Reflecting On the Illini Loss to Michigan: Harbinger of Doom or Just a Weird Game?
The most important thing to understand about this loss, first and foremost, is that statistical numbers kind of don't mean anything. There were 15 or 16 Illini offensive possessions in regulation, and we scored on half of them. Leshoure did gain over 120 yards and had five touchdowns but scoring in the 60's and still losing kind of minimizes this level of production. Take every bit of yardage, gained and lost from this game, with some context.
It is tough to complain about certain aspects of the offense when the score is so high, but there were some key drops by wide receivers that contributed heavily to the loss. This was a game about making the most out of every possession and trying to keep the game under control. Fred Sykes and others dropped absolutely crucial passes that could have kept some of the eight drives that ended in punt going, many of these after Scheelhaase has survived being chased out of the pocket by Michigan blitzers. These are the catches you need, no excuses.
There are plenty of problems to be had on defense, of course, with tackling being first and foremost. Arm tackles have returned, not out of laziness, mostly because Illini defenders took bad angles to the ball, credit Michigan for this. I don't really consider Roy Roundtree to be as good as his numbers from this game suggest, but Saturday he made us look foolish with his juking and faking. You don't have any choice but to arm tackle when the ball carrier is already behind you or you are over committed to the wrong side.
This also brings us to the largest weakness that this defense has, and has had since the opening game, the still injured secondary and vulnerability to the play fake. Take a look back at the NIU game, their QB Chandler Harnish had 200 yards passing and over 100 yards running, one of the better games that a QB has had against us this year. He got lots of yards off of play fakes, end reads, and pump fakes. We bit on just about every fake he tried and the same is true with Denard Robinson. (Even more evidence: Bolden's long touchdown in week five.)
The difference is, and the major problem on Saturday, was that with Michigan when we bit, we paid dearly, every time. It seemed as though just one missed tackle, one bad angle and the punishment was a touchdown. We were running a contain game most of the day against Denard, and we paid because there was relatively little pressure against him, giving his receivers too much time to get open, and when combined with a play action always were open. The result: 305 PASSING yards from the Nard dog.
There were of course some bright spots. We have continued the trend of taking the ball away from the other team and not giving it back. (Five TO's recovered, to one lost.) Against teams not made out of tiny track stars coated in butter, this will equate to a win.
We will not see another team this offensively talented this season (pending a bowl bid) generally we can improve our decision making in the secondary enough to not give up constant 75 yard bombs, at least I hope not.
The fact that were it not for two freak plays that went Michigan's way, the Illini would have won this game. If Corey Liuget doesn't whiff on Tate Forcier 10 yards deep in the backfield, or if Terry Hawthorne doesn't bat the ball up and into the arms of Daryle Stonum, this game is a victory. Both plays ended up as Michigan touchdowns, and both don't happen that way nine times out of ten.
But in spite of all of this depression, it seems we have discovered the prolific passing Nathan Scheelhaase. He showed great poise in the pocket, out of the pocket and making plays on the fly. Were it not for the previously mentioned drops, this might have been a real coming out party for the RS Freshman. This is only his ninth game played, and he is already better at pin point passing in the short field than Juice ever was. I can't wait to see how much better he can get.
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