Breaking Down The Fighting Illini: Illinois Football Preview
This Saturday the 4-3 (1-2 B1G) Fighting Illini will head into State College to take on the scrappy 6-2 (3-1 B1G) Nittany Lions. Illinois will come in with its best defense in years, as well as one of the best offensive lines in the Big Ten and in Fighting Illini football history. The highly skilled, disciplined, and most importantly veteran offensive line of the Fighting Illini leads the team both in the locker room as well as on the field through its impressive play time and time again. The impressive play of the offensive line has allowed for the Illinois pass game to develop into a formidable attack, as it is now clocked in as the 37th best in the nation. The Fighting Illini have improved mightily in every facet of their game since last year, and it is continuously showing in their play. Although they are dragging with three losses on the year, two thirds of the losses were to formidable Big Ten opponents in close margins, including the unexpected and shockingly brilliant Iowa Hawkeyes. The Nittany Lions will take on one of the best Fighting Illini teams in years, and will have to put together a complete game over four quarters to put the resilient Illinois team away. Here’s a detailed breakdown of the Fighting Illini football team:
Like I’ve said before, it all starts up front. As a former offensive lineman, many people don’t pay much mind to an offensive line unless they’re giving up TFLs or sacks, but when a team has a blazing offense it often goes unnoticed by the average fan how pivotal the offensive line is. The Illini offensive line is the difference maker because it is tough, plain and simple. These guys battle it out in the trenches every single play, and most importantly they execute while maintaining that chip on their shoulder.
The run game, while appearing lackluster on paper, has been so largely in part because of injuries. Senior Josh Ferguson looked to give the Illini the spark they needed at running back, but he went down against Nebraska three weeks ago and is out of action this weekend. Far from a physically dominant back, Ferguson was the perfect fit for the Illini offense because he possesses great vision and patience while using his superior speed. When I say the Illini run attack is below average, it has little to do with the offensive line, as it has consistently paved the road for rushers to get solid yards. The pass game, however, is quite formidable. Wes Lunt is taking the snaps at quarterback for the Illini, and he has certainly impressed scouts with his throwing talent. Poised to be one of the better gunslingers in the Big Ten, Lunt has already thrown for 1,700 pass yards this season on a solid 57.2 completion percentage. The receiving core of the Illini team plays in flashes, but once these athletic guys get going, they can be tough to stop.
What has hurt the Nittany Lions the most this season is mobile quarterbacks. Penn State’s rugged defense allowed 900 yards and 68 points to Ohio State and Maryland, two teams with mobile quarterbacks who ate up yardage with their ability to scramble. This week the Fighting Illini come in with Lunt, who has rushed for -61 yards on nine attempts this season. The Fighting Illini have a hard-nosed offensive line that leads their gritty offense, and they head into Happy Valley averaging just about 27 points per game. Here’s some highlights of the tough Illini Offense that is one of the better ones in recent memory:
The Illinois defense is also one of the best ones in recent memory for the Fighting Illini. The unit jumped from being No. 112 in defensive standings the past two seasons all the way up to the No. 33 slot. This jump can be accounted for because of the coaching improvement as well as the development of defensive cohesion. The defensive squad plays with a big chip on its shoulder, as well as a physical repertoire. The unit is strong, fast, and hardly gets gassed by hurry-up offenses. At times the Illini will have a momentary lapse in focus or communication, but they have came out every game this season and competed with opponents until the game clock had four zeros on it. It may lack discipline at times, but this tight-knit unit plays from a team mentality, and with its surplus of depth (particularly in the secondary), players have accepted specific roles on the defensive side of the ball. The defense is far from a championship defense, but it is a Big Ten defense that will come out, fly around, and compete with any offense it faces.
Another Big Ten opponent means another solid opponent on the special teams side of the ball. The Illini kicker Taylor Zalewski has made 21 of his 21 attempted extra points this year as well as 10 of his 15 field goals. The punting game for the Illini is fairly standard and competent, but luckily for Illini fans, it has some consistency (cough, cough). The Fighting Illini have a solid return game, but nothing particularly electric. As with most Big Ten teams, if you play complacently on special teams, they’ll capitalize.
Head coach Tim Beckman was fired just prior to the start of the season, and it has been a blessing in disguise for the Fighting Illini. Beckman was allegedly not reporting player injuries, but that is only where the list begins. Players were claiming the coach wouldn’t let them leave school for any reason, and in one case a player alleged he was screamed at and told no when asking to see his mother who was sick with cancer at the time. The allegations went under investigation, and the ultimate result was the firing of Tim Beckman. Under Beckman the Fighting Illinois not only lacked a respectable team culture, but they weren’t even close to playing to the teams full potential. The team hired Bill Cubit, a defensive strategist, to head the Illini. Since coming in, Cubit has improved the culture and stats of the Fighting Illini in an almost day-and-night fashion.
The Fighting Illini have a squad that has drastically improved across the board, and the leaders of the change have been the coaching, as well as the offensive line. The team will head into a Halloween and purple-out game in Beaver Stadium, and the atmosphere is sure to be electric as its been a long two weeks since we’ve had the chance to erupt out in Zombie Nation cheers to a touchdown. The game will be an interesting showdown, and how it will play out will rely largely on the backs of the Penn State offense.