Well it sure feels good to be back to winning games again. Even though Illinois is a pretty downtrodden team this season, it's a game a lot of people picked us to lose when the year began, and any win on the road in the Big Ten is a good win. It's a little disappointing that the defense gave up 17 points after Ohio State shut out the Illini last week, but Illinois two touchdowns came in the fourth quarter when the game was well in hand and Joe Paterno had called off the dogs. So overall I'm pleased with the performance. Let's grade out the defense.
When you play a team like Illinois the challenge for the defensive line is to stick with their assignments. The Illini try to trick you and fake you with counters and fake handoffs and zone read options. I thought the defensive line did a fantastic job. Illinois only managed 130 yards and averaged 3.7 yards per carry. Juice was the leading rusher with 81 yards, so every time Dufrene got the ball he didn't get far.
The defensive ends were outstanding. Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore did a fantastic job of containing the outside runs and forcing Juice to keep the ball on the zone reads where he got gobbled up by the defensive tackles and linebackers. Crawford and Latimore each got a sack in the game, and when they got pulled late in the second half the true freshman Sean Stanley came in and made a fantastic play swatting the ball out of Juice's hand for a Penn State fumble recovery. The defensive ends are coming along quite nicely.
The defensive tackles were unnoticeable, but they ate up blockers and allowed the linebackers to roam free and make plays.
Final Grade: A
Navorro Bowman and Josh Hull played well. It looked to me like Illinois didn't want anything to do with Bowman and was running away from his direction most of the day. But he still managed to get seven tackles and a TFL. Josh Hull was great in the running game as usual. But I still think he's a liability in the passing game. Bradley sent him on a lot of blitzes. He got there once or twice, but for the most part they were ineffective and he either got gobbled up by a guard or cut down by a running back. Illinois had success attacking the medium-deep middle over the linebackers and under the safeties just like everyone else has. This part of the defense has to tighten up. But Hull and Bowman were monsters in defending Illinois' wide receiver screen plays.
Both guys did a good job of containing Juice when he decided to run, which was often. It looked like Bowman was assigned as a spy when Illinois was in long distance situations where they had to pass. There were a few times when Juice got flushed out of the pocket and Bowman made a nice open field tackle to bring him down short of the sticks.
The third linebacker spot was a platoon of Bani Gbadyu and Nate Stupar. Neither one played particularly well. In the first quarter Gbadyu was getting shoved out of the way by Arrelious Benn which allowed Illinois to get some nice running plays. So he got pulled in favor of Stupar who did slightly better. But neither guy was great. We're really missing Sean Lee.
For the most part the secondary did a good job. Juice managed 263 yards passing and a touchdown, but a lot of that came in garbage time. Benn was relatively contained to 96 yards on five catches.
D'Anton Lynn and Stephon Morris continue to impress me at cornerback. Lynn was fantastic in fighting through blocks to stop a few wide receiver screens. Morris was challenged a few times and came up big each time. He also had the interception just before the half that he nearly ran back 100 yards. Again, Illinois had their success in the passing game by attacking the linebackers and safeties. The corners are doing just fine.
The safeties definitely have to tighten up. Sukay was slow to rotate on Juice's touchdown pass, and then he finished it off by drawing a personal foul for a helmet to helmet hit. The Big Ten is really frowning on these this year, so we'll see if there is a suspension coming later in the week. Given the opponent next weekend, I bet the conference tries to make a statement while not really hurting Penn State that badly. It was a vicious hit, and I can understand if the conference penalizes him, but I hope they'll also look at the hit Daryll Clark took earlier in the game. After a scramble Clark went down and an Illinois defender came flying in after Clark was on the ground and speared him in the back with his helmet. It was clearly a play designed to injure the opponent. Clark got up in visible pain in either his back or shoulder. If Sukay gets suspended, I hope the Big Ten will look at that play too.
Final Grade: B
Some good, some bad this week. The kickoff returns continue to look anemic. A.J. Wallce got a look today with Devon Smith recovering from a concussion. On two kickoff returns he got a total of 21 yards. Neither return got past the 15 yard line. One return was just a boneheaded decision by Wallace who ran it out of the endzone. The other looked to me like the wedge set up and took off way too early allowing the Illinois gunners to run in untouched to make the play.
Jeremy Boone was amazing...again. Average of 49.5 yards with a long of 66 and two kicks pinned inside the 20. Ho hum. There was one close call though where another punt was almost blocked. Boone rushed to get it away and Illinois got a touchback out of it. This has to get fixed. Every team going forward is going to be coming after us considering the past two games.
Wagner didn't get any field goal attempts, but it looks to me like he has changed something on the kickoffs. He just looked like he's getting more hangtime this week and it helped the coverage team tremendously. Benn had one nice return for 33 yards, but four of the other five returns were held under 20 yards.
Nothing special in the punt return game as usual. We're just fair catching everything this year, and Royster almost blew that with a muffed catch that he was fortunate to recover.
Final Grade: B-
It's hard to complain about much here. The Illinois offense was pretty ineffective, but not as ineffective as when they played Ohio State. Like I said before, defending an option team like Illinois is about knowing your assignments, and in that regard the players were very well prepared. Illinois couldn't find any big holes to exploit in the running game.
But in the passing game I will continue to rail against the Cover 3 until things change. I hate it with the passion of a thousand suns. It's not that it's a bad defense, it's just that I get sick of seeing it on every 2nd and 10 or 3rd and 7. I've never played a down of organized football in my life, but I can sit on my couch and see they are in Cover 3 before the snap, so I'm sure the quarterback sees it too, and I'm sure the offensive coordinator has already called a play to exploit it. Illinois did so all day connecting on multiple medium range throws underneath the safeties. Ricky Stanzi picked us apart last week picking up eight or nine yards on every second and long situation.
For the love of God, please mix it up. I understand the bend-don't-break-defense. Make your opponent use eight or nine plays to march down the field. The more plays you can force, the more likely they are to make a mistake. And the more time they consume in moving the ball is less time they have to score. But come on, do we have to just GIVE THEM YARDS?
Like I said last week, Paterno needs to be commended for changing the offense in 2005 into the dynamic Spread HD we see today. He realized that four yards and a cloud of dust just doesn't cut it anymore if you hope to be a champion. But he still hasn't figured out that defenses have changed too. It's no longer about sitting back and reacting to what your opponent does. The nasty defenses today are the ones that attack and force the offense out of what they want to do. I see signs of it here and there with a corner blitz or an occassional man-to-man, but we need more of it. Keep the offense guessing just like our offense does to their opposing defense.
I won't be satisfied until we beat ever opponent 65-0.
Final Grade: B