Heading into Illinois’ Week 1 matchup against Toledo, much of its gameplan was centered around quarterback Dequan Finn.
Finn, a potent athlete, presented an immediate challenge for an Illinois defense with a handful of new faces and a first-time coordinator calling the shots. He also represented something the Illini’s nation-leading scoring defense didn’t see in 2022: a dual-threat quarterback that could beat them with his arm and his legs.
“[Finn is] probably one of the more dynamic, explosive playmakers we’ve ever faced at the quarterback position,” head coach Bret Bielema said.
And he reflected that on Saturday night.
In the Rockets’ upset bid at Memorial Stadium, Finn passed for 230 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 75 yards and one touchdown, fooling Illini defenders on key downs and finding a lot of success on both designed read options and improvised scrambles from the pocket.
Despite Illinois basing their gameplan around containing him at the line of scrimmage, keeping a dual threat like Finn in check is much easier said than done, even for one of the country’s presumed best defensive fronts.
“He’s good,” defensive coordinator Aaron Henry said. “We had some guys up front trying to get to him, and they just couldn’t, and he extended plays.”
This week, the Illini’s next opponent will be able to do much of the same.
It’s unclear which quarterback will start for Kansas when the Illini take the field in Lawrence on Friday night. Preseason Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year Jalon Daniels missed the Jayhawks’ season opener due to back tightness, but he is expected to return. Filling in for him was sixth-year senior Jason Bean, who led a 48-point scoring effort.
“Both of the quarterbacks are extremely talented,” Henry said. “Bean presents a different set of issues because...the kid can fly. [Daniels] is ridiculous. He has a cannon...he makes all the throws.”
Daniels is also quite dangerous with his legs. The junior ran for 419 yards and seven touchdowns in just nine games in 2022.
Should Daniels end up making his season-debut, he could very well be the best quarterback Illinois faces all season. Illinois will have to pick its poison against him because last year alone, he put up both a 544-yard, five touchdown passing performance against Arkansas and a 123-yard, two touchdown rushing performance against Houston.
So, what makes dual-threat quarterbacks, in particular, so difficult to defend?
“It is always a tough task,” Henry said. “You gotta ask the question, ‘do you play coverage and only bring a couple and allow him to have a little more time back there? Or do you bring more than they can block and still allow him to run around because we can’t get to him?’”
“You just try to find a fine balance.”
Whichever quarterback ends up taking the first snap on Friday night, the Illini defense knows they need to be better than they were in Week 1. Against one of the country’s most high-powered offenses, with a proven playmaker under center, there’s very little room for error.
“I have to do a better job of putting those guys in positions, whether to rush the passer or drop,” Henry said. “We may have to tweak some things defensively in terms of our scheme when we’re playing guys of that stature.”
Kickoff in Lawrence on Friday night is at 6:30 p.m. on ESPN2.