USA Today // Mike Granse

Wes Lunt, Illini defense shine on Western Illinois tape; but the Illini running game remains a concern

Wes Lunt, Illini defense shine on Western Illinois tape; but the Illini running game remains a concern

Coordinators change game plans and quarterbacks make audibles. I'll often call audibles with my weekly film review here, which I dub "Upon Further Review."

In Week 1's review of the Illinois game film, I graded each position and gave copious notes on each position and most every player who played. That's the best course of action, in my opinion, since Week 1 provides our first film on the current team. 

But since we now have somewhat of an idea of what each position and each Illini player can do, this column will likely look different from now on. I may go back to grades for the first Big Ten game since we'll have a new measure of the team.

But more often than not, I will likely focus this space on a few aspects of the game that stood out and have a lasting impact. Maybe it's a position, a player, a play, a strategy, a scheme, etc. I'll then end the column with a few smaller takeaways or observations.

Today, I focused on two parts of the offense: one big cause for concern and one big cause for excitement.

Mad rush

The biggest concern with the Illini remains the rushing attack. Following games against a lower-tier MAC opponent and FCS opponent, the Illini are averaging 3.7 yards per carry -- the second-worst yards per carry in the Big Ten (ahead of only Wisconsin, of all teams).

That doesn't bode well for Big Ten play.

Illini Inquirer analyst Micheal Young will delve deeper into this issue later this week and provide more of an expert critique. But even simple football observers like myself can see some isssues.

The Illini aren't built to be a power-run team, like Wisconsin or Minnesota. That takes years of offensive line recruiting and strengthening. The Illini don't have many maulers. But they'll still need to run for a few yards when other teams know they're going to run for a few yards. Cubit tested his offensive line by going for a straight dive on a 4th-and-1 late in the first half. The Illini got the necessary yard -- but barely.

Cubit combated the run issues on Saturday by employing many bubble screens, which proved effective. But Big Ten teams will be better prepared to stop this.

You'd like to see more push from a Big Ten offensive line against inferior opponents, but the biggest concern right now is the mental mistakes from the Illini blockers. They had plenty of them on Saturday.

- Senior guard Chris Boles had a rough game. His winning the starting left guard job was the surprise of the preseason, given that he'd never played an offensive snap in his first four seasons with the Illini. But for a senior, he sure looks inexperienced. On the play below, Boles and Spencer double team a defensive tackle. But Boles fails to keep his eyes up and pick up the twisting defensive tackle who, unblocked, tackles the Illini running back in the backfield. If Boles gets a body on him, the Illini running back should at worst get a three- or four-yard gain with a potentially large hole.

- Later, near the goal line, Boles pulled on a counter run. The rest of the line secured great down blocks with a nice push. Lunt handed Vaughn the ball and Boles was set up for a perfect opportunitiy to kick out a crashing cornerback. But Boles hesitated and simply ran by the cornerback, who met Vaughn in the backfield. Boles didn't even block the next linebacker who crossed his path. It seemed he was confused on who to block, and in the process blocked no one. Nick Allegretti repped at DT last week, and Zach Heath left with what looked like a serious injury. So will the Illini continue rolling with Boles?

courtesy BTN

- In the play below, Joe Spencer (71) pulled to the right but doesn't pick up the defender closest to the play and running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn (5). I'd rather have Vaughn try to win a one-on-one battle five yards down the field than at the line of scrimmage. If Spencer makes this block, Vaughn had a chance at a first down. Instead, he's tackled for no gain.

-Later on, Austin Schmidt (57) blocked to the second level. But instead of taking the closest defender to the play (one of the linebaackers, No. 44 or the guy next to him), Schmidt chose to block the cornerback on the far side of the play. If Schmidt would have taken the linebacker, Tim Clary could've blocked the other linebacker or the defensive back coming up in support and the Illini running back would've had a four or five-yard gain before having a one-on-one matchup with a defender.

In the zone

Wes Lunt made a few poor throws. He forced a throw into a middle-of-the-field double team and was picked off for just the fourth time in his ninth Illini start. Another near-interception was simply an overthrow.

Otherwise, the junior was simply masterful (33-for-46, 316 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) at guiding and controlling the Illini offense.

Lunt is the most talented passer in the Big Ten West. And for my money, he's better than the more-ballyhooed Christian Hackenberg. Sure, Hackenberg gets hit a lot and has some great physical tools. But so does Lunt, who is much more accurate.

Lunt also has shown a command of an intricate offense at Illinois. On Saturday, he tore up Western Illinois's cover-two defense.

The cover-two is a zone defense that employs two safeties who each cover the deep half of their side of the field. This allows cornerbacks and linebackers to play aggressively within their designated zones. But those zones create soft spots in the field and Lunt exploited those with his strong arm and pinpoint accuracy.

- Here's one example of senior Geronimo Allison finding a soft spot in between the safety, cornerback and linebacker. Allison ran a post route but cut it off to sit in that spot, and Lunt anticipated it.  They did this several times during the game.

- Lunt and Allison are such a dangerous combination. Lunt's arm strength and accuracy allow him to put the ball only where the 6-foot-3 Allison and his wide catching radius can catch it. In the first quarter, Lunt dropped a pass right over the cornerback, hitting Allison in stride. This is what we call "an NFL throw."

- Here Lunt throws one to Allison's back shoulder and a few feet high so only Allison has a chance at it. This is indefensible for most defensive backs and a perfect use of two great Illini offensive weapons.

- Lunt never will be accused of being a mobile quarterback. But he does display great pocket presence. On a first-down throw to Marchie Murdock, Lunt felt and saw the rush from his blind side (No. 99) and avoided pressure by a simple step up in the pocket. Those type of subtle moves -- more proof that Lunt is healthy -- will keep Lunt from taking big hits.


Chunky Clements and Rob Bain are the Illini's best defensive tackle duo since Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster in 2012, and both juniors are already more developed technique-wise than Foster was as a senior. both were dominant in their limited reps (the defense was on the field for just more than six minutes in the first half). Bain is so strong at the point of attack and does a great job of taking up multiple blockers and stringing out run plays to give other defenders time to make the play. Clements is a disruptor. He's quick off the ball and much more sound at quickly shooting through the correct gap and altering the line of scrimmage.

- Illinois misses Mikey Dudek on those bubble screens. Marchie Murdock doesn't have great quick-twitch ability, so he's not a natural at making guys miss in space. Junior Dionte Taylor and freshman Desmond Cain are better in space. But with each at 5-foot-10, neither is as versatile of a threat as Murdock -- who, at 6-foot, is a better vertical threat. Also, on those bubble screens, Geronimo Allison is by far the best blocker. Malik Turner (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) has some potential as a blocker but must be more consistent.

- Senior H-back Tim Clary's season likely is over. After the game, hewas wearing a sling and his hand was heavily wrapped -- and had tears in his eyes. Clary is the Illini's best lead blocker and has made several key blocks on sweeps already this season. Someone else will have to step up. Andrew Davis may be a candidate. While he's on the thinner side, Davis has shown the desire to throw some tough blocks.

- Before Jaylen Dunlap blocked a punt and Murdock scooped it up for a touchdown, Clayton Fejedelem nearly blocked a punt.

- This snapshot below is why I like James Crawford at the STAR, the hybrid linebacker/defensive back in the Illini defense: length (6-foot-2) and closing speed. He read Trenton Norvell's eyes and started breaking on the ball as soon as Norvell started his wind up. He got to the ball just in time to knock it from the receiver's hands. With senior starter Eric Finney (smaller but headier) out, Crawford played well and this pass break up showed why the sophomore could be a playmaker for the next few years.

courtesy BTN

- Somehow V'Angelo Bentley's hands did not touch this ball...

courtesy BTN

Bentley played with fire a few times. He was fortunate on the muff above. But he muffed two more punts later in the game, one when a defender ran the Illini blocker into Bentley (perfectly legal play). Bentley, one of the best returners in the country, is understandably eager to make plays, but the senior must be smarter.

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