The Fighting Illini made the trip to Lincoln, Nebraska to take on the Cornhuskers, and the results were less than favorable as they fell 39-19 on a cool, windy day. Nebraska was without the services of their starting QB, Taylor Martinez, but it didn’t make a bit of difference in this contest as Tommy Armstrong, Jr. stepped in and ran the Husker offense very efficiently. It also didn’t hurt that Ameer Abdullah had a career day either.
While the Illini had some success moving the ball at times, the overall performance was lackluster. So, what can we, as Illini fans, take away from this loss?
1. It’s time to pump the breaks on all the bowl game chatter.
The win against Cincinnati was a great thing because it showed that this team is slightly ahead of schedule in the rebuild process thanks to the potent offensive system that Bill Cubit brought with him when he was hired in the off-season. The other thing that win did was reshape the narrative that many in the media had already established for the Illini prior to this season.
The expectation for this year’s Illini squad seemed to be that a season in which 3, maybe 4, wins would be an improvement provided Illinois also stayed competitive in losses suddenly changed to a “what if scenario” that questioned what if Illinois is capable of making a bowl if they could just find 3 more wins on the schedule somehow.
I’m not saying it isn’t possible for Illinois to go bowling this year, but auto-penciling W’s next to teams like Purdue, Indiana, and maybe even a perceived weak offensive team such as Michigan St. needs to stop right now. Break the lead on those pencils, Illini fans, because an offense alone isn’t going to get the job done this season.
In order to post wins in the Big Ten the defense is going to have to show up, and so far the defense has not shown that they have the ability to stop the run game against teams that have proven offensive capability in that department.
In other words, dare to dream, but also stay grounded in reality while doing so.
2. In order for the offense to be effective the ball has to be spread around the field.
While it’s a great thing that Josh Ferguson’s emergence into a total offensive force continued in Lincoln, Nathan Scheelhaase has got to go through his reads and spread the ball around to the rest of the offensive playmakers he has at his disposal.
In the 3 wins, Scheelhaase connected with 10, 11, and 10 different receivers respectively in each game.
In the 2 losses, Scheelhaase connected with 7, and 4, different receivers respectively in each game.
Sure, some of this can be attributed to facing defenses in the 2 losses that actually managed to put some pressure on the Illinois QB (NEB 3 sacks for 16 yards, WAS 4 sacks for 32 yards), but the fact still remains that when the ball gets spread around the field the defense is inherently going to be kept off balance because they won’t know exactly where the ball is going to be delivered on any one given play.
3. The defense is still a long way away from being considered anything other than a work in progress, and they can’t afford to be overexposed.
By this point in the season most good defensive teams have defined an identity, but in the case of Illinois the only thing they have defined thus far is that they struggle to consistently tackle across the board, and also routinely find themselves out of position.
For example, take Ameer Abdullah’s 43 yard TD run on an option play. On tape you can clearly see that Jonathan Brown correctly identified what was about to take place and he tried desperately to get his unit keyed in and re-positioned so that they had a chance to stop it. Instead of finishing the play, 3 different Illini missed tackles that would have prevented Abdullah from scampering all the way to the endzone.
It’s one thing to get gashed in the passing game when you have a young secondary, but to get lit up in the rush game for 225 yards by Abdullah and 208 yards by Sankey in the two games against ranked, or near ranked, teams suggests that there are much bigger problems than just youth.
As the Big Ten season wears on, the defense is going to have to get better at finishing plays when they have the opportunity.
The final thing that would help the defense going forward is if the offense could sustain drives from the very outset of the game, much like they did in their 3rd quarter 14 play 75 yard drive that chewed up 7:04 worth of game clock.
If the offense has these types of drives from the first quarter onward, they will help mask the defensive deficiencies simply by keeping them off the field.
Follow Ryan on Twitter @RPKraemer