Illinois scored just 17 points on six red-zone chances (3-for-6). The Illini now have a 71.43 percent conversion rate on red zone chances this season, 97th among 128 FBS teams. There is a mix of causes for the struggles: personnel, execution and play-calling.
Personnel: The Illini are more of a finesse offense. They rely on precision in the passing game and the zone-blocking scheme and creativity in Cubit's play-calling. That works well between the 20s, but the end zone adds another layer of defense and shortens the field in the passing game. That forces Lunt and his inexperienced receivers (more on them later) to be even more precise. It also forces Illinois to play a brand of football for which it isn't yet built.
Furthermore, injuries have hurt Illinois here. Sure, Mikey Dudek would help, but injuries to tight ends Tim Clary (arm injury) and Tyler White (concussion) loom large in the red zone. Both are starters in the 12 personnel (double tight ends) and had early success. Clary, an H-Back, is the team's best lead blocker and a receiving threat in the flat. White is the team's best blocker at tight end, and, of his five catches this season, three were touchdowns. Andrew Davis is a willing blocker but just couldn't hold his own on Saturday due to a thin frame. Walk-on Nathan Echard filled in for Clary and was serviceable but doesn't pack quite the same punch. The Illini barely went to its 12 personnel on Saturday, relying more on 11 (one running back) and 10 (no running back) packages.
Execution: I counted five big player mistakes in the six red-zone opportunities.
On the second trip inside the MT 20, Austin Schmidt missed a block that allowed Josh Ferguson to get tackled prematurely. On the next play, Dionte Taylor dropped a pass that would've given him a one-on-one race to the first-down stick. Zalewski then pushed a field goal attempt right and the Illini failed to score.
On the third red-zone opportunity, Ferguson (needing four yards) danced behind the line of scrimmage, instead of hitting the hole hard and pushing for the first down. He got just one yard and Illinois settled for a field goal.
On the fourth trip to the red zone, Lunt took a sack for a 17-yard loss. He held on to the ball for four or five seconds (too long). His receivers struggled to get open, but Lunt can't take that sack, which knocked the Illini out of field goal position. The quarterback had rolled out and just needed to throw the ball out of bounds. Not doing so cost the Illini three points.
Cubit's decision to go for it on 4th-and-2 was understandably criticized, as was the decision to call timeout twice (by the way, I had not noticed during real time that the Illini had lined Schmidt wide near the receivers before calling the second timeout ... interesting). Down five, I'd take the points. But the Illini had the play. Lunt found Murdock at the sticks for a first down, but Murdock (who has made a multitude of mistakes this season) dropped the pass, causing a turnover on downs. By the way, on Lunt's third down throw to Cain (for 3 yards), he should've swung it to Ferguson in the flat for a one-on-one battle with a linebacker.
Play-calling: The Illini committed to the run on its sixth and final trip inside the red zone, running four of six times, and finding paydirt on Ke'Shawn Vaughn's eight-yard touchdown run. Illinois is not going to runover many Big Ten teams in the red zone, but the offensive line is improving and Vaughn rarely loses yardage because he's always moving forward. Cubit passed on first downs inside the red zone three of five times. I'd like to see him go to Vaughn early on these chances more often. Still, without Clary and White, Cubit was limited with his normal goal-line package. Hopefully, White returns against Nebraska but his concussion severely limited him last week.
The Illini passing game isn't near what it should be. Quarterback Wes Lunt is averaging just 5.9 yards per attempt, 110th in the country.
Of course, injuries to Mikey Dudek and Justin Hardee play a huge role in this. Illinois is forced to play players who probably shouldn't receive more than 10 reps per game. But as the football adage goes, "Next man up." But the young receivers aren't getting it done -- which threatens the Illini's bowl chances this season.
Marchie Murdock is second on the team with 18 catches (for 166 yards and two touchdowns), but he should probably have at least 10 more catches. I counted at least three times that Murdock ran the wrong route (Cubit's yelling at Murdock is a key tip off to who made the mistake). Murdock also dropped the big catch inside the two. The Illini receivers need to make more plays, and Murdock had the opportunity on a deep pass within his grasp but couldn't haul it in.
Murdock isn't the only one, he just seems like themost repeat offender. Taylor dropped a big pass. Desmond Cain (seven catches, 48 yards) made an impact and Malik Turner (four catches, 17 yards, 1 TD) was visible. But Lunt doesn't trust anyone but Geronimo Allison (10 catches, 128 yards) right now, and for good reason.
Still, Lunt must be sharper. He made about three downfield throws on the sideline that had no chance of being completed (though these may have basically been throwaways with everyone else covered -- I don't get the all-22 film). He also was fortunate not to have a few passes get picked off. A couple throws were tipped at the line and he forced one into Allison.
The Illini passing game has to be special for Illinois to pull off a few upsets. It is inefficient and subpar right now.
The Illini defense held Middle Tennessee in check for most of the game, but quarterback Brent Stockstill and the high-powered Blue Raiders offense did beat the Illini deep for a couple big plays.
On Stockstill's 63-yard touchdown pass, receiver Ritchie James came out of the running back spot and ran a seam route. He got a favorable matchup against Illini linebacker Mason Monheim, who seemed to be expecting safety help over the top in a cover-2 scheme. Monheim leaped and tried to break up the pass but missed. The problem is that no safety was there. Touchdown, MT.
On Middle Tennessee's go-ahead scoring drive in the fourth quarter, the Illini secondary got beat twice. The first was a 16-yard pass to Ed Batties on a post. Backup safety Jevaris Little fell down on the play, giving Batties the opening over the middle. There is a big dropoff between the Illini starting safeties and the backups. The Illini hope the return of Caleb Day helps, but I didn't see Day get any reps at safety.
On the 22-yard touchdown pass to Batties, credit Stockstill for making one heck of a throw. Illini STAR James Crawford had great coverage and put his hand in the passing lane, but Stockstill threaded a needle and dropped it into Batties between Crawford and a closing Taylor Barton. It was a big-time throw.
The Illini secondary doesn't have a lot of speed, so it can't afford many breakdowns in coverage. Also, the Illini corners either don't have much quickness (Eaton Spence and Darius Mosely) or length (V'Angelo Bentley). It'll be interesting to see if sophomore Jaylen Dunlap, who has the best mix of length and speed of the cornerback group, earns more playing time.
Special teams flags
The Illini return game was terrible on Saturday. Bentley had just 16 yards on five punt returns, and he couldn't have managed much more. The blocking in front of him was poor. Plus, a Tre Watson holding penalty cost the Illini 10 yards of field position.
The Illini also had just 75 yards on four kickoff returns. Julian Jones also held on a fourth-quarter return, costing the Illini 25 yards of field position.
The Illini are playing some young guys on special teams, but they need to grow up quick.
Five who stood out
1. Dawuane Smoot: The junior LEO looked like the difference-making, disruptive pass rusher the Illini so sorely need. Smoot (3.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, one forcued fumble) had a quick burst off the edge and MT couldn't stop his rip under move. Smoot (third in the Big Ten in TFL and ninth in sacks) has the talent to be really good -- and possibly have the chance to play at the next level. He's still developing, but Saturday was a big step forward before Illinois plays a difficult-to-stop Nebraska offense.
2. Clayton Fejedelem: Most know Fejedelem was former NAIA player and walk-on at Illinois. During his first spring, Tim Banks told me that Fejedelem would someday start for him. Fejedelem now is Banks' best defensive back. The senior safety was simply flying to the ball on Saturday (12 tackles). He is the Illini's best tackler. He not only gets to the ball, he wraps up and drives back -- usually leaving a big hit on the ball carrier. Fejedelem also broke up three passes, a couple times with big hits on the sideline.
3. Rob Bain: I've been buying Bain stock for about two years now, and I -- and the Illini -- are starting to see some big dividends. Smoot, Chunky Clements (1.0 TFL, 0.5 sacks) and Jihad Ward (nine tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1 FR) all played well, and Bain should get a big assist for it. He routinely took on double teams and a few times even beat them. He's so strong at the point of attack and blew up a few running plays in the backfield.
4. T.J. Neal: The Illini linebackers were in attack mode the first two weeks but looked hesitant against North Carolina. Neal (13 tackles) was much more aggressive on Saturday, playing downhill and using the truck stick a few times. He and Mason Monheim (14 tackles) have a huge task ahead against Nebraska's multi-dimensional, dangerous offense.
5. Ke'Shawn Vaughn: Ferguson is the Illini's best offensive weapon, but Vaughn is probably the better in-between-the-tackles runner. While Ferguson dances a bit, Vaughn is a perfect fit for the zone-blocking scheme. He makes quick reads with his great vision, sticks a foot in the ground, squares his shoulders and bursts through the hole. Vaughn carried the ball 13 times for 80 yards in the second half. Cubit said Vaughn grew up on Saturday. You wonder if that allows Cubit to use Ferguson and Vaughn on the field more together (though Vaughn missed a big block that led to a Lunt sack) and line up Ferguson more at receiver (where the Illini need some help). Illinois needs its best five weapons on the field more often, and Vaughn is one of them. Also, credit to Ted Karras who has had a strong season. The Illini are at their best running right, behind Karras and tackle Christian DiLauro.