The Illinois offense in the fourth quarter.
It took the Illinois offense a while to get going in Wes Lunt's debut. A mix of 3-and-outs and stalled drives for much of the game had many Illinois fans anxious about putting points on the board. But once the Illini got the ball moving in the fourth, the offense resembled what the fans expected coming into the game, an air-it-out, uptempo attack.
In the fourth quarter alone, the Illini scored 21 points, all of which came through the passing game. One stat to note is that all four Illinois touchdown drives occurred with the wind at their back. Wes Lunt has plenty of arm strength to throw into the wind, but for whatever reason (possibly timing with receivers), the passing game seemed to be night and day depending on the direction of the wind.
Regardless, Illinois had a strong fourth quarter and the Illini were able to gain some offensive continuity that was missing from the first three quarters. The silver lining here is that at least Lunt kept his passes out of YSU's hands, though some did come close to being intercepted.
Interior Defensive Line Play:
Keeping in mind that it was a FCS opponent, the interior of the defensive line played far better than anticipated. The defensive tackles, specifically Austin Teitsma, showed significant improvement over last year. Teitsma got into the YSU backfield on several occasions and made a couple important TFL. Teko Powell also got good push up front and disrupted some plays.
Geronimo Allison impressed all throughout camp, but two freshman receivers, Mike Dudek and Malik Turner, stepped up big time for the passing attack and made some clutch catches to extend drives. Those guys figure to be integral parts of the passing game this year, so for them to find success early on is a huge plus for Bill Cubit.
Running on Empty:
The Illinois rushing attack sputtered for the first 50 minutes or so of game time. Josh Ferguson nor Donovonn Young could seem to get through the holes from the get-go and the offensive line didn't seem to generate much push, relegating much of the pressure to the passing game for the first three quarters. Youngstown State tended to focus their defense toward the run more than the pass early on, but the absence of a consistent run attack was a real reason for concern in the game. The Illini will need to establish a solid run game to open things up in the passing game and become more balanced.
Just Can't Contain It:
Aside from a couple of situations where Illinois was able to collapse the pocket and generate pressure, containment of the pocket was extremely hit or miss. The Illini defense allowed YSU quarterback Dante Nania to escape pressure several times and scramble for a first down. Nania is mobile, but not an elite athlete by any means. Against a better running quarterback, Illinois would have certainly paid a greater price.
Gotta Play Take-Away:
Albeit the "turnover fairy" hasn't been kind to Illinois for a while now, but Illini defenders had several golden opportunities to force turnovers on Saturday and didn't capitalize. A couple of dropped interceptions, most notably one that hit Monheim right in the hands, fell harmlessly to the turf. Turnovers create a huge momentum swing and get the defense off the field. Bend but don't break is great and all, but now and then you have to ball hawk and go out there and take the ball away.
Special Teams Kicking Themselves:
Coach Beckman pointed at this pretty bluntly in the post-game, but kicking not just one, but two kickoffs out of bounds is unacceptable. Zalewski and Frain each did it once, and as a coach it's one of those things that makes you want to rip your hair out. The last thing the Illini wanted to do was give YSU good starting field position (the 35 yard line), and to do it twice is doubly frustrating. Luckily it never burned them, but it's not something that the coaching staff will allow to go uncorrected.
I joked during the game that if I had a dollar for each missed tackle by the defense, that I could go buy a nice steak dinner at the Beef House. But considering the emphasis put on getting back to fundamental tackling in camp, it almost looked like the defense went back to old ways and hurt themselves by not using proper tackling technique, leading to several missed tackles. Several shoulder tackles were unsuccessful as the YSU runners just bounced right off of them.
Two textbook form tackles I saw were DJ Smoot's hard-hitting TFL and Carroll Phillips' sack. They came in with their arms out, drove into the offensive player's chest, and wrapped up. But the amount of yards after contact is unnerving for any defensive coach and led to a lot of first downs that could have been avoided.