It was a rough weekend in Champaign-Urbana, both from a basketball recruiting and football standpoint, but the Illini played a football game against the #3 team in the country and we did manage to learn some things along the way.
1. Reilly O’Toole is the #2 QB.
While this isn’t exactly earth shattering, it is a bit surprising. During a pivotal drive in the 3rd quarter Nathan Scheelhaase was dropped for a sack near the Illini endzone, and his helmet came free. By rule, Scheelhaase had to leave the game, and I think most in attendance assumed Aaron Bailey would be making an appearance to try and push the ball forward on the next play as Scheelhaase was forced to the sidelines. However, this wasn’t the case at all.
On the very next play, with 4:59 left in the 3rd quarter, and the Illini trailing by 2 touchdowns, one of the worst possible outcomes took place in the Illini endzone when Reilly O’Toole was sacked and the ball was stripped. Fortunately, Matt LaCosse was able to recover it and it only turned into 2 points for the Buckeyes.
Of course, the ensuing Buckeye drive resulted in 7 more points and the Illini suddenly found themselves down by 23.
It was surprising to see O’Toole come on in that situation, and it was also disappointing. Despite the down and distance (3rd and 14), the correct call at that point would have been to weather the storm and play the field position game. Instead, Illinois brought in a QB cold and tried to run a long developing play in order to pick up the first down. It’s really tough to fault them for being aggressive, but at that point the game momentum was constricting the Buckeyes a little bit.
After the safety, and subsequent TD drive, game momentum had swung completely back in the Buckeyes favor.
Would Bailey have fared any better? It’s hard to say, but the Buckeye D was struggling with the zone read, and Scheelhaase was finding success, so it’s very possible that Bailey could have busted a big run. At any rate, it’s very difficult to bring in a QB ice cold off the bench and expect him to pick up 15 yards out of his own endzone on a slow developing pass play.
2. The Illini Defense is not going to stop the run this season.
The miscues in the run defense are not going to be fixed this season, and it’s enough to make a sane man crazy. Sometimes, guys are where they are supposed to be, other times they aren’t. Sometimes guys finish a play, other times they don’t. Sometimes guys initiate contact, and other times you can actually see them shy away from the hit, and thus tackles are missed or simply not finished.
Both Tim Beckman and Tim Banks should be held accountable for the poor tackling issues that have plagued the team all season long. These deficiencies should have been addressed during the spring, and then completely cleaned up in Camp Rantoul. Obviously, it isn’t something at this point that can be fixed during the actual season no matter how hard they have tried once the issue reared its head.
Despite showing a minor amount of improvement by holding tOSU to 4/13 on 3rd down, and actually forcing a turnover on the Braxton Miller fumble, the defense by and large was back up to its old tricks in the 4th quarter as tOSU completely ran away with the game, literally.
Carlos Hyde ran for 246 yards and 4 TD, and Braxton Miller ran for 184 yards and 1 TD, which actually should have been over 200 if not for the handful of tackles for loss. It’s very clear that tOSU could have lined up and ran for 500 to 600 yards instead of the 441 yards they finished with if they wanted to, but they felt the need to work on their passing game because they know they are going to need to use one in the Big Ten Title game if they want to post another undefeated regular season.
It’s a sad state of affairs when an actual game situation can be viewed as practice for the opposition’s offense. This has got to be addressed in the off season in some fashion or things are not going to get any better.
3. The Illinois Offense cannot come out sluggish.
For this team to have any type of success, they cannot afford to have their one major strength not playing up to its abilities from the opening kick. I have heard Coach Beckman on the pregame show each of the past few weeks and he has a recurring theme each time: “Start Fast.”
In this game, the offense did anything but “start fast” as they came out and posted 2 interceptions and 2 punts in their first 4 drives of this game. The end result was a 21-0 deficit at the end of the first quarter, and presented a major uphill climb for the entire team as they tried to somehow miraculously save their bowl game chances.
In the end, the first quarter is what sunk their battleship, and also their remaining hopes for a bowl game appearance. It’s unfortunate, but it’s also the reality of the situation.
The bottom line in all of this is that Illinois must find some success in the first quarter next week at Purdue. If they do, they will wrestle game momentum onto their side, and they should pick up their first Big Ten win in their last 21 attempts.