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Young: Purdue exploited Illini defense's Achilles heel

Illini Inquirer football analyst Micheal Young breaks down why the Illini struggled to stop the Purdue run game.

Last Saturday in Champaign, Purdue's offense presented some hufe issues for the Fighting Illini defense -- in particular, problems against the run.

Illinois (1-4, 0-2 Big Ten) allowed the Boilermakers (3-2, 1-1) to rush for 231 yards on 41 attempts, averaging just over five yards per carry. The previous week, Purdue had rushed for just 10 rushing yards. Purdue also converted 9 of 16 third down attempts against Illinois and finished with four touchdowns inside the red zone.

Coming into the 2016 season, most projected the Illini to get plenty of tackles for loss and sacks from the senio- led defensive line because of their ability to re-create the line of scrimmage. And the Illini have done well in those areas, ranking 16th in the FBS in TFLs and 41st in sacks.

However, stopping the run has been a problem this season. Containing the run is the first priority for every defense regardless of the front or gap control. Purdue created success in their running game against Illinois by exposing the Illini's Achilles' heel: run-fitting an angle blocking scheme. Angle blocks take place when either a guard or tackle starts pulls to the other side of the line to "trap" block the first-level defender, or leads up to the second level.  Angle blocks can really affect "one-gap" fronts -- like the Illini's -- especially the linebackers and safeties because the original gap responsibility changes once the OL pulls. This creates a new run fit on the fly wherever the OG/OT ends up.

All the Boilermakers' explosive runs (runs of 10 yards or more) came from angle blocks. So you can bet teams will continue to do this to Illinois until the Illini fix the issues.

For example, Purdue's first angle blocking play went for 32 yards.  LBs Tre Watson and Hardy Nickerson didn't fully diagnose the play design because both defenders charged the line of scrimmage, working downhill to close their original gap. Reading the triangle (the two guards and the center) would have allowed them to flow with the RG Jordan Roos regardless of backfield action and limited the big run by RB Lankford-Johnson.

Setting the edge defensively also must improve.  The end man on the line of scrimmage has to turn the ball back inside to the pursuing defenders. EMOLs (end men on the line) can change from down to down with the DE, OLB, S or CB taking that responsibility. Purdue went back to the same power blocking play that gave them success earlier in the game with OG Roos.

On this play, S Taylor Barton was the EMOL and squeezed down too far inside off the LOS.  Being uneven with DE Smoot, obstructed his vision enough, that he did not see the kick out block by Roos. That allowed Worship to bounce the ball without resistance on his way to the end-zone.

Even though Illinois has been inconsistent defending the run, defenders often are in place to make the tackles. But the lack of play strength is one of the challenges the defense continues to face.  

In this following play, the Illini have seven defenders (4 DL-3 LBs) in the box against Purdue's six blockers. (5 OL-1 TE aligned in the backfield). With the numbers advantage in favor of the Illini, one defender should be unblocked and in this case, it's Watson. Purdue called an inside zone with TE Cole Herdman set up to block DE Carrol Phillips. Purdue LT Cameron Cermin climbed to the second level to block Nickerson, Jr.  Watson was left unblocked  to tackle RB Richie Worship. Solid contact was made short of the first down, however, the lack of play strength could not stop Worship from gaining the first down.

Another example happened with Watson in even better position to make a 3rd Down stop and pick up a TFL.  The Illini outnumbered the Boilermakers with seven defenders in the box against their six blockers.  

As a former LB myself, Watson could not have done this any better in regards to being in position to make the tackle with an A-Gap (gap between Center and Guard) run through read. He was able to make contact behind the LOS on Worship. But the combination of Watson's high pad level and Worship's contact balance enabled him to carry Watson a few yards to convert the critical 3rd & 1.

With game reps, Watson will improve his functional strength and lower his strike zone on ball carriers to down low around the legs. Watson has the ability to develop into one of the B1G's best LBs.

The Illini will face more power running teams that create movement up front by creating angles. Consistent penetration from the DL will help the inexperienced LBs/S better defend both the running and passing game until their functional strength improves. Better eye discipline should limit their mistakes which will allow them to adjust on the move to the ball.  Open field tackling from the S and CBs  also must improve when faced with ball carriers in space.

Micheal Young is the football analyst for Young was a four-year starter for Illinois football and a team captain. The St. Louis native also played for the NFL's Arizona Cardinals from 2001-04. He serves as a color analyst for several broadcast outlets and co-hosts an Illini podcast with former UI teammate Carey Davis on

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