Big Ten Spring Review: Illinois

Ohio State's will face Illinois in Big Ten crossover action in 2015. The Fighting Illini is coming off a return to postseason play but still has work to do to be a league factor.

Our look at Ohio State's 2015 Big Ten foes continues with a wrap up of the spring at Illinois.

Quick 2014 review: Illinois started 3-1 with victory over Youngstown State, Western Kentucky and Texas State along with a 44-19 loss at Washington, but the Fighting Illini lost five of their six games from Sept. 27-November 22. In that span there was a 28-24 upset of Minnesota. The Illini closed out the regular season with back-to-back wins over Penn State and Northwestern to get bowl eligible then fell 35-18 to Louisiana in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

For the second year in a row, Illinois had a solid passing game but struggled to run the ball. Reilly O’Toole and Wes Lunt combined to throw for more than 3,000 yards with 24 touchdowns as O’Toole took over for an injured Lunt midway through the season and brought more of a rushing threat. The running game was 111th national and 13th in the Big Ten, however. Defensively, Illinois was worst in the Big Ten in points allowed, rushing defense and total defense. The Illini were 47th nationally in pass defense, but that was good for only ninth in the Big Ten. They struggled to rush the passer but were seventh in the conference in tackles-for-loss.

The Football Outsiders advanced stats say Illinois was middle-of-the-road both as far as both passing and rushing when it comes to offensive S&P+, a stat that combines efficiency and explosiveness and is similar to OPS in baseball. The Fighting Illini relied far more on big plays than consistent success, likely due in no small part to an offensive line that struggled to make openings.

Spring game recap: Despite being spotted a total of 34 points, the White team lost 44-41 to the Orange team on April 18 in Champaign. That outcome probably should not come as much of a surprise, however, as the Orange team consisted of most of the players who are expected to be starters this fall. Lunt was the offensive standout, completing 17 of 26 passes for 236 yards and two touchdowns for the Orange. His favorite target was Justin Hardee, who had 124 yards on six catches while Geronimo Allison had four catches for 121 yards and two touchdowns. Reserve quarterback Chayce Crouch threw for 173 yards and two touchdowns while completing 11 of 24 passes with an interception while Jeff George Jr. was 5 for 11 for 142 yards and the only touchdown for the White, a 71-yarder to Marchie Murdock, who had 106 yards on five catches.

Jihad Ward, a returning starter at defensive end, led all tacklers with nine, including two sacks. Redshirt freshman rush linebacker Henry McGrew also had a pair of sacks.

Issues addressed: With issues galore seemingly year after year, Illinois’ key to breaking through in Beckman’s fourth year in Champaign might just be letting a great player carry the team. Is Lunt that player? He took the field last year with high expectations, but a broken leg changed the course of his and the Illini’s season. Although he was healthy enough to play before the end of the campaign, Beckman opted to stay with O’Toole, a heady senior who lacked Lunt’s arm strength but could run the read-option. O’Toole graduated, putting the focus back on Lunt.

“This is a very quarterback-oriented offense,” Beck said on the Big Ten spring teleconference. “We put a lot on the shoulders of our quarterback. It reminds me of some of the offenses my father was involved in during the NFL days that I got to see — adjustments and checks, were put on the quarterbacks.”

Asked what being in a quarterback-oriented offense meant to him, Lunt explained it has to do with being given the freedom to make get the team into whatever situation is best based on what he sees from the defense, whether that is changing a pass route, altering the pass protection or ditching the play entirely in favor of something else.

“We're really game managers out there,” Lunt said. “If it's 2nd-and-8 and we see a run and a pass is called, it's probably smarter just to call that run and pick up three or four to put yourself in that good situation.”

Lunt’s challenge got bigger during the spring when Mikey Dudek, the team’s leading receiver last year, suffered a torn ACL that is expected to keep him out until at least October, but the cupboard might not be bare. Allison was second on the team with 598 receiving yards last season. “Mikey’s a big part of this offense, as you know,” Lunt said. “I think all of the receivers have taken a step forward.”

As for the defense that struggled last season, seven starters return, and Beckman was happy with the effect he saw this spring from the addition of new co-defensive coordinator Mike Phair. “He’s just an exciting guy to be around,” Beckman said.

Ward was named the defense’s most valuable player for the spring while defensive back Clayton Fejedelem was named the most improved player on defense and Tito Odenigbo, a redshirt freshman defensive end from Centerville, Ohio, was tabbed the defense’s top newcomer.


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