The 4-6 Illini will need to make it two wins in two weeks to achieve bowl eligibility for the first time since 2014. The visiting Iowa Hawkeyes, losers of three straight, provide a legitimate opportunity for Illinois to get half way there.
The following is a straight-forward formula of what needs to happen for win No. 5 at Memorial Stadium Saturday.
Win the Turnover Battle
It’s been a tale of two seasons for the Illini with respect to the turnover battle. Over the first 5 games, Lovie ball was alive and well, with the men in Orange and Blue holding a 12 to 4, +8 turnover margin, on their way to a 3-2 start to the season.
Since its Game 5 victory over Rutgers, Illinois has hemorrhaged the football, coughing it up 15 times compared to 7 takeaways, resulting in a turnover wash for the year thus far.
Needless to say, an even turnover margin is not sustainable for Illinois success under Lovie Smith. And turning the ball over 3 times per week is unsustainable for success at any program. Illinois needs to get back to protecting the football first and foremost — on offense and in the return game.
But turnover margin is a two-way street, and the Illinois defense has to find a way to create takeaways. The Illini need to force third-and-long situations against the offensively challenged Hawkeyes. Additionally, Illinois must find a way to get pressure on Nate Stanley, who is averaging almost an interception a game.
For a group giving up huge total yardage numbers, it is essential for the Illini defense to create more possessions in better field position for its rising offensive unit.
Catch the football
Simple enough, right?
Listen, the Illinois passing attack with A.J. Bush at the helm is clearly a secondary form of offense, merely meant to supplement the dynamic run game. But there is little excuse for repeatedly dropping catchable passes.
Not only do drops lead to costly, unforced turnovers, as we saw last week, but they kill drives and compel Illinois’ weary defense back to the field when the offense should be chewing up time of possession.
Illinois vs. Nebraska Offensive Breakdown: https://t.co/joCFfpRzhF— Illinois Football Breakdown (@ILLFBBreakdown) November 10, 2018
There must have been hundreds of sad tweets following the Nebraska debacle imploring Illinois to recruit better receivers. Don’t listen to this cacophony of malcontent. Ricky Smalling CAN catch the football, Dominic Stampley CAN catch the football, Sam Mays CAN catch the football, Reggie Corbin CAN catch the football. Illinois has the pieces to play simple pitch and catch.
A.J. Bush has shown improvement with his throwing in recent weeks, and Rod Smith’s offensive run success has opened up space in the passing game. It’s time to consistently catch the football, period.
Limit big plays
The problem with the 2018 Illini defense has never been simply a matter of giving up yardage. Lovie’s defensive unit is happy to bend in order to prevent breakage, and has found success in doing such. And it’s not that the schemes have been significantly worse over the second half of the season.
The safeties and linebackers have just been a half step slower in coverage, the tackling has been slightly less precise, and the push at the line of scrimmage has been somewhat less pronounced. Put it all together, and the Illini defense has been caught flat-footed on numerous occasions, leading to explosive, backbreaking plays.
Illinois must get back to keeping the game in front of itself and rallying to the football. Live to fight another down, and force the opposing offense to work over long drives to put points on the scoreboard. Iowa showed significant difficulty finishing drives last week against Northwestern, and Illinois has to put the onus on the Hawkeyes to execute play after play to outscore the host Illini.
Show up Illini Nation
Illinois thrived off the raucous home environments against Minnesota, and for a team that lives and dies on the thinnest of margins, a decent home field advantage can pay huge dividends. Please show up. Make some noise. Appreciate this team for how hard they compete, despite their relative lack of experience, size, and athleticism.
You are the best fans in college sports. Time to show it. I love you Illini nation, more than you’ll ever know. It has been an absolute pleasure feeding you my little quips over the past few months. Don’t return the love to me. Return it to those seniors suiting up for the last time at Memorial Stadium this Saturday. You make more of a difference than you realize.
Back the team to gain a victory, Oskee wow-wow, Illinois!