Upon Further Review: Illini vs. UNC

Illinois coach Lovie Smith would rather learn from wins, but losses can provide unique learning opportunities for a football team. North Carolina exposed a lot of flaws in the Illini's 48-23 loss on Saturday. Illinois can learn a lot from the film. Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner breaks down some of those points.

Lunt sees ghosts?

As I covered in a column following Saturday's game, Illinois senior quarterback Wes Lunt played poorly. He knows it. We know it. Granted, the rest of his offense didn't play well either, outside of probably the running backs and a sometimes OK offensive line performance.

Lunt looked skittish. Why? I just don't think Lunt trusts his environment. He doesn't seem to trust his receivers, who struggle to get open -- and when they do, struggle to hold onto the football. He doesn't seem to trust his offensive line to keep him upright and healthy. That causes him to "see ghosts." Whenever Lunt feels pressure, his progressions and mechanics break down. This is why pass rush is such a priority in football, and it's why a quarterback's toughness is so important. If Lunt wants to impress NFL scouts, he has to perform better in the face of pressure. Right now, he has a "soft" label that he needs to shake.

He can't do things like this, which I call the "Fumble -- Doink" play -- which changed the game. This was one of three Lunt fumbles, and none of them were strip sacks. All seemed to be careless, nervous fumbles. You simply can't have that from your senior quarterback.


The next few plays show what most observers saw: Lunt throwing off his back foot. The first is a corner blitz off the edge. Lunt notices the blitz and immediately gets rid of the ball. Lunt must be more competitive here, either by standing in the pocket/stepping up, throwing and taking the hit or by trying to shake the blitzer to give the play a chance.


The next clip shows two plays on one drive where he UNC brought pressure and Lunt quicky got rid of the ball off his back foot, resulting in bad throws. But he really wasn't facing immediate danger. He still had time to look down the field, step up and throw.  This, of course, is easy for someone not facing a blitz to say. But this is the job of a quarterback. Lunt must be stronger in the pocket.


Because this is what happens when he steps up in pocket.


Lunt started to feel comfortable and get into a rhythm midway through the third quarter. But just as he started to make the Lunt-ian throws we would love to see more of, his receivers -- who didn't drop a pass in the first game -- caught the dropsies again. Justin Hardee, a senior, dropped what would have been a first down (and possibly way more) on a crossing pattern. Tight end Andrew Davis couldn't haul in a perfectly placed ball on the sideline and Sam Mays dropped a difficult but must-have catch near the goal line. Lunt and the receivers -- who struggled to get open against UNC's press coverage -- never got on the same page.


Illini offensive coordinator Garrick McGee tried to get the screen game going, but UNC sniffed it out and played it well. The other issue that Illinois had was that after Vaughn's 65-yard touchdown run, the Illini run game stalled out for the most part. UNC dared Illinois to run, usually putting only seven in the box and playing two-deep coverage. Over the last three quarters, Illinois ran for only 3.7 yards per carry. Again, this was often against a seven-man front. Should Illinois have heaved it deep a few more times? Maybe. But Lunt likely would have been throwing into tight corner coverage with safeties over the top. Illinois took some chances down the field but the receivers dropped most of them.

Disrupting the run

Illinois defense had three encouraging quarters against the run. North Carolina ran for 122 yards on 28 carries (4.4 yards per carry) during the first three quarters and Elijah Hood had just 26 yards on his first 14 carries. Of course in the fourth quarter, Hood ran for his 62-yard touchdown and UNC had 109 yards on just nine carries. 

But there were some positives that Illinois will take a step forward against the run this season. This is a one-gap defense, meaning each player is responsible for disrupting and winning one gap -- unlike two-gap defenses (like 3-4 schemes) that require defensive linemen to take up multiple blockers and a lot of space. Here's an example of how you stop the run in a one gap scheme.

In this play, Rob Bain -- who is off to a good start this fall -- gets upfield and disrupts backfield, which kicks out the run and allows Hardy Nickerson and Darius Mosely to make the tackle behind the line of scrimmage


In this play, all-world defensive end Dawuane Smoot splits the double-team, avoiding the kick-out block, and James Crawford comes up to help solidify the tackle for loss.


Here's another Rob Bain disruption and tackle for loss.


On this play, Smoot bull rushes on the end, collapsing the pocket, which allows Clements enough time to get pressure up the middle from own bull-rush to pick up the sack.


Poor tackling

The Illini defense's biggest issue against North Carolina was poor tackling, especially from its secondary (with the exception of Jaylon Dunlap, who made some played physical and well in run support).

On Mitch Trubisky's long scramble, a defensive lineman misses and then senior safety Taylor Barton -- unfortunately he'll be mentioned several times here -- doesn't fill his gap, and misses Trubisky and so does Darius Mosely-- costing dozens of yards.


On this play, Gimel President bites on the option handoff and Barton misses Trubisky again.


On T.J. Logan's long run, I don't know what Barton was doing here. He guessed, dived and completely whiffed.


Poor tackling also includes bad angles. On Hood's touchdown run,  President missed the tackle and then Barton takes a terrible angle and couldn't catch up to Hood.


A few more defensive notes

This is what happens when a good offensive line can keep the Illini defensive line at bay (the Illini defensive line was good but not great on Saturday). The inexperienced back-seven (outside of Nickerson) has some holes.


Illinois had zoned the previous couple plays and given up a few easy first down. They go man on this play and Darius Mosely gets burned, which happened a lot last year.


Some positives

Of course, this game wasn't as big of a blowout as the score suggested. Illinois had some encouraging play.

This is a simple play, but it's one I love and can't wait to see more. Illinois goes with simple power run with a fullback lead block by Nate Echard and Vaughn picks up six or seven yards. I can't wait to see this run well more often, but Illinois needs more powerful offensive linemen -- like commits Larry Boyd and Vederian Lowe.


Here's more good run blocking. Joe Spencer and Gabe Megginson do a great job on the double-team on the defensive lineman, Megginson got enough of the linebacker and Christian DiLauro finishes the pull block. Usually Vaughn would have a safety to beat, but UNC missed an assignment and Vaughn was off to the races.


While the Illini tackling was poor as a whole, Hardy Nickerson has put on a tackling clinic his first two weeks in orange and blue. He's great at tackling in space. Nickerson does a great job of locking on the ball carrier's back hip, breaking down and driving through. 


No offense to some of the past Illini linebackers, but they rarely could break down and tackle guys like Ryan Switzer in space.


Kendrick Foster is faster this season, but he's still got the toughness we saw in earlier camps.


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