Illinois is an all-or-nothing team in conference play in 2018, and yesterday was one of those “nothing” days. Yeah that’s a tad hyperbolic, but Illinois has won twice in the Big Ten in blowout wins. Illinois has lost 5 times in blowout losses. No game Illinois has played in conference has been competitive in the fourth quarter.
This was a game that should have been closer. It should have been a game in the fourth quarter — a throwback to some vintage Big 12 Nebraska games of old to be sure. But it wasn’t. Mostly because...
The Illini got to 21 Points and then proceeded to do Some Incredibly Dumb Stuff
Illinois brought the score to a 31-21 Nebraska lead late in the second quarter with 0:53 seconds remaining. Illinois wouldn’t score again until the game was effectively over with the score Nebraska 47 Illinois 21 with 7:44 left in the fourth quarter when Illinois brought that to 47-28.
Over this period of the game Illinois muffed their second punt of the game with 20 seconds remaining in the first half to allow the Cornhuskers to take possession of the ball within the Illini 10 yard line and score a TD. 38-21 Huskers.
In the third quarter, Illinois then threw an interception on a ball that Dominic Stampley dropped. Nebraska scored on the following drive, a 17-play, 78-yard effort (so you really can’t blame that score on the interception). 45-21 Huskers.
A Blake Hayes punt after Tony Adams got the ball back with an interception was blocked and Nebraska got a safety. 47-21.
Other than that period from the late second quarter to the early fourth quarter, this was a fairly even game, but this period was full of so many mistakes from Illinois, particular on special teams that instead this being a game in the fourth — albeit one that Illinois would still have likely lost, Nebraska’s offense was just better on the day — this turned into a 54-35 blowout.
I wouldn’t say that Illinois would have won if not for these issues. I still think the Illini lose by about 10 points, but the point remains when you are a team like Illinois, you can barely afford one of these mishaps playing on the road if you want to have a chance to win. Illinois had three.
It Wasn’t a Play-Calling Issue for the Defense
The defense looked much improved against Minnesota, playing its best game in conference play by far. That was also the first game Lovie Smith took over play-calling duties after Hardy Nickerson was fired. Lovie was more aggressive calling the defense against the Gopher, and there was some hope that the play-calling change could help the Illini defense improve late in the year to gain some momentum for next season.
That was very much not the case. The Illini gave up over 600 yards and allowed the Huskers to gain 8.9 yards per play. The unfortunate set of turnovers Illinois had didn’t help the defense any, but the defense also didn’t help themselves and allowed Nebraska to march down the field with ease. So much for the Lovie effect.
The Illini defense has given up over 600 yards in 3 conference games and allowed 591 in another. Illinois has only held two conference opponents under 500 yards, Minnesota and Rutgers — not-coincidentally the only conference wins for Illinois and the only games in which the Illini were competitive.
Bobby Roundtree Shines Through
As much as we have to talk about how poor this defense truly is — they will finish in the 120-130 range in most major categories — let’s talk about the one huge bright spot this year: Sophomore defensive end Bobby Roundtree.
Roundtree had another great game with three tackles for a loss, two sacks, a pass deflection and a forced fumble.
Last season James Crawford led the Illini in tackles for loss (5.5,) and sacks (4.0, tied with Roundtree). Jaylen Dunlap led Illinois with 5 pass deflections.
Through 10 games, Roundtree has 11 tackles for a loss, 6.5 sacks and 7 pass deflections, leading the Illini in all categories and surpassing the leading marks from last season. Roundtree has shown some great improvement from his promising freshman season and is a good guy to try to build a defensive line around. Sadly, the rest of the line hasn’t come close to meeting his level of play and the defense has suffered for it.
Roundtree sure looks like an NFL Draft pick to me, and I’m excited to see him get even better in 2019.
AJ Bush Has Finally Met His Potential
AJ Bush has rushed for five touchdowns and thrown two more in the last two games while rushing for 326 yards. The 187 he ran for yesterday was the most ever in a single game by an Illinois QB. These were the two best games of his career, and after a long journey that included three power-five schools and a year in junior-college, AJ Bush is finally showing that not only does he belong at this level, but that he has the talent to be a very good player in it.
Sadly, it took until halfway through his senior year for this to happen. I really wonder what his career would have looking like under an offensive coach like Rod Smith rather than being stuck in an offensive he didn’t fit in with the Huskers under Mike Riley.
On the other hand, AJ Bush should be proud of how he’s played. So many other talented players in his situation never end up making much of an impact, but he never gave up and kept believing in himself. Illinois is a long-way off his “8-in-a-row goal” he tweeted after the Penn State loss, but he’s played the best football he’s ever played the last couple of weeks. He has two more games to go back out there and do his thing, and I’m really excited to see what he can do. Hats off to you, AJ.
Reggie Corbin Will Probably Miss the Remaining Two Games
Corbin went down with an ankle injury and was unable to return to the field in the second half of this one, finishing the day with only 9 carries and 60 yards. When you see an ankle injury and a running back, it almost always means missed games. Lovie doesn’t give injury updates, but I’m pretty sure Corbin won’t be seen in the Iowa or Northwestern games.
If indeed it was his last game, he will end the year with 1,011 yards at 8.9 yards per carry and 9 TDs. He is the first Illini player to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season since Mikel Leshoure ran for 1,697 in 2010.
Not bad for a player who Gerrick McGee forgot existed.
NEVER ATTEMPT TO RETURN A PUNT
Illinois attempted to field four punts. Two of those times Nebraska ended up with possession of the football. It’s time to stop trying this whole returning punts thing guys.
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