Any excitement from Chayce Crouch's impressive relief appearance at quarterback Saturday was mostly overshadowed by a disconcerting 34-31 loss to Purdue on Saturday.
If Chase McLaughlin's potential game-winning field goal at the end of regulation went a few inches to the left, Illinois would've escaped with a win. As Tony D'Amato famously said, sometimes the difference between winning and losing is that thin of a margin.
But even a win wouldn't have covered up the drove of defensive deficiencies against the Boilermakers (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten). The Illini allowed 231 rushing yards and 34 points to a team that ran for 10 yards and scored seven points against Maryland the week prior.
Here's what the film showed: both good (offense) and bad (mostly defense).
When watching the film, I always have to consider that I don't know the play call. I don't know exactly who is supposed to do what, where and when. That's especially problematic when trying to decipher the defensive film. So keep that in mind. And it's one of the reasons I will have a former Illini linebacker Micheal Young delve more into the defense in a piece later this week.
One thing is for sure, Illinois continues to struggle with gap integrity. This is a one-gap defense, meaning the each Illini in front seven -- and sometimes eight players when a safety is moved into the box -- is responsible for a gap. One player is responsible for filling and winning that gap, unlike 3-4 defenses where defensive linemen usually are responsible for clogging as much space as possible, allowing linebackers more freedom of movement. The one-gap scheme is more aggressive and opens up opportunities for more disruptions in the backfield. But it's also a bit more risky because if one player misses his gap, the offense will find some big holes and big opportunities.
Purdue found plenty of huge holes thanks to poor Illini gap integrity, a recurring theme this season.
On this first example, Illini defensive end Dawuane Smoot gets a few yards upfield off the ball and is kicked out for a block, opening a lane. Hardy Nickerson fills the hole but bites on the quarterback fake and misses the running back. Tre Watson seemed to fill his gap but couldn't get off his block to make up for what appeared to be a mistake by Nickerson.
On this long Purdue touchdown run, DT Kenyon Jackson and DE Carroll Phillips are both pushed off their spots. SS Pat Nelson seems to do his job with contain but neither linebacker is there to minimize the gain. Nickerson appears to shoot a gap that is already filled, opening up a huge hole. True freshman free safety Stanley Green is left in a bad spot and couldn't make the tough tackle in space.
On this long run, three defensive linemen appear to fill two gaps on the left side of the line, leaving a huge hole in the middle. Watson then filled but couldn't get off his block to slow the running back down. This one appears to be on the defensive line though.
On the Purdue wide receiver screen that went for a touchdown, Purdue blocked really well. You could nitpick some tackling issues here, but this one appears on the defensive line as well. Almost all of them bit on the play. When a defensive lineman notices that the OL lets them go unblocked, they need to think screen and turn back up the field to sniff out the screen. None do that and Purdue has a huge numbers advantage down the field.
The Illini defense also lost the edge on three straight plays on Purdue's game-tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
Biggest takeaway from all of this? The Illinois defensive line was a big disappointment. It played pretty well for three quarters against North Carolina and three quarters against Nebraska. But the Illini front four was manhandled up front. Purdue took advantage of the Illini's up-field aggression by running a lot of traps and counters. The Illini also continue to struggle on zone-read option runs.
The defensive line is supposed to be the Illini's strength -- and it is against the pass. But teams are exploiting their weaknesses against the run and the Illini are struggling to counter.
There also is concern on the interior. Chunky Clements has been very inconsistent throughout his career and remains so (the offsides penalties are getting a bit ridiculous for a senior). Rob Bain appears slowed by a knee injury and just isn't making a huge impact after a good first couple games. The team also missed Jamal Milan, who didn't play due to injury. True freshman Kenyon Jackson should be a solid player in the future, but he was overpowered a lot against Purdue.
The linebackers should be OK. Watson had some struggles but also made some plays. Julian Jones is a better playmaker, and I'd like to see him on the field more in their nickel packages. Nickerson is a pretty good player and has to do a lot of work to make sure everyone is aligned right (youth or scheme issues), but he also has seemed to have made some big gaffes in two of the previous three games (WMU and Purdue).
The defensive backs aren't very good. They were pretty poor in coverage (what was this by Ahmari Hayes?) and Purdue missed a bunch of opportunities. The safeties have struggled in run support.
Crouch ignites offense
I'm not the only one who has doubted Chayce Crouch as a Big Ten difference maker. The Illini staff was pretty surprised by his performance. He added some fire to the Illini offense. Of course, Wes Lunt and the Illini offense moved the ball before Lunt left with a back injury. They just struggled to put it in the end zone.
For a while, I've compared Crouch to Jordan Lynch -- tough, physical, athletic but with a shaky arm -- so running like this doesn't surprise me.
Crouch adds a lot in the red zone. It's tough for defenses to account for his legs. But his arm was the biggest surprise for me -- and the Illini staff.
But this throw to Crouch is the best I've ever seen Crouch make -- and I've seen him throw a lot.
Crouch has to put everything into his passes. Purdue's defense is bad and took a while to adjust to the offensive changes under Crouch, but the Illini sophomore made some plays.
On the screen pass to Reggie Corbin, Crouch does a good job of waiting to throw (despite pressure) until Corbin is open.
This is just Crouch making a play, one that Lunt can't make (though Lunt, of course, can make some throws that Crouch can't dream of).
On the drive that set up the potential game-winning field goal, Crouch made a big-time throw, standing in the pocket and making a play.
I still have my doubts about how effective Crouch can be against good Big Ten defenses with great athletes. At some point, Illinois will need to stretch the field and Crouch's arm is shaky.
But should Crouch play the rest of the season? Sure, at least a big portion of it.
For one, Illinois isn't making a bowl game this year. You might as well see what you have in Crouch. Lunt has no future impact on this program. Crouch may -- even if Illinois is trying to add a transfer QB to start next year.
Secondly, the Illini offense is still more difficult to prepare for with Crouch in the game than Lunt. Listen, I still think Lunt -- we've talked plenty about his faults --could be a successful quarterback, just not for this Illinois team. For instance, Michigan State would love to trade for Lunt right now -- and Lunt could succeed there with good playmakers and a strong offensive line -- but he doesn't have the playmakers around him at Illinois to be effective.
But, yes, this should be Crouch's team. His teammates responded to him on Saturday.
- This first series run by Reggie Corbin shows two things. He is so good at making defenders miss, but he lacks that top-end burner speed.
- This has probably gone under the radar, but Nick Allegretti is turning into the Illini's best offensive line and the type of physical blocker Illinois needs more of in the future. He had several great blocks, including the block that freed Crouch for his long touchdown run.
- Garrick McGee had a really good game. He had Crouch ready to play and a script ready that allowed Crouch to succeed. But I didn't get this play-calling on the first series. Illinois had 2nd and goal from the 1. McGee sends in seven offensive linemen. Jordan Fagan and Darta Lee come in the game to give Illinois fouroffensive linemen on the left side. Illinois runs a simple power run to that side and is stuffed -- twice in a row. I understand that McGee wants an offense that can simply overpower another team. But he doesn't have it. On at least one of these plays, he should have run some misdirection or play-action to give your team a chance.
Illinois stuffed twice in a row with 7 OL in a row
- This penalty...
is worth the same as this
- What the heck is Carroll Phillips doing here? A senior just can't make this play, and he's lucky that his replacement Gimel President helped bail him out by pressuring Blough on the next play, forcing an interception.
- I didn't notice this during the game. But McLaughlin's second field goal of the game came from the left hash. He barely squeaked it inside the left goal post.
His final field goal attempt came from the left goal post. This time it found the post. The agony...