Tate: UI defense better be quick study
Denard Robinson ran for 235 yards in Michigan’s 44-13 romp Saturday at Purdue. At the
midway point of his senior
season, the fleet quarterback has rushed for 3,905 yards and 39 touchdowns while passing
for 5,873 yards and 47 touchdowns.
Everything else about Illinois’ invasion of Michigan’s Big House pales in comparison to the job of limiting the Wolverine superstar ... maybe like 30 yards rushing and 92 passing, his numbers last year at Memorial Stadium ... even though Michigan won 31-14.
“He’s a challenge,” Illini linebacker Jonathan Brown said Monday. “He goes from zero to 60 in a hurry. When he’s in front of you, you
have to make the tackle, and that’s the hard part.”
UI end Michael Buchanan expressed similar concerns: “He’s so explosive. We have to keep our eyes in the right place and close down the rushing lanes. Discipline is the key, for both the line and the guys (safeties) on the back end.
“You can’t emulate him in practice. We don’t have anyone of that caliber from an athletic standpoint. But we’re up for the challenge. We came out fired up at Wisconsin, but we didn’t finish. We played three strong quarters (trailing 10-7), and I think that helped our confidence. We just didn’t finish.”
Why not? What happened after Terry Hawthorne suffered an apparent concussion and was removed in an ambulance?
Said Brown: “For three quarters, everybody executed on defense, and we showed how dominant we can be. Then it was one mistake after another. Our doors got blown off.”
Wisconsin scored three TDs in the last 14 minutes, two on bursts by Montee Ball and the other on a 59-yard reception by Jared Abbrederis to win 31-14.
“Abbrederis got open on a play-action fake,” UI safety Steve Hull said. “We expected a lot of Montee Ball when they got ahead, and Abbrederis got behind us. We played three quarters of precision defense, and they took advantage of our late mistakes. We can build on those three quarters.”
You ask why Illini fans are expecting the worst. It should be obvious. Here we are,
knee-deep in another football nosedive that is all too familiar. If the Illini lose Saturday at Michigan — they’re 21-point underdogs — it will mark the 11th time in 17 seasons that they lost at least three in a row in Big Ten play. In other words, it is more common than otherwise.
Fact is, the Illini lost all eight in 1997, 2003 and 2005, and they lost six straight in 1996, 2004, 2006 and last season.
At some point, it is asking too much for fans to remain positive. Cub fans keep smiling through repeated failures, but Illini fans tend to lose hope.
For kicks, I scanned USA Today’s coaches poll, which has no Big Ten teams in the Top 25, to see if I could pinpoint 10 schools with no clear advantages over Illinois. OK, maybe some have easier transfer rules for junior college transfers. But what I’m considering are overall resources, tradition and drawing power.
This won’t be perfect. But I don’t see where Kansas State has any advantage whatsoever. Or Iowa State. Or Louisiana Tech. Or Boise State, Cincinnati, Rutgers, Mississippi State, Louisville, Oregon State and West Virginia. That’s 10.
So, yes, it can be done. We see major achievements elsewhere every day. It may be understandable that programs like Cincinnati and Louisville have lengthy basketball runs — it takes fewer players — but they shouldn’t be repeatedly better than the state university of Illinois in football.
What we’ve seen in 21-plus seasons, dating to and including the last year of John Mackovic’s regime, amounts to a 103-148 record. And any reasonable person who analyzes UI personnel for next season (and analyzing the schedule) would conclude that it’s likely to get worse before it gets better.
Illini football tidbits
— Friday’s team-only meeting in Madison, Wis., seemed to have a positive effect, Buchanan saying: “We didn’t call anyone out. We just talked about all the hard work we put in during the offseason and to not beat ourselves with mistakes. We got some things off our chest, and
I think we responded. But we didn’t finish.”
— UI coach Tim Beckman, somewhat embarrassed by his tobacco faux pas, discussed the pregame incident with athletic director Mike Thomas and promised there’ll be no more chewing incidents. He said: “It’s a terrible habit, and it won’t happen again.”
— Graham Pocic started at tackle but spent most of Saturday’s game at his old position, center. Darius Millines returned to catch five passes.
— Hawthorne is back with the squad this week, but he’ll have to pass concussion tests to determine whether he can play at Michigan. The secondary is in week-to-week upheaval, much like the offensive line. Veteran safety Supo Sanni participated for the first time against Penn State but did not play at Wisconsin. Hull missed Penn State and returned to make an interception that set up the UI’s first TD at Wisconsin.
— Lack of consistent pass protection for Nathan Scheelhaase has Beckman considering a game plan to keep more blockers in and fewer receivers out. Said Beckman: “Michigan isn’t flashy but has an aggressive defense, and we need to give Nathan more time. We want our quarterbacks to be comfortable throwing the ball, and there’s too much pressure and too many sacks.”
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.