Yes, five turnovers. And Five that were committed by Northwestern, not Illinois. The Illini defense forced four turnovers in the first half of the game at Northwestern and that stat is a huge reason Illinois was able to hit the Wildcats in the mouth early and seize control of the game. Illinois was fortunate to not have to face Trevor Siemian, but the defense made Zack Oliver pay and took advantage of his inexperience early and often. Had the Illinois offense capitalized with touchdowns instead of field goals, the score would have been much, much worse.
It’s O’Toole’s Time:
Senior quarterback Reilly O’Toole’s play in the spring game garnered some discussion as to whether he could potentially fill the starting quarterback role ahead of Wes Lunt. Ultimately, Lunt emerged from summer camp as the starter and played relatively well the first few games, however O’Toole wasn’t forgotten in conversations about the position. When Lunt went down a few games into the season with an injury, O’Toole stepped into the spotlight, but at the time he may not have been quite ready for it.
His first couple games as the starter were a little rough, but he was able to score an unlikely win over Minnesota before Lunt’s return against Iowa. However, Lunt didn’t remain the quarterback for long after struggling following his injury. In again steps O’Toole, who ends up leading the team to back-to-back wins to close out the season against Penn State and Northwestern. O’Toole is nothing flashy, but the guy is a football player. He took care of the football, made plays with his feet, and most importantly, gave rest to a defense that had previously spent far more time on the field than the offense. Now, the senior has guided the team to a bowl berth and has one last chance to take the field with his teammates in postseason action.
Flipping the Field:
One of the biggest unsung heroes of this season for Illinois has been senior punter Justin DuVernois. Against Northwestern on Saturday, he showed why he’s such a valuable weapon in the field position battle. DuVernois pinned the Wildcats inside their own 20 on a majority of his punts and has carried one of the best punting averages in the country all season. Considering how substantially he struggled as a true freshman three years ago at Illinois, it is amazing to see how much improvement he has made. His ability to shift the balance of field position with his leg is something that has gone relatively unheralded, but deserves just as much credit as either of the other two units on the team, especially on Saturday.
Ward’s Real Arrival:
Celebrated recruit Jihad Ward arrived at Illinois this summer with both hype and expectations surrounding him. The 6’7, 295 pound defensive lineman is nothing short of a physical specimen and has passed the eye test from day one, but it has taken the behemoth some time to truly grasp his role and refine his technique to unlock the wealth of potential he has. But over the last three or four games, Ward has been a huge force for the Illinois defense, both in pressuring the quarterback and holding the edge in run defense. Ward has massive hands and an enormous wingspan, and now he is more effectively able to use those tools to his advantage with improved technique and discipline on the field. If he continues on his current trajectory, he will cement himself as a staple on the Illinois defensive line and be a problem for opposing teams.
This ended up being inconsequential against Northwestern, but Illinois left points off the board when they had to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns. Being able to close out in the red zone can mean the difference between a win and a loss in a lot of games, and at the rate Illinois was forcing turnovers and starting drives in Northwestern territory, the Illini needed to better capitalize and put the nail in the coffin on the Wildcats.
Illinois is apparently still looking for a starting placekicker. David Reisner earned the role over the last few games after former starter Taylor Zalewski struggled mightily early on. However, Reisner struggled with the wind against Northwestern and had one of his kicks blocked and pulled a PAT very wide left. So, for the second half of the game, Zalewski returned to handle the kicking duties. But this kicking quandary has been in flux all season. Even third walk-on Brennen VanMieghem got a shot at it at one point. Strangely enough, the lone kicker on scholarship Ryan Frain hasn’t gotten a shot yet. But the lack of consistency at the kicking position is a concern moving forward into both the bowl game and into next season.