Illinois sure knows how to make this game look painfully impossible.
For every step forward for this program, there tend to be at least two steps back. There were some good things to come out of this game against Nebraska. However, the same old bugaboos from past games this season came back to bite Illinois hard.
Let's break it down:
Illini run game: A-
If it weren't for the rushing offense, this game would have been over far earlier. Again, Rod Smith proved that this offense has the pieces to be an above average Big Ten offense. AJ Bush had the best rushing game for a quarterback in Illinois history with his 187 yards and three rushing touchdowns.
He made it look very easy for stretches, too. As a runner, Bush kept the Illini in the game early. He glided to the first two scores for the Illini and continued his career day, even after the game got out of hand.
Reggie Corbin was also off to a fast start, with 4 carries for 46 yards on the opening drive. An injury was the only thing to derail another banner day for Corbin (hopefully not too serious), as he finished with 9 carries for 59 yards. Tack on a 34-yard reception, and Corbin proved he is an exceptional talent for Illinois. Oh, and he also eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing for the season (what was Garrick McGee doing last year?)
This offensive line has improved by leaps and bounds this season. It's young and talented, and should only get better. It's refreshing to see an identity take hold, at least on one side of the ball. An identity that works, anyways.
Passing Offense: C-
The drops, the drops, my God, the drops. Bush had a not particularly great day throwing the ball, but he looks more comfortable in this offense. His receivers, though, well...
Dominic Stampley: three drops, one of which led to an embarrassing interception. Sam Mays: three drops (although should have been credited with a tough to catch). Trenard Davis: drop. It was a brutal day for the receiving corps. No other way to put it. You have to catch the ball when it's thrown to you. Ricky Smalling was the only consistent threat, and even he has had issues this year. Recruiting will be big for this position going forward. Need more talent. Period.
Lovie's defense: D+
The reason this grade isn't lower is the fact that Illinois actually made some stops when it mattered. Of course it didn't matter (more on that in a bit), but Illinois did okay early on.
However, when put into tough spots, the Illini didn't respond. And it's not as if they were shutting Nebraska out before the special teams miscues. Adrian Martinez tore the defense apart with 290 passing yards and three touchdowns, adding 55 on the ground with another score. Their running game was also unstoppable, as Devine Ozigbo rushed for 162 yards on just 11 carries and three more touchdowns.
This was one of the better offenses the Illini have seen, so it is no surprise that they demolished this woeful defense. Illinois continuously lost the edge with their linebackers (we need you Camilo Eifler. And you too, Shammond Cooper.), and we could not cover the middle of the field in the passing game.
A recurring theme all year for this defense: There's just not enough talent in the back end of the defense to deal with the kind of offensive weapons Nebraska can trot out there. Tony Adams had a rough day at the office, but shows promise at safety. Del'Shawn Phillips is opportunistic i.e. turnovers, but he's slow to the edge on outside runs (and a senior).
Bobby Roundtree once again had an excellent game, but he's the only pass rusher you can rely on. Calvin Avery has elite talent, but needs to clean up some technique issues with his hands (no more hands to the face, please).
That's it. Those are the players you can really lean on on this side of the ball. It could be enough, but some younger players need to step up, and Lovie needs to stay creative, like the Minnesota game.
Special Teams: F
The kicking games have been fantastic for Illinois this year. Outside of that, special teams have been anything but special. Yesterday was by far the worst game for Bob Ligashesky's crew. Two muffed punts that led to two touchdowns. Two backbreakers that came at crucial moments in the game. Inexcusable.
Special teams can be an impactful aspect for a football team. They should be treated like referees: seen, but not noticeable. Unless they make a mistake.
For years, however, it has been nothing but a problem for Illinois. The coaching staff can't seem to figure out who can return punts and kicks. That problem bit them hard in yesterday's game.
I don't mean to sound harsh because there were other aspects that cost Illinois the game. However, those two turnovers seemed to break the back of an already untenable defensive situation. You can't put your team in that position. Illinois can't be the team to shoot itself in the foot. They already have enough problems with the game as it is.
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