CHAMPAIGN - The hot topic around Illinois football is the underwhelming play of senior quarterback Wes Lunt. But we've covered that here (with a post-UNC column) and here (by breaking down the UNC film).
Yes, Illinois needs more from its senior quarterback. Lunt threw for 312 yards on Saturday, but he missed several throws and made some decisions that prevented him from putting up closer to 400 yards and, more importantly, prevented his team from putting up more points on the board.
Still, Lunt was down my list of concerns following Saturday's 34-10 loss to Western Michigan. After all, Lunt didn't give up 34 points. He also doesn't block.
The story of the game was that a MAC team out-gained Illinois by 284 yards on the ground. TWO HUNDRED AND EIGHTY FOUR!
The Broncos ran for 287 rushing yards. The Illini ran for three. THREE!
The Illini called 11 run plays -- that's part of what happens when you get down 21-0 by the 14:56 mark of the second quarter -- and ran for just 23 yards on those running back carries (the three-yard total resulted from Lunt getting sacked four times for minus-20 yards).
I broke down the first nine run plays -- sorry, I just couldn't watch anymore after the third quarter -- and I counted one or two that could be deemed effective. That verdict is scary. The Illini lack talent up front but the execution is even more concerning. Let's take a look at each of those runs.
After a few first-down throws from Lunt to open the Illini's first offensive series, the Illini get stuffed for a loss on their first run. Strongside tackle Christian DiLauro's man disrupts the backfield. But it didn't really matter because tight end Tyler White blocked neither of the second-level linebackers in favor of blocking a safety further down the field. The three interior linemen also barely got any push against the two defensive tackles
On this outside zone run to Kendrick Foster, junior guard Jordan Fagan -- starting for injured redshirt freshman Gabe Megginson -- is unable to get his head across the defensive tackle. Spencer gave a punch to the DT, but the DT read the play well and Fagan couldn't get across quick enough. Foster never stood a chance.
Against an eight-man front, Fagan and quickside tackle Austin Schmidt double-team the defensive end and the backside went unblocked (fullback Nate Echard didn't see this in time). The left side got a decent push but Ke'Shawn Vaughn hesitated enough on his cut to get caught at the line of scrimmage.
This gain of a couple yards on a toss sweep to Vaughn was one of the Illini's best runs. With seven WMU defenders in the box, Fagan got a good pull block and Ainslie Johnson got enough of his man to give Vaughn some running room. But Vaughn didn't have enough of a cutback lane on the inside to make it a bigger play.
This is the worst play of the day. On the critical 4th and long 1 in the first quarter, Illinois just botched this run. Illinois brought in a heavy package of seven offensive lineman, a tight end and fullback. At the core, I love this. No frills, we're going to out-muscle you for a yard. I love that philosophy. But Illinois just completely failed at it. The play starts off horribly with backup tackle Connor Brennan simply failing to get of the ball off the snap. That allows the defensive end to disrupt everything on the slow-developing play. Pulling guard Darta Lee then is forced to block Brennan's guy a few yards back of the line of scrimmage instead of shooting to the linebacker at the second level or on the edge. Also, Fagan was beat inside by the defensive tackle, who read the play well and beat Fagan to his spot. This play was a tone-setter and confidence-builder for WMU and an absolute disaster for Illinois.
On this run to the unbalanced side of the big formation, White and DiLauro double-team the defensive end well. But neither comes off to block the linebacker Robert Spillane. If one of them had (likely White), Vaughn would have been one-on-one with the safety in a huge hole -- with the potential for a big gain.
With nine in the box, Illinois runs a toss sweep to Vaughn. But WMU penetrates the back field, disrupting the pulling guards and Vaughn is kept to a minimal gain.
On this shotgun handoff, Schmidt and Fagan double-team the defensive end but allow two linebackers to go unblocked. Someone has to come off and block one of the linebackers. Also, Nick Allegretti didn't get a good angle on his block at the second level. Both those factors were enough for Spillane to tackle Vaughn by the leg.
This 10-yard run on a toss sweep by Vaughn was the best of the day, and it was almost single-handedly created by DiLauro, who blocks two players on the edge. Phenomenal job and some nastiness from DiLauro. Illinois needs more of that.
Final verdict: The lack of offensive line depth and failures of recruiting are obvious. Fagan just isn't Big Ten ready, and I don't think he has the strength to ever truly be starter quality. Darta Lee eventually could be pretty good, but he's an unreliable true freshman who needs to lose some baby fat. That position was a liability against Western Michigan. But the issues weren't only physical. The communication on double teams really cost the Illini. The tight ends and guards didn't come off to block the second level, which is just knowing your responsibilities. The lack of talent and execution was a recipe for disaster. If this group can't win against WMU's suspect front seven, it's going to have huge issues in the Big Ten. What's scarier is that this group loses Schmidt next season. The Illini likely will have to play some true freshmen next season, which is never -- as they say at Illinois -- ideal.
Illinois' defense is a single-gap system. Unlike two-gap systems that require players to eat up multiple blockers, a one-gap system calls for players to disrupt or own a gap. When run well (we usually call this gap-sound defense), a one-gap defense can cause a lot of disruption in the backfield. But when a player loses his gap assignment, it can cause some huge holes for the offense.
Jamauri Bogan's 36-yard touchdown run is a good example of failure of gap assignments. Hardy Nickerson is responsible for the A-gap here. He runs to the B-gap to avoid the blocker. If he had taken on the blocker and filled his gap, Carroll Phillips could've made the tackle and limited the run.
On this first-down run, Dawuane Smoot (who didn't have a great game) falls for the QB keeper -- despite the fact that WMU barely ever kept it! -- and Nickerson tries to side-step the block rather than hit the blocker head on with the hopes of stretching out the run.
On this huge Bogan run, Phillips crashes on Terrell (again, he barely ever kept it!) and Taylor Barton also seemed to be faked out by Terrell because he hesitates (looking at Terrell) and allows Bogan to just run by him. Bad eye discipline by both players.
More missed opportunities
Malik Turner needs to make this catch. Lunt dropped it in perfectly between zone coverage. Yes, a safety was bearing down on Turner, but a No. 1 wideout needs to make that catch even when he hears footsteps.
This should've been a touchdown throw, but Lunt underthrew Turner. Still, Turner could've had a catch to the 10-yard line but he dropped a very catchable ball. Neither executed when the opportunity was there for a big play.
More poor execution from Lunt and his receivers. Lunt has two wide open passes to the end zone, but he throws it between Justin Hardee and Reggie Corbin. It's unclear to me -- and more importantly, to either receiver -- who Lunt is throwing too. That's a problem, probably caused by throwing off his back foot. But Corbin goes for a ball (that is off but catchable) and simply drops it in front of Hardee -- who also could've caught it if Corbin weren't there. This is a play where you play the Benny Hill theme song. Enough of those.
Teams continue to pick on Illini cornerback Darius Mosely, and they will continue to do so. This is a great throw by Zach Terrell, but Mosely continues to struggle in man coverage against good receivers (Corey Davis is a very good one). Mosely's film the last two years has been unkind. But Illinois must think that no one behind him is a better alternative.
Nickel back Chris James does a great job on the blitz and would have forced a WMU punt. But then he does this. The prolonged drive turned into three points for the Broncos. A very flawed team can't afford dumb penalties like this.
A few (very few) positives
Carroll Phillips is a premier speed pass rusher. He must improve against the run and add some more moves, but he can find a spot in the NFL as a situational pass rusher.
I thought -- and the previous staff thought -- that Patrick Nelson was going to be a starting safety this year. The hard-hitting Chicago native played a few series on Saturday and earned more playing time with plays like this.