Jeremy Werner

Five things to watch during Wisconsin week

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner breaks down five storylines that he's monitoring heading into Saturday's game at No. 7 Wisconsin

1. How does the MSU win carry over?

Bowl game? I know, I know. It sounds crazy and unlikely.After all, Illinois would have to win its final three games to clinch bowl eligibility, and those final three games are against top-41 opponents: No. 9 Wisconsin (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten), No. 39 Iowa (5-4, 3-3) and No. 41 Northwestern (4-5, 3-3).

But Illinois may actually only need two wins to make a bowl if there aren't enough 6-plus win teams to fill the 80 bowl spots. Also, the Illini's perfect Academic Progress Rate will put them at the front of the line of 5-7 teams for a bowl spot, like Nebraska last season.

But "bowl" indeed is a topic of conversation in the locker room. The MSU win gave this team a lot of confidence.

"It's night and day," freshman quarterback Jeff George Jr. said. "You wouldn't want it any other way."

Added defensive end Dawuane Smoot: "It's a huge change. I feel like we're finally seeing the team we can be."

Illinois had taken some strides in recent weeks, especially on defense. But the scoreboard (41-8 to Michigan and 40-17 to Minnesota) overshadowed those steps forward. The win over Michigan State showed a trend that the defense is improving against the run and cutting down on critical mistakes. Continued improvement would provide the Illini with some opportunities this month.

"I think we're gelling as a group," Illini defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson said. "Guys are more confident in what we're doing, and it takes games like what we had Saturday to really get that feeling, get a feel for what it takes to make that play at the end of the game to win. Getting that confidence, that's what our guys in our group have gained."

The MSU win shows that what the coaches are teaching can actually work and improve team buy-in and camaraderie. We'll see how much one win can impact the rest of the season.

"I think you just get to the point where you keep pounding the rock, eventually you see a crack," head coach Lovie Smith said. "I think you just stay the course and eventually you get over the hump. I think that where we are, we got over the hump last week. Now it's about putting a big game together back-to-back. When you accomplish something that you worked so hard for, there is a sense of relief, a little bit. We haven't celebrated at home in a long time and it was great to see that happen on a special Dad's Weekend and all that."

2. More Cam Watkins, please

The last few weeks, I kept asking myself why we hadn't seen Cameron Watkins on the field. The Illini kept running players through the No. 2 cornerback spot. Darius Mosely struggled. Then Chris James got his shot but offered little improvement. Then Ahmari Hayes and then Frank Sumpter -- with no improvement.

Finally, Watkins -- a 6-foot, physical hitter who looked like the second best cornerback during the spring -- got his shot last week. Nickerson gave me an explanation of why it took so long.

"Injuries have kind of slowed him down," Nickerson said, "but he's back and healthy and it's good to see him out on the field making some hits."

Watkins is raw and he'll likely make mistakes, but unlike the other players the Illini have trotted out at the No. 2 cornerback, Watkins made some big plays when given an opportunitiy. He had four tackles, most of them big hits, and broke up a pass that he probably wished he had hauled in for an interception. Jaylen Dunlap is really turning up his play (7 PBUs and 3 TFLs the last three weeks), and Watkins looks like his best complement.

"I thought Cam brought a different level of physicality that we had missed a little bit at the corner position opposite Dunlap," Nickerson said. "He stepped in and played really well for us."

Watkins was a top track athlete in high school and most thought he was just a packaged deal with Ke'Shawn Vaughn. But he has power-five skills. He's earned more opportunities.

"Absolutely," Nickerson said. "He's been a little nicked up here recently, but his performance on Saturday says, 'Hey, I want to play more. I need to play more.'"

courtesy Illinois athletics // Mark Jones

3. What does McGee dial up?

Garrick McGee said making the call for a draw on 3rd-and-10 from the 19-yard line with under 20 seconds left in the second quarter wasn't a difficult call. The Illini offensive coordinator said Foster's elusive, tough run was the more impressive part.

"The call is the easy part," McGee said.  "I think the same reason that you were expecting a pass, I probably thought you were expecting a pass at that point. So I thought they'd be rushing up the field pretty hard, playing coverage. So we thought we could slip a draw in there and crease them. It worked out for them."

But calls like that are so important to an offense that has been severely depleted of its top personnel. McGee dialed up several huge calls, including the play-action touchdown pass to Ainslie Johnson and the aggressive game-winning drive spurred by several George Jr. throws.

McGee has made no secret that he wants to run a power offense built with strong offensive lineman, big running backs and a dual-threat quarterback. He tried to run that offense during nonconference play with little success. But he's adjusted his game plan to a more spread-based scheme in the short term to better fit his personnel.

McGee said he's learned a big lesson this season.

"That you got to be flexible," McGee said. "You got to coach everybody on your roster because injuries happen. Nowadays with a target situation, a guy could be out of the game early. Everybody in your room has to be coached as if they're going to play in a game. That way if something happens, you feel comfortable putting another guy out there."

McGee again has his work cut out for him this week as he game plans for the No. 2 scoring defense in the country. The Badgers have the No. 5 run defense, so McGee will have challenges in getting the strength of his offense going.

But after the Michigan State game, count me intrigued as to how McGee tries to attack the Badgers.

Jeremy Werner

4. Will Cain, Vaughn make an impact?

Believe it or not, Ke'Shawn Vaughn and Desmond Cain entered the 2016 season as the Illini's top returners in rushing yards and receptions, respectively. But both have had "sophomore slump" seasons.

Vaughn lost most of his carries to Kendrick Foster (596 rushing yards, 6.3 ypc seven touchdowns) and Reggie Corbin (421 rushing yards, 7.4 ypc), both of whom have definitely earned those reps. Vaughn, who rushed for 723 yards and six touchdowns last season, has just 134 rushing yards on 27 carries (5.0 ypc) the past seven games with most of his carries coming out of the wildcat formation. But he's still undeniably talented.

Meanwhile, Cain -- who had 53 receptions for 492 yards last season -- has just five catches for 61 yards and a touchdown this season. He missed four games due to a supposed injury and also did not play against Minnesota due to an apparent coach's decision. He had two catches for 17 yards against Michigan State.

But with a severe lack of playmakers, McGee likely will need Vaughn and Cain to make some plays at some point. Will he use Vaughn more in the wildcat or as a slot receiver? Will Cain get more looks at receiver? McGee said both players have shown improved mindsets in recent weeks.

"They're doing a good job," McGee said. "I really think Desmond made one of the biggest plays of the game when he broke up that interception, which could have put them on our end of the field and given them points when we were not playing well on offense. That could've been tough on us. Desmond had a great attitude all week last week, had a good spirit about him. As a matter of fact, when we got on the bus to go to the game, I always like to be the first one on the bus but Desmond beat me to the bus. He was the first one on the bus that morning.

"Ke'Shawn is really doing well personality-wise, confidence-wise, brings a good spirit to the team. I'm really proud of those guys because they're not having the production that they had last year but their attitude has not wavered at all. They've shown up every day with a good attitude."

Jeremy Werner

5. Two first-rounders for Illini?

It's rare for a bottom Big Ten team to possibly feature multiple first-round prospects, but Illinois at least has a possibility to have two of its players names called on April 27 -- the date of Round 1 of the 2017 NFL Draft -- in Philadelphia.

WalterFootbal.com had a nice breakdown of the Illinois-Michigan State game and said Dawuane Smoot improved his bid for a first-round grade and called fellow Illini defensive end Carroll Phillips a possible "fringe late-first round or early second-round" pick.

Most outlets have graded Smoot as a first-round draft pick since the end of his breakout season last year (15.0 TFLs, 8.0 sacks). He's done little to hurt his stock this season (11.5 TFLs, 3.0 sacks), especially after Pro Football Focus has tallied him with 17 pressures the last two weeks.

ESPN's Todd McShay currently lists Smoot as his No. 10 overall prospect, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller ranks Smoot as his No. 14 overall prospect and CBS Sports ranks Smoot as the No. 47 overall prospect.

"I feel like people are seeing what I'm able to do," Smoot said. "I've gotten a lot more attention that I thought I'd get this last season, but I feel like I've put together a season for me to go to the next level."

Smoot is frustrated that he doesn't have more sacks and said he indeed actually looks at the draft rankings "here and there," but said he's focused most on doing his job and creating havoc in the backfield.

"Just basically keep it in your mind that they're watching everything," Smoot said. "So it's not just about sacks. It's not just about how TFLs you get. It's about you running to the ball. It's about you being consistent on every play. I just try to stay focused with that, and then all the stats will come."

Phillips hasn't registered on as many radars yet, but his season is turning heads in the scouting community (which is blowing up defensive line coach Mike Phair's phone). Smoot is stumping for his teammate and hopes to share draft weekend memories with Phillips -- which would provide a nice boost to Illini defensive line recruiting efforts as well.

"He's a beast," Smoot said of Phillips. "I feel like he's really taken advantage of his opportunities this year, really just had a breakout season. I feel like he's going to be there with me next year."


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