It’s hard to say that this season is on the brink of collapse in Week 5, but it certainly feels like a turning point must be reached sooner rather than later if the Illini are going to reach five or six wins. This road game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers, who the Illini decisively defeated in 2018, represents the best chance for a victory until the Nov. 2 home matchup with the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.
I hesitate to consider this game a “must-win,” but the road ahead looks considerably more difficult if the Illini return from Minneapolis with a loss this weekend. Here’s how Illinois can prevent that outcome and get back on track.
Pound the Rock
Reggie Corbin is without question the Illinois offense’s most powerful weapon and will also be the most talented player on the field this weekend at TCF Bank Stadium. Rod Smith moved away from using Corbin in the second half against the Nebraska Cornhuskers, and the offense consequently faltered.
Illinois has to establish an effective ground game on Saturday to generate enough points to win, and to do that, Rod Smith should make sure Corbin and Dre Brown are consistently running the ball throughout the game until Minnesota starts to sell out on the run. At that point, Brandon Peters should be able to exploit a stacked box defense with another throw like this one:
Another advantage to running the ball, which was used against Illinois by Nebraska, is the ability to keep an opposing defense on the field for a greater portion of the game. By wearing down the clock and tiring out Minnesota’s defense, Illinois’ defense can be preserved for the fourth quarter, while the Illinois offense will in turn face a weaker opposing defense toward the end of the game.
Make Stops on Third Down
Nebraska was 11-of-19 (58%) on third down conversions against Illinois two weeks ago, while the Illini were an unbelievable 1-of-12 (8%) by comparison. The longer the defense is on the field, the more likely they will not be able to keep the opposing offense out of the endzone. While I expect the Illini offense to improve on that abysmal third down conversion rate from its last game, the defense will need to produce many more three-and-outs if Illinois is going to move to 3-2 this weekend.
No college defense can be asked to take the field for 90+ plays in a game and perform effectively from start to finish. Even generating four turnovers wasn’t enough to limit the defense’s involvement in the game. Ultimately, Lovie’s defense must make stops on third down to get off the field, regardless of how many times they are able to take the ball away.
Use Isaiah Williams Effectively
Early on in the season, Lovie Smith said that he and the staff had something special in mind for Isaiah Williams this season. Williams finished his Illini debut two weeks ago with -3 yards rushing on two attempts. Surprising no one, least of all the Nebraska defense, Williams ran two rather vanilla-looking quarterback keeps against the Cornhuskers and was tackled in the backfield both times. Illini fans were certainly reminded of the way former Illinois head coach Bill Cubit used Aaron Bailey in a similar manner, for similarly little gain.
Rod Smith would be much better off not playing Williams at all if he won’t trust him to do anything other than run the ball. Asking Williams to pass in the pocket, run a simple RPO, or even just run a basic double option with Reggie Corbin could legitimately throw defenses off-balance when they expect Williams to keep the ball by design. But continuing to serve up exactly what the defense expects when “One” is on the field will bring no benefit.
Illinois can’t count on another four turnovers against the Gophers, especially since it’s on the road. A much cleaner game will be required, with distinct improvement from both the offense and the defense if the Illini are going to get back into the win column.