If 3-3 is an undeniable improvement over 2-10, why all the renewed grumbling about the Illini football team?
Is this loser’s fatigue setting in? Or are complaints reasonable?
I know the answer, but first let me point out:
(1) Special teams are vastly better with good coverage and the UI punter, Justin DuVernois, averaging 40.8 yards. V’Angelo Bentley, who may miss this week, is averaging 30.8 yards on 10 kickoff returns to lead the Big Ten.
(2) Compared to last year’s 16.7-point output, Bill Cubit has the offense perking along at 35.3 with Nathan Scheelhaase on a 3,000-yard pace and tripling his TD passes from 4 to 12 in half a season. The tight ends have seven TD scores, and Josh Ferguson continues to lead the nation’s running backs in reception yardage (346).
So if we’re going to have a reasonable discussion, accept the fact that two of three phases — special teams and offense — have been upgraded.
As for the defense, that’s another story.
And the reason fans are so flustered is because there appears to be no immediate solution. Tim Banks’ unit is permitting 6.5 yards per play and ranks No. 104 in allowing 455.7 yards per game. This is doubly concerning when you see Michigan State arriving Saturday as No. 1 in rush defense (59.1) and No. 4 in pass defense (168.9).
Stop the bleeding
Here’s the problem.
If Cubit sees that the Illini can’t run the football, he can change course and take to the air to avoid the mismatches in the trenches. They’ve passed for more than 300 yards four times this season and produced four TDs against a Badger defense that allowed none to Northwestern the week before.
Strategically, you can’t hide a weakness on defense. If you’re unable to stop the run, opponents will simply run you into the ground. And that’s what happened in the losses to Washington (34-24), Nebraska (39-19) and Wisconsin (56-32). Oh, sure, they passed the ball too. But the Illini become so helplessly conscious of the run that they are easy pickings in the secondary.
The numbers are frightful. If, as Bears coach Marc Trestman emphasizes, turnovers are a key statistic in close games, the Illini are shamefully shy in that department. They show four fumble recoveries and one interception in six games. That’s one pick by Taylor Barton and 11 breakups in 174 opposing passes. Only two other teams in the country have as few as one interception. Missouri has 14, and Northwestern 13.
The Illini are weak at the line of scrimmage. A club that ranked No. 9 in sacks in 2011 has five so far, three of them by linebackers. Less than one per game.
UI junior tackle Jake Howe has started six games and has no solo tackles (12 assists). Wisconsin so shredded the line Saturday that four of the UI’s five tackle leaders were the safeties and cornerbacks. Juco transfer Zane Petty, who started in place of Barton, was credited with 14 stops.
Tim Beckman recognizes the problem, addressing it Tuesday.
“We expected to be better offensively with the number of starters returning,” he said. “The defense is not where we want it to be. We’re trying things. We blitzed on 27 of 36 plays in the second half Saturday. We’re trying to get the ball back for our offense.”
Beckman was so upset that he refused to give passing grades to anyone on either side of the ball.
“We are getting doubled and washed up, and we’re losing gap control,” he said. “I coach the corners and part of our problem was what Wisconsin did, but our guys didn’t play very well, and our open-field tackling continues to be a problem.”
Fingers are being pointed at Banks but, to be fair, most of his athletes are overmatched. My criticism of Banks reverts to last season when the team had communication problems at Arizona State and never fully recovered.
That 2012 unit had plenty of experience and had known a degree of success: Of 16 players who started at least once on a 2011 club that finished No. 7 nationally in total defense, 12 returned. Of those 12, up-front warriors Akeem Spence, Glenn Foster and Michael Buchanan are now on NFL rosters as rookies.
But they slipped to No. 53 defensively last season, giving up 45 or more points on five occasions.
What is to be done now? That’s easy: Resist the urge to panic. Play out the string, make an evaluation and come to a decision. There are winnable games remaining. Let’s see what happens.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.