Upon Further Review: 'We're all pressing'

Upon Further Review: 'We're all pressing'

First impressions

— Illinois' first drive Saturday against Indiana? Three plays for five yards and a punt.

That trend continued throughout the first half. The Illini had the ball seven times. Blake Hayes punted seven times. Five of those punts came on three-and-outs by the Illini offense.

Illinois showed again why its one of the lowest scoring offenses in the country.

"We're not a good football team right now," Illinois coach Love Smith said. "It's kind of simple as that. Offensively, it's tough duty when you can't run the football and when you pass they can get that type of pressure."

— The second half started on a much better note for the Illini. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Jeff George Jr. connected with freshman tight end Louis Dorsey for a 77-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the third quarter.

"We felt like we had to come out fast," George said. "We were not doing what we needed to do in the first half — mistakes all around. We knew we had to come out with a spark."

— Caleb Reams began his Illinois career as a tight end. Injuries to multiple Illini receivers, however, have seen the Gurnee native lined up out wide the past two games. He matched his two career receptions last season with two against the Hoosiers, including a 14-yard touchdown reception — the first of his career — in the second half.

Not having Mikey Dudek and Malik Turner at wide receiver afforded Reams his increased opportunity, but he credited them both for helping him learn the new position.

"Not too many guys better you can learn from," Reams said. "It kind of speaks for itself. Mikey and Malik are unreal players. I love watching them play and learning from them. They make me a better player every day."

Second guessing

— Saturday's game wasn't the first time this season that Illinois committed the mistake of having 12 men on the field on defense. Two weeks ago against No. 5 Wisconsin, it gave the Badgers a free first down — one they ultimately turned into the first touchdown of their 24-10 victory.

Against Indiana, the Illini got the timeout called before they could be flagged. It immediately followed the timeout Smith had just called, burning one late in the second half of a close game.

Not ideal.

"Bad coaching on our part," Smith said. "Simple as that. We called time because we had too many guys on the field. That's on us, on me."

Third degree

— The advent of Illinois' two-quarterback system coincided with a decrease in turnover frequency for George with just one fumble lost (against Wisconsin) and one interception thrown (against Purdue) in the past three games.

George's ball security didn't reach that level Saturday. He fumbled twice, simply dropping the ball the first time but falling on it and getting it punched out for a turnover on the second. He also threw two second-half interceptions in the final 3 minutes, 50 seconds of the game.

"We're all pressing," Smith said. "When you've lost as many as we have, you need to press. Press hard, but be a little bit smarter about it.

"It's still about protecting that ball — ball security. Even when we're scrambling, we have to protect the ball. Those were big turnovers."

George said he didn't feel like he was pressing.

"I'm just playing my game," George said. "I'm trying to do the best I can. I'm going to keep slinging it."

Fourth estate

Illinois has tried just about everything at quarterback this season. Chayce Crouch for a few games as starter. Then George. Then George splitting snaps with Cam Thomas. Then Thomas getting the bulk of them.

Saturday was back to George with Thomas out for the game. The Illini are still trying to get that position right.

Former Illinois linebacker J Leman — on the call Saturday for BTN as an analyst — expressed some frustration watching the Illini quarterbacks.

"It seems like you turn on the TV and everybody else has got a quarterback that can throw the ball somewhat," Leman said.

In Thomas, though, Leman sees the quarterback of the future at Illinois.

"He's got the length, he's got a big-time arm (and) he can obviously run," Leman said. "He's got all the stuff you want as far as talent wise. He's very raw as a passer. I talked to (Illinois offensive coordinator) Garrick McGee and he said (Thomas) actually checked out of stuff and checked out of plays three or four times (at Purdue). ... I think Cam Thomas is the quarterback of the future unless somebody else came in behind him and was better."

Five burning questions

1. Will Dudek play this season? Smith doesn't seem too positive that the redshirt junior wide receiver will return for either of the final two games. This season has simply turned into another disappointing chapter of Dudek's Illini career through no fault of his own. He's the epitome of bad luck in regard to injuries.

2. Does George see playing time if Thomas returns next week? George's snaps took a significant hit at Purdue, with most coming when Thomas was injured and taken out of the game. If the freshman quarterback can go against the Buckeyes, he gets 95 percent of the snaps.

3. Which Illini defensive player gets the next takeaway? Bennett Williams. As long as he avoids breaking more team rules and gets on the field. His ball-hawk skills make him an interception candidate, and he's shown he can be physical playing up in the box.

4. Does Blake Hayes break Illinois' record for punts in a game? Doubtful, considering the record stands at 18. As bogged down as the Illinois offense was in the first half against Indiana, he only punted seven times.

5. Will the Illini win again this season? All signs are trending toward no. Playing on the road against an Ohio State team looking to somehow wind its way back into the College Football Playoff picture (maybe not possible) doesn't bode well for at least next week. The finale against Northwestern? Maybe.