How does a team recover after losing by its widest margin since Teddy Roosevelt was in office? No one can know for sure, but it certainly won’t be easy. To make matters tougher, the Illini match up against the Northwestern Wildcats, champions of the Big Ten West Division, on Saturday as their last game of the season.
Here’s what needs to happen for Illinois to come out on top.
The players are doing everything they can to succeed, and I support them 100% for playing hard in the Orange and Blue. But something, or more likely some combination of things, isn’t working. It’s up to the coaching staff, and ultimately Lovie Smith, to figure out what the problem is and at least apply a band-aid this week, so that the problem can be fully rectified in the offseason.
The lack of experienced defensive assistants and exceptionally poor play on the defensive side of the ball are almost certainly not coincidental. Lovie will fill out his staff in the offseason, but he’ll need to give all of his attention to that side of the ball this week if the Illini hope to be successful in their last matchup of the year.
Illinois simply isn’t getting the takeaways that it had earlier in the year, and that’s causing major problems for a defense that is both bending and breaking. Del’Shawn Phillips came away with a solid tip drill interception last week, but we’ll need to see much more of this if the Illini are going to have a chance against the Wildcats.
The defensive line, which has improved recently, must continue to create pressure, cause poor throws, and give Illinois’ linebackers and defensive backs a chance to grab interceptions.
Catch the Ball
AJ Bush has made some decent throws over the past few weeks, but his receivers absolutely must give him some help and catch what’s thrown at them. If not, then Northwestern will key in on the run with eight men in the box, and stifle Illinois’ entire offense. The ability to air the ball out to targets like Ricky Smalling and Trenard Davis will spread out the defense, and give Ra’Von Bonner and AJ Bush the running lanes they need to break big plays.
Everything went wrong last week against Iowa, and it will take a herculean effort to bounce back and play competitively this week. It’s not impossible, but we’re going to need to see some real improvement, even with some of Illinois’ best playmakers out from injuries on offense.
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