Tate: D must get up to speed, and quick
When Matt Carpenter was confused about the bunt sign last weekend, he called time and met Cardinals third base coach Jose Oquendo along the third base line for clarification.
Tim Banks' Illini defenders won't have that kind of time to get their signals straight Saturday night against Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs like to machine-gun plays in rapid-fire tempo. They ripped Rice 56-37 last weekend after outscoring Houston 56-49 in a contest that set the NCAA record for most plays, 118.
Recent Illini games have ended in 3 hours, 10 minutes. The game at Houston went 4:08. Take an afternoon nap.
"In watching film, it's obvious Louisiana Tech called multiple plays in advance," UI star Ashante Williams said. "They lined up in the same formation (without a huddle) and ran the same play three straight times. We have to get our sideline signals fast so that we're all on the same page. I've been here five years and I haven't seen anything like this (tempo) in previous years. Even when Louisiana Tech subs, they'll hike the ball just as the departing players reach the sideline. As a defender, you have to keeping hustling and thinking."
Western Michigan used a speedy no-huddle tempo. Then Arizona State turned it up a notch in shocking a proud UI defense, 45-14. Coach Tim Beckman repeated Monday that the Illini were "confused" for only the first four plays in Tempe. He was referring to a mixup related to early scripted plays. But as tackle Akeem Spence said last week, and as Williams and end Michael Buchanan reiterated Monday, there were missed communications throughout that game. In some cases, the players were blocked from the sideline and didn't see the coaches clearly. Others were mistaken in picking out the "hot" signal caller.
"We weren't always on the same page," Buchanan said. "We simplified and got everything resolved against Charleston Southern. It's important for everyone to get their eyes quickly on the sideline and get the signal. Our new color system helps."
Williams, tied with linebacker Jonathan Brown for the team lead in tackles (20), explained:
"We have instituted color cards (eight colors) to tell us the front and the formation. When the plays are coming so fast, that makes it better for everyone. We really dropped the ball at Arizona State. This is our chance to redeem ourselves."
The hope here is that confusion and blown coverages, rather than a lack of talent, were responsible for the breakdowns in Tempe. Confusion can presumably be corrected.
"Tempo is the big thing in college football nowadays," Beckman said. "When you run plays fast, it limits the adjustments that the defense can make.
"At Toledo, we were building toward this and, no question, we'd like to do it at Illinois. But it depends on your personnel. Louisiana Tech has a senior quarterback (Californian Colby Cameron), four returning senior linemen, and a senior Biletnikoff candidate at receiver (Quinton Patton, 79 catches last season). They've been doing this for three years. They've become very good at it.
"When they send in subs, the official stands over the ball and there's time for the defense to substitute. But when they're moving fast, you can't make many adjustments."
Beckman seemed more concerned about two other aspects: (1) tackling marked by strong pursuit and (2) making the right secondary keys to cover receivers running through the zones.
"Louisiana Tech's running backs and receivers made tremendous yardage after contact against Rice," he said. "It still comes down to tackling."
— Freshman linebacker Mason Monheim earned Defensive Player of the Week honors, while senior receiver Ryan Lankford got the offensive award. Sharing special teams honors were kicker Taylor Zalewski and defensive back Tommy Davis.
— Beckman insisted that the nature of last Saturday's opponent had nothing to do with players being withheld. He said: "If they are cleared, they will play. We will always play the best 11."
— Those who questioned my reference to "Illini football buzz" as weakest since 1970 (end of the Jim Valek era) point to the late-Turner, early-Zook years when a 2-win, 30-loss record in Big Ten play chased fans away. The UI sold only about 22,000 season tickets in that period, as opposed to roughly 35,000 now. Clever marketing has boosted the current sales, but the cumulative effect of mediocre seasons has taken a heavy toll. The next two home games will reveal a great deal, both in actual attendance and team performance.
— Louisiana Tech has scored 16 touchdowns and no field goals in producing 112 points in two games, and is 14 for 14 in the red zone. Tech leads the nation in the latter category. At the same time, the Bulldogs have permitted 86 points.
— How's this for a crazy league? The Western Athletic Conference, having lost Nevada, Fresno State and Hawaii, is temporarily composed of Louisiana Tech, Idaho, New Mexico State, San Jose State, Texas State, UT-San Antonio and Utah State. Bulldogs coach Sonny Dykes said it's "impossible" to get recognition against LSU in the home state, but a win against a team like Illinois "would put us on the map more than a championship in a conference as maligned as the WAC." Tech will be moving to Conference USA.
— Early odds made Illinois a one-point favorite.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.