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Penalties loom large as Illinois drops to 2-1

Familiar problems were on display in Illinois’ inconsistent performance against Eastern Michigan

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 14 Eastern Michigan at Illinois Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Illini had been generally effective at holding off non-conference opponents at home in the past few years, even though many of those games were still nail-biters. But Illinois’ luck ran out yesterday against the Eastern Michigan Eagles, and the Illini have plenty to clean up before the Nebraska Cornhuskers come to town on the 21st. Here’s some of the most important takeaways from yesterday’s matchup.

Disciplined Play Remains a Problem

Most of the stats were fairly even between the Illini and Eagles, as Eastern Michigan barely edged out Illinois in total yards (480-464) and takeaways (2-1). In games this closely matched, the little things start to matter more and more, and Illinois’ knack for racking up penalties loomed large. Ultimately, the Illini incurred nine penalties for 80 yards, as opposed to Eastern Michigan’s two penalties for 20 yards.

Illinois’ drive at the end of the third quarter and beginning of the fourth was perhaps the most problematic in this regard, as two penalties backed Brandon Peters and the Illini up to their own 14. Eastern Michigan then took over at midfield after the ensuing punt and scored a touchdown to take a 31-17 lead. No single backbreaking penalty cost Illinois the game, but the cumulative effect of nine penalties was enough to shift the flow of the game in favor of Eastern Michigan.

When asked about the penalties in the post-game press conference, Lovie Smith didn’t exactly sound reassuring that this problem was going to be fixed anytime soon.

The penalties have been an issue throughout Lovie Smith’s time at Illinois. If he hasn’t gotten the point across over the previous three seasons, then I doubt this trend will change in 2019.

Lack of Substantial Improvement

Watching the game yesterday felt eerily similar to watching a game from last season. The offense wasn’t spectacular but played well enough to win the game, while the defense was repeatedly out-schemed by Eastern Michigan and was unable to sufficiently contain the Eagles’ offense. Once again, the coverage units of the Illini secondary and linebacking corps were picked apart by an opposing quarterback who threw for three passing touchdowns, all of which were of 20+ yards.

The secondary’s inability to contain Mike Glass was exasperated by the lack of a significant pass rush by the defensive line, which truly felt the absence of Bobby Roundtree for the first time this season. Oluwole Betiku Jr. registered the only sack of the day. Losing Jamal Woods to injury also clearly had an impact on the unit’s performance.

With AJ Bush under center in 2018, the Illinois offense lacked a legitimate passing threat, and opposing defenses dared Bush to throw while stacking the box. Brandon Peters, Josh Imatorbhebhe, and an improved Ricky Smalling make the offense much more balanced, but Peters struggles to keep the ball on option plays, which allows opposing defenses to key in on Reggie Corbin or Dre Brown in ways that they didn’t last season. The 2019 offense may have a very different look, but the results are fairly similar at this point.

After struggling to put away the UConn Huskies and ultimately losing at home to Eastern Michigan, it is clear that this team as a whole has not significantly improved yet relative to 2018.

Special Teams is a Strength

Two incredible plays stood out on special teams, the first of which was James McCourt’s historic 57-yard field goal in the first quarter.

Not only did McCourt drill this kick easily, but it probably would’ve been good from at least 60 yards. McCourt seems poised to set the school record before his time in Champaign is up.

The other promising special teams play of the day was Dre Brown’s unusual kickoff return in the first quarter, which turned what would’ve either been a touchback or much worse into an offensive drive starting at the Illinois 35-yard line.

The Illini have dealt with countless muffed punts and kickoffs over the years, so to see a senior make a smart play on special teams is actually encouraging.

There really weren’t many bright spots on the day, as many of the old issues that have haunted Illinois for years showed up in force on Saturday. The path to six wins became significantly harder with this loss, and the blame for being in this situation falls squarely on Lovie Smith’s shoulders. Lovie has failed to recruit sufficient depth and instill even an average level of discipline in his roster, and both flaws were plain to see against Eastern Michigan.

Though I don’t think this team will slide the rest of the year to a 2-10 or 3-9 record, it’s very safe to say that we all hoped that Illinois would put forth a much better product on the field in 2019 than the one we saw yesterday.