to one carry for minus-5 yards.
Illinois’ pass-catchers weren’t called up on to do too much for the day. Mike Dudek (two) and Malik Turner (three) were the only players with more than one reception.
Freshman Carmoni Green saw his first action as a member of the Illini and turned a short curl route into an 18-yard completion.
The Illini have yet to unlock the senior Turner this season, as he has just 122 yards receiving this season on a dreadful 8.7 yards per catch average.
Crouch was sacked five times and the Illini’s line had trouble generating a push against the stoutest front seven they’ve seen this season.
Part of the reason Illinois is restricted to such short throws is the fact that the offensive line simply can’t be relied upon to consistently give Crouch time on five- and seven-step dropbacks.
Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee often had all the time he needed to dissect the Illinois secondary, and the Cornhuskers hummed along rushing the ball at 5.4 yards per carry when you take out two sacks and quarterback kneels to end the game.
Senior James Crawford recorded his first sack of his career in his first game of the season after serving a three-game suspension.
A troubling statistic for the Illini: only a total of two tackles from defensive tackles. Those guys, specifically Tymir Oliver, Jamal Milan, Kenyon Jackson and Tito Odenigbo, won’t rack up the stats, but when they are making tackles, it usually means the Illini are stuffing the run. That wasn’t the case Friday.
Julian Jones was called upon more than he had in previous games, as Nebraska’s balanced offense kept Illinois in its base 4-3 defense for much of the game.
Jones had seven tackles, while Tre Watson and Del’Shawn Phillips recorded eight and seven respectively.
Phillips missed a golden opportunity at an interception as Lee floated a ball directly towards him, but the junior couldn’t hold on to the ball and seal the turnover.
One of Illinois’ leading tacklers, freshman safety Bennett Williams, was ejected early in the first quarter for targeting, leaving a void to be filled by Stanley Green and Dawson DeGroot.
Neither are as good in pass coverage as Williams is, and the Illini had a hard time stopping Lee, who was 17-of-24 for 246 yards and three touchdowns. The junior completed 10 consecutive passes at one point.
Patrick Nelson led Illinois with 10 tackles and Nate Hobbs chipped in eight stops.
Chase McLaughlin converted both of his field goal attempts from 25 yards out, and Blake Hayes punted five times for an average of 37 yards, pinning the Cornhuskers inside their own 20-yard line three times.
As mentioned above, Foster fumbled twice on kick returns, and Illinois was unable to get a return on the two punts that it forced.