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Illinois can win with this defense — but it needs SOME offense

Despite the mistake-filled performance, the Illini proved that winning football is still within reach.

Brad Repplinger // TCR

Since the game ended Saturday, I’ve been struggling to put together my thoughts about what transpired on the field.

Let me present these numbers without context:

  • Total Yards: Penn State 383, Illinois 354
  • First Downs: Penn State 20, Illinois 20
  • Penn State quarterback Drew Allar: 16-for-33, 208 yards, 0 TD
  • Penn State dynamic running back duo Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen: 24 carries, 91 yards (3.8 YPC)

Doesn’t scream 30-7 game in the third quarter that sends over half of the stadium to the exits.

Looks like a highly competitive performance and an extremely impressive defensive effort against the seventh-ranked team in the country.

Obviously, there’s one stat I left out there that defined the game.

  • Turnovers: Penn State 0, Illinois 5

It’s conflicting because on one hand, the Illini defense answered nearly every question we had after the first two games and closely resembled the nation-leading 2022 group for most of the afternoon.

It’s a defense that should give Illinois many chances to win across a relatively weak Big Ten schedule.

On the other hand, Luke Altmyer showed his youth in an eye-opening way and Barry Lunney’s offense as a whole was seemingly lost with no sense of direction.

I’m going to stay mainly positive because, the reality is, had Altmyer merely cut his turnovers in half, Illinois likely gives itself a chance to knock off one of the best teams in the country.

The 30 points allowed by the Illinois defense is highly misleading. Twenty of the 30 points they allowed came off short fields due to Illinois turnovers:

  • FG after starting from the Illinois 43-yard line after a fumble.
  • FG after starting from the Illinois 22-yard line after an interception.
  • TD after starting from the Penn State 43-yard line after an interception.
  • TD after starting from the Illinois 30-yard line after an interception.

Aaron Henry’s defense took a lot of heat coming off subpar performances against Toledo and Kansas but on Saturday, they were the least of the Illini’s problems.

The defensive front helped hold down one of the top rushing attacks in the country led by Johnny Newton (who I’ll get back to in a moment.)

The secondary held up pretty extraordinarily in coverage, with Drew Allar having nowhere to go on some crucial downs and aside from one long completion at the end of the first half, was forced into many check downs, dump offs, and tight window throws that fell incomplete.

If this defensive performance was truly the start of a post-Virginia 2021 type reformation, it's on the offense to step up and provide some support.

I still believe Altmyer is a talented quarterback with a ton of potential. Seven interceptions in three games just can’t happen, however.

While Tommy DeVito may not have had the biggest arm and wasn’t the most exciting watch, he was a big part of last year’s 8-win season primarily because he protected the football and took what the defense was giving him.

Altmyer needs to find a balance between the aggressiveness he’s shown early and making sure he’s not actively hurting the team with costly turnovers.

And while none of his interceptions on Saturday can be excused, this offense needs to find playmakers to help out its young quarterback.

Pat Bryant and Casey Washington have combined for just 54 yards over the last two games. They’ve both struggled mightily to separate and give Altmyer an open target in the passing game.

It may be time to dig a little deeper into the depth chart to try and spark a struggling offense.

Ashton Hollins, Malik Elzy, Kaden Feagin, and Kenari Wilcher all flashed in one way or another against Penn State. Barry Lunney Jr. has to try something different because the status quo just isn’t cutting it.

Bottom line: A mistake-free, offensively capable Illinois team is a dangerous one and there’s still nine weeks left to clean things up. A lot of opportunity still remains for this group, but with it comes a lot of pressure and responsibility.

That takes us to Week 3’s five stars:

1. Johnny Newton

I have a feeling there’s going to be very few five stars lists that Johnny Newton doesn’t crack this season.

On a field full of NFL draft prospects, Johnny Newton was the best one on it. Just an absolute monster.

Constant pressure (Pro Football Focus credited him with seven pressures), run stuffs, batted passes, a blocked field goal — Newton was a force in every aspect of the game and a huge reason for the defense’s strong performance.

The All-American is shooting up draft boards by the play and Illinois is going to continue to fall back on his presence up front.

Just sheer dominance.

2. Seth Coleman

Seth Coleman really struggled the first two weeks and the task on Saturday was about as tough as it gets lining up across from projected first-round draft pick Olu Fashanu for most of the day.

He made the most of that challenge and turned in an extremely impressive day.

Coleman didn’t stuff the stat sheet with numbers, but his presence was surely felt on the defense.

He looked much improved defending the run, helping to string out multiple Nick Singleton rushing attempts early in the game. He also won his matchup against the first-round tackle in pass rush on several occasions to the tune of two pressures and a batted pass.

Getting Coleman going, along with the rest of the front was by far the most encouraging development of the weekend.

3. Reggie Love

In turning this lackluster Illinois offense around, Reggie Love needs to touch the ball more.

He was ran with an edge early in the game and Illinois seemingly abandoned him for much of its comeback effort.

Love went for 12 carries, 55 yards and one touchdown.

He’s currently averaging 5.14 yards per touch this season. The problem is he’s only touched the ball 35 times through 3 games. Chase Brown touched the ball 35 or more times in five individual games last season.

I’d like to see more runs like this going forward:

4. Xavier Scott

Make it a trifecta for Scott, as he’s been on the list in each of the first three weeks.

He hasn’t played perfect football by any means, but I continue to come away impressed week after week with him after rewatching many of the coverage reps. This kid screams next highly drafted Illinois defensive back.

He’s been the most targeted player in the secondary — he was targeted 11 times by Drew Allar — but in turn, he’s also been the biggest playmaker.

Scott was in coverage on five incompletions on Saturday, four of which came on third downs. He’s shown an ability to rise to the occasion on key downs and his versatility in doing so — shifting from the slot outside to the boundary in certain packages — makes that all the more impressive.

5. Malik Elzy

This last star is probably best-suited going to another member of the defense, but I’m going to give it to one of the only members of the offense other than Love that provided some promise.

After the game got out of hand, true freshman Malik Elzy came in and showed us glimpses of why he was a four-star prospect.

Now, did his 3 catches for 28 yards and a touchdown come against Penn State’s second unit? Yes. But for an 18-year-old who didn’t get to campus until the summer, making any type of impact is a big deal and can signal to the coaching staff that an increase in reps may be needed.

The 19-yard touchdown strike from John Paddock to Elzy showcased everything Elzy was advertised to be as a high-school prospect.

Textbook technique to come down with a 50/50 ball in tight coverage.

First of many for him.