Saturday’s Illinois game was the most fun I’ve had watching Illini Football since....um let’s see.....sure wasn’t 2017.....2016 was brutal too....wait 2016 vs. Michigan State. Hell yeah, Jeff George the Younger.
Illinois played a high quality opponent and carried a lead late into the fourth quarter with a true freshman starting in his first game. Illinois also had a chance to win this game at the end, but MJ Rivers’ pass was long. But maybe Illinois should have at least had one more shot.
Good morning. Should've had one more play. Go Illini pic.twitter.com/xbR1msuXIm— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) September 17, 2018
The result — USF 25, Illinois 19 — was much better than anyone could have expected. I had a ton of fun watching this game and I was happy with the team.
But after I looked a little deeper at the stats, it became clear that the scoreline of the game was more than a little misleading. Illinois may have had a good result, but the performance, especially on the defensive side of the ball, was not to the level Illinois will need to even sniff a bowl game.
Take a look at what I mean.
The first thing that should bring some cause for concern is how much Illinois lost the total yardage battle by. USF had 626 yards at 7.5 yards per play compared to 380 for Illinois at 4.8 yards per play.
If I were told without knowing the score of the game just that yard discrepancy, I would have thought the score would have been around 47-23 — the score of the 2017 game against the Bulls where the Illini trailed in yards gained 680-354.
Illinois won the turnover battle 2-1, which helps explain part of why the score remained close despite the difference in yards, but more than anything Illinois did, the reason USF didn’t win by more than 6 points was down to USF.
USF’s Massive Mistakes
USF had 14 penalties for 124 yards compared to 6 for 65 for the Illini. These penalties were often incredibly costly for the Bulls. USF easily moved the ball across the field only to have the drive stall due to an inopportune flag.
First drive of the game: USF drives down to the Illinois 23 and are in field goal range, but a personal foul call drives them back to the 38 and they are forced to punt.
USF drive with 5:29 remaining in the second: USF drives it again to the Illinois 23-yard line and pick up yet another personal foul making it 1 and 25 from the 28. USF can’t get the first down and try a FG attempt, but Cosby Weiss misses — his first of two missed FGs on the day.
3rd quarter drive, 11:30 remaining: After a false state makes it 3rd and 18 from the Illinois 27, USF decides to be conservative and run the ball to set up a shorter field goal for their kicker. The 9-yard gain would have made it a 35-yard attempt, but again USF false starts, pushing the FG attempt back to 40 yards — which may honestly be out of this kicker’s range. USF misses again.
Those three drive all went into the Illinois 30-yard line, and due to USF shooting themselves in the foot, they came away with zero points.
USF was very sloppy to say the least.
Illinois Pass Defense
Illinois picked off two passes in this game — both off deflections. Both ended some promising drives from the Bulls, and Illinois deserves a lot of praise here. Illinois defenders — Michael Marchese and Jake Hansen — were able to tip the ball into the air allowing Del’Shwan Phillips and Jartavius “Quan” Martin — who is off to a great start in his freshman season — to get get easy picks.
Illinois also held USF QB Blake Barnett to a 57.5 completion percentage. The return of Tony Adams played a huge part in this, and I thought Tony Adams — 6 tackles, one for a loss, and a pass breakup — had a nice game.
But, Illinois still gave up over 400 passing yards on 10.3 yards per attempt. Not pass completion. Pass attempt. Even with the two interceptions and 17 incompletions, Barnett still averaged a first down every time he threw the ball. He had 7 passes go for 20 yards or more and two — including the game winner — for 50. Illinois was getting beat deep in a bad way, and yes some of this can be blamed on the secondary, but blame also goes to the lack of pressure from the pass rush.
Illinois Pass Rush
Illinois pass rush was very poor in this one. Illinois had one sack — Dele Harding unblocked on a blitz — and only one other QB hit from Owen Carney Jr. That’s it. Illinois got to the QB twice in the passing game.
To their credit, despite the lack of pressure, the defensive line showed great awareness in batting down 4 passes at the line. If you can’t get to the QB, at least get your hands up. Bobby Roundtree had two himself, and could have turned on into an interception.
However, if you give a QB like Blake Barnett time like Illinois did, they will eventually tear you apart, which USF was able to do in the second half in order to win the game.
It’s strange to say for a QB who threw for over 400 yards and 2 TD, but I think Blake Barnett actually had a bad game. Considering that he had a clean pocket on almost every play, and was only hit twice, to complete less than 60% of your throws and have 2 picks is less than ideal.
If Illinois gives Trace McSorley this much time in the pocket next week, the Illini will be in for a very bad time. Perhaps this points to the need for more blitzes? However, that is something Lovie Smith is reluctant to do, but he may have to if he wants to get any pressure on the passer.
Illinois Run Defense
Despite Illinois running the ball well, USF rushed for more yards in this game. USF had 215 yards at 4.9 yards per rush. Jordan Cronkrite had 136 of those yards at 6.2 yards per pop and the Illini struggled to tackle the bigger back.
While there weren’t many explosive running plays for USF, they were able to keep Illinois honest with a bunch of 5- to 8-yard gains to help keep the sticks moving.
USF ran 87 plays in this game and the 22 runs from Cronkrite played a part in wearing down the Illini defense throughout the game and helped lead to the USF comeback win.
Overall the lack of a pass rush — and the struggles in the running game — shows that Illinois biggest issue on defense remains the same from last season — a total lack of havoc plays (sacks, tackles for a loss, interceptions, fumbles, etc.). When the Illini play a bend but don’t break defense, but don’t get those big game changing plays along the way, Illinois just ends up with a defense that gives up a ton of yards.
Again, maybe it’s blitzing. Maybe it’s simply the defensive line needs to play better, but something needs to change.
Mike Epstein, Reggie Corbin, and running the ball
Alright, let’s talk about the one huge positive for Illinois in this game, the running backs.
Reggie Corbin and Mike Epstein both ran for over 100 yards and combined for 31 carries for 221 yards, 7.1 yards per carry and the only touchdown for Illinois. Mike Epstein was also the leading receiver with 5 catches for 56 yards.
But if you break the rushing yards from Corbin and Epstein down by quarter it is clear that USF was able to adjust to Illinois running attack after a great start.
- 114 yards on 9 carries. 12.6 yards per carry
- 10 yards on 7 carries. 1.4 yards per carry.
- 44 yards on 6 carries. 7.3 yards per carry.
- 60 yards on 8 carries. 7.5 yards per carry.
There is a bit of an idea that Rod Smith abandoned the running game in this one, which I think is silly. Illinois didn’t stop trying to run the ball — Illini ran it 48 times compared to 31 passes — the running game just became less effective than it was early on and Illinois was left with more passing downs than they would have liked.
Illinois ran the ball 48 times and passed it only 31 with 8 of those pass attempts on the final drive, when again, they were trying to score a TD with limited time.— Brandon Birkhead (@bbirk3) September 16, 2018
Unless you want Illinois to become a triple option team — which hey at this point I’d try anything — they ran about as much as they could have in this one. But, you need more than a good running attack against a team like USF to put up points, and unfortunately, Illinois didn’t offer much else.
MJ Rivers, the Wide Receivers and the passing attack
The final line for MJ Rivers in this game was 20/29, 168 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT, 5 Sacks. That is a good completion percentage for sure, but 5.4 yards per pass attempt isn’t doing much to help.
Not to say that is Rivers’ fault. He wasn’t asked to throw the ball down the field a lot due to both poor pass protection and a lack of receiving weapons. The majority of River’s throws were within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. When Rivers did try throwing downfield, the Illinois offensive line struggled to block the Bulls, even when they were only rushing three players.
The receivers didn’t provide much help either. Ricky Smalling had a decent game with 4 catches for 40 yards, but with him being the only real outside threat, USF was able to easy contain the Illinois passing attack.
If you combine sackes into play — which should be to be honest because on plays where MJ Rivers was sacked the loss counts against the running game not the passing even though they were trying to pass the ball — Illinois only gained 134 yards on 36 true passing attempts. That’s 3.72 yards per true passing attempt.
Lou Dorsey and Carmoni Green returning should help, but that number is incredibly troubling even for a team that will run a lot more than they throw.
Football is a game of results at the end of the day, and Illinois result was better than any of us predicted. The TCR staff average prediction put this one as a 42.4 to 20 USF win. Fans and the team especially should take pride in the fact that Illinois played a good team and held a lead late into the game. They were very close to winning this game.
However, if you just look at the performance, there are still many areas for concern for this Illinois team. That close game on the scoreboard may leave many fans feeling more confident, but let’s not move the goalpost just yet and expect more out of this team than we did going into the season.
This team still has a long ways to go.