Special teams’ blunders fuel another Illini loss

By By: Stephen Bourbon

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — In a 52-35 loss to Indiana Saturday, the Illinois football team had multiple blunders on special teams that contributed to the Illini’s 19th consecutive Big Ten loss.

On the opening drive against Indiana, the Illini had a chance to cash in on a productive drive and faced a fourth-and-3 from the Indiana 33-yard line. With the wind in their faces, the Illini chose not to try a field goal or even try and gain a first down, but punted. Punter Justin DuVernois hit a low line drive that bounced away from the Illini coverage unit and rolled into the end zone for a touchback for a net of 13 yards on the punt.

“I think any player that doesn’t want to be out there trying to convert probably shouldn’t be playing this game,” quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. “Obviously there’s an inner competitor, but you want to do what’s best for the team.”

Later in the game, facing a similar situation with a fourth-and-3 from the Indiana 40-yard line, the Illini elected to try their luck by going for it instead of punting. Backup quarterback Aaron Bailey kept the ball on a designed running play but couldn’t get past his own linemen for no gain and the Illini turned the ball over on downs.

Illinois again went aggressive in its playcalling midway through the fourth quarter. Having surrendered 523 yards with more than 11 minutes to play in the game, the Illini elected for a fake punt from its own 37-yard line. DuVernois faked a handoff going to the right and rolled out to his left. Tight end Evan Wilson was running a drag route in the same direction, but the punter’s pass didn’t reach its target, falling short.

Even if Wilson had come up with the catch, he still needed significant yards after the catch in order to convert the fourth-and-10.

After the failed trickery, the Illini defense provided no relief, as Indiana running back Stephen Houston pounded the ball through the line on the second play to make the score 49-35.

Even with the struggles of the punt unit, the normally reliable kickoff return squad was also ineffective. Despite V’Angelo Bentley returning from an ankle injury — his 30.8 yards per kick return ranks fourth in the country — the Illini averaged just 16 yards per return and three penalties on returns consistently backed up the Illinois offense.

“Crazy,” head coach Tim Beckman said of the return penalties. “You obviously don’t want your offense starting inside its own 20 regardless of who you’re playing against. You can’t make those kinds of penalties and put your offense in situations that are tough to get out of.”  

Stephen can be reached at [email protected] and @steve_bourbon.