Illinois will play host to Ohio State on Saturday with a perhaps surprising shot at bowl eligibility if the Fighting Illini can knock off the defending national champions. We take a look at what the Fighting Illini do well and where they have struggled this season.
Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt kind of reminds me of a less-polished Nate Sudfeld: Big, strong pocket passer who can move around enough to keep plays alive.
He has a good arm — not overwhelmingly strong but above average — with decent accuracy. Not outstanding but good enough to get the job done if he had playmakers at receiver. But he doesn’t.
Geronimo Alison is a very productive player, but that’s kind of a product of the scheme. He seems to be the only healthy reliable option so they find ways to get him the ball. He’s a big, athletic guy who can win one-on-one matchups but isn’t going to run away from anyone. Nobody else has more than 300 yards receiving on the season.
As such, Illinois is a great example of how pass-based spread schemes can be both freeing and limiting.
I guess it’s better than being smashed at the point of attack on every play if you don’t have the personnel to line up and be effective as a two-back “pro-style” team (more on this later), but if you don’t have guys who can win one-on-one matchups outside it really doesn’t do much for you other than look more modern.
Spreading people out can create a little more space to open up some short gains, but the rubber still has to meet the road at some point, and Illinois is pretty much drawn dead when it comes to third down because then they (likely) have to protect longer and no one can get open or break a tackle if they do catch the ball short of the sticks.
All that said, it’s no coincidence Illinois broke out offensively last week in a game that Josh Ferguson played.
Facing a talent-deficient Purdue defense helped, of course, but Ferguson is by far Illinois’ biggest difference-maker. He is a versatile, experienced talent who can hurt a defense from a lot of different places on the field. He will be a sleeper in the NFL draft next spring.
Ferguson is put together pretty well for 5-10, 195, and is very elusive. He runs with good balance and strength. Can make people miss in the open field and run through arm tackles in tight quarters. He’s also been a valuable part of the passing game all four years in Champaign and opens up a lot of things for the Illini.
I watched them against Nebraska and Penn State and kept waiting for someone to make something happen without an injured Ferguson, and no one ever really did.
Purdue was a much different story. Again, Purdue is bad, but Nebraska’s defense is poor as well and there’s a big difference between scoring 48 and 14 — not to mention getting shut out by Penn State. Not that I would have expected them to hang a big number on the Nittany Lions, but they showed virtually no life in that game. They were basically playing with one hand tied behind their back because they had no running game or anyone who could turn a short gain into a big one.
(An interesting aside: When Illinois actually got in the I-formation they had some success against Purdue. One wonders if that could be explored more before the Illini take on the Buckeyes.)
Ferguson can move the chains now and then, pick up enough yards on early downs to give them a better chance on third down and provide chunk plays that are usually essential to getting points out of a drive whether they go the distance or not.
Illinois will try to get him the ball in any way possible, including inside handoffs, sweeps and screens of all varieties.
Freshman Ke’Shawn Vaughn played a lot in Ferguson’s absence and didn’t show much outstanding against the Cornhuskers or the Nittany Lions but had a big day against Purdue. He’s got the same body type as Ferguson but lacks his wiggle.
The offensive line has been awful per Football Outsiders advanced numbers, but it looked fairly solid in the games I watched. Nothing to write home about, but not a liability like Penn State. The Illini held their own fairly well against a great Penn State defensive line.
Illinois’ main weapon is the quick passing game, so they get the ball out fast and minimize how much they ask of the line as far as pass protection.
But the inability of anyone aside from Ferguson to break a tackle (or even get open regularly) severely hampers the effectiveness of the attack overall.
The Illinois defense kind of mirrors the offense in that it lacks outside playmakers.
Safety Clayton Fejedelem is an aggressive, down-hill player who can be a weapon against the run. Aside from senior V’Angelo Bentley, who is undersized but a battler, none of the Illini stand out in coverage, but overall they have put up good numbers against the pass as a unit.
Moving up a level, middle linebacker T.J. Neal Jr. is a stud. He runs very well, plays with good instincts, finds the ball and tackles well. He really stands out when you watch the Fighting Illini defense.
Neal is second on the team in tackles (75) and tackles for loss (tied with 9.5), and he is able to hang with backs and tight ends in coverage as well.
It helps that Neal plays being a very good defensive line.
Illinois has three good inside guys sharing time in Jihad Ward, Rob Bain and Chunky Clements. They all go 290 to 300 and are good athletes. Ward in particular is a standout. At 6-6 he is long and good at shedding blockers and making plays inside. He’s also good in pursuit. Shows up a lot when you watch them. Clements is a big guy who kind of wows you with the way he moves.
The biggest star of the unit is “leo” end Dwaine Smoot, though. A 6-3, 270-pound junior, he’s a disruptive force who holds up well in space and is a very good pass rusher. He can set the edge against the run and leads the team with 12.5 tackles and six sacks.
A look at the Illinois advanced stat profile shows a team that has been pretty good at stopping the run on a play-to-play basis but only average at preventing big plays on the ground.
The Illini’s passing S&P+ (which is similar to OBP in baseball) is a surprising 10th in the country as they have been pretty good at limiting short gains but below average in stopping big plays through the air.
The defense has been pretty good at finishing drives while the offense has not.
Also worth noting: The defense has been very good in the first half but less so in the second, and the third quarter has been the best quarter for the offense.