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Illinois can’t get out of its own way

A lot went wrong Friday night.

Brad Repplinger // TCR

Bret Bielema put it perfectly in the postgame: “We did about everything we could do to mess this up.”

Illinois had every chance in the world to walk out of Bloomington with a road conference victory, and yet, in unfortunately familiar fashion, their bus ride home was a somber one.

Penalties, drops, turnovers, special teams failures — and yes, some HORRIBLE officiating — got in the way of what should have been a 2-0 start to this promising 2022 season.

Let’s break down what exactly went wrong Friday night.

Well, first let’s start with the good stuff, because there were still plenty of positives.

  • Chase Brown did Chase Brown things. Brown nearly recorded his third 200-plus-yard rushing game of his career, finishing with 199 yards on a career-high 36 carries (5.5 YPC). The guy is just a freaking awesome football player.
  • Barry Lunney Jr. got Isaiah Williams involved often. I-Will ended the game with 9 catches for 112 yards and a touchdown. Most of his touches came on bubble screens and quick hits with his elusiveness doing the heavy lifting and it was a beautiful sight to see for an offensive unit that has been begging for open field explosiveness for years.
  • Tommy DeVito showed a lot of poise and was particularly impressive with his legs. While his accuracy was shaky at times, he made many timely throws and picked up five first downs on the ground. He was clearly not afraid to leave the pocket and make a play himself, an element this Illinois offense has lacked in the past and one that can really propel them forward this year.
  • Ryan Walters’ defense played a really good overall game. A few first-half coverage breakdowns and (what I thought was) a questionably conservative alignment on the final drive may have soured your view, but this unit continued to impress in the big picture. The defensive front was absolutely dominant unlike I’ve ever seen, holding the Hoosiers to an absurd 32 rushing yards on 26 carries and wreaking havoc in the backfield on numerous occasions with some big time hits. Johnny Newton particularly stood out with 5 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, and 9 (!) pressures.

Now, for the bad... and it wasn’t pretty.

Despite outgaining Indiana by 89 yards, picking up 9 more first downs, and dominating time of possession by 13 minutes, the Illini somehow came out on the losing end. How could that possibly happen?

Pretty simple. 4 turnovers. 8 penalties.

Most of them coming at really crucial times late in the second half.

Of the Illini’s 4 turnovers, 3 came in Indiana territory in the second half. There was Luke Ford’s brutal whiffed block that allowed a backward lateral to get blown up and recovered (he also fumbled himself in the first half). Then, the offensive line breaks down on the goal line and Chase Brown gets stuffed in the A-gap on 4th down. And of course, Tommy DeVito’s first interception of the season comes with Illinois looking to run clock late in the game.

Taking care of the football is vital if Illinois finally wants to break through in the Big Ten, and there was just one too many costly turnovers to overcome on Friday night.

As for the penalties, a few particularly stood out above the rest. Tailon Leitzsey, in at nickel for a shaken up Quan Martin, got called for defensive holding on 3rd-and-8 on Indiana’s final drive of the first half. Instead of a successful blitz forcing Connor Bazelak to throw the ball away, the Hoosiers got a fresh set of downs, which ultimately led to a field goal heading into the locker room.

Later, with 3 minutes to play in the second half and the Illini in control, DeVito and Williams connected on a touch pass to set up 3rd-and-short inside the Indiana 30, but that came back courtesy of a Tip Reiman hold, stopping the clock and killing a potential game-sealing drive in its tracks.

A couple of boneheaded unsportsmanlike conduct calls ultimately didn’t make a difference but have to be cleaned up as well.

We saw penalties hurt Illinois in Week 0 against Wyoming, but most of us brushed them off because of the ultimate dominance that outshined them. Against a Big Ten opponent though, on the road no less, those things are going to really hurt you, and that’s exactly what happened on Friday night.

Let’s also not forget the special teams malpractice that took place in the first half, with Hugh Robertson’s first two punts traveling a combined 35 yards. Both of those field position blunders led to Indiana points. Just. Can’t. Happen.

I could probably write all day about the mistakes Illinois made in this game, one that should’ve been salted away long before the gut-wrenching final drive. I didn’t even mention the costly drops that came on opportunities for big chunk plays. Nor did I break down what exactly happened when D.J. Matthews busted past two safeties for a 52-yard touchdown. You get it by now: Illinois shot themselves in the foot repeatedly in a game it controlled, suffering yet another gut punch in the beginning stages of the Bret Bielema era.

Illinois was the better football team. The stat sheet showed that. The talent on the field showed that. At some point, that’s all it needs to take to win a game. Before Illinois can become a winning program, they need to stop from being a losing one. Losing programs lose games like Friday night.

Oh and don’t worry, I didn’t forget about this:

I guess Brian Hightower needed to catch it a third time for it to count.

4 points off the board in a 3 point game. Just inexcusable.

This team needs a big response next Saturday against Virginia.