Grading the Illinois football team after its loss to Nebraska


Quentin Shaw

Illinois running back Kendrick Foster scores a touchdown against North Carolina at Memorial Stadium on Sept. 10.

Editor’s note: The Daily Illini football writers graded each facet of the Illinois football team’s 31-16 loss to Nebraska on Saturday. The Illini offense, defense, special teams and coaching were graded.

Offense: C+

Coming out of the bye week, the Illinois offense made some adjustments and those paid off in spurts. Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee executed a conservative, run-first gameplan that saw some success in the Illini’s 13-point second quarter. Sophomore running back Reggie Corbin made his first career start and piled up career highs in carries (9) and rushing yards (72). Kendrick Foster had Illinois’ big play of the game with a 31-yard TD run for the team’s only end zone find of the day.
The refreshed running game was the highlight in an otherwise flat offensive performance. Quarterback Wes Lunt managed just 133 yards through the air and struggled to maintain drives — the Illini were 2-for-9 on third down conversions. While Foster and Corbin were impressive, presumed starter Ke’Shawn Vaughn had one yard on one carry despite no apparent injuries.
Defense: B-
Head coach Lovie Smith wants nothing more than takeaways on defense and he finally got some against Nebraska. Senior defensive back Darius Mosely nabbed his first career interception, which led to a field goal in Illinois’ momentum-grabbing second quarter. Less than two minutes into the second half, sophomore linebacker Tre Watson forced a Nebraska fumble, leading to another Illinois field goal and 16-10 lead.
Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong’s dual threat prowess was a focus heading into Week Five, and the Illinois defense held him to just 12 rushing yards on eight carries. Running back Terrell Newby made it up for it, though, gashing the Illinois defense for 140 yards on the ground.
The defense began to unravel late in the third quarter, though, and once again, penalties were the unit’s Achilles heal. A third down horse-collar penalty on senior defensive lineman Chunky Clements kept a 10-minute Nebraska drive alive. That drive proved to be crucial, especially since the Illinois offense couldn’t respond long enough to give the defense a chance to catch its breath. The Cornhuskers scored 21 unanswered in the fourth quarter alone.
Special teams: B
Chase McLaughlin’s performance was worthy of the game ball on Saturday. The sophomore kicker went 3-for-3 on field goal attempts, including a 43-yarder to give the Illini a 13-10 lead heading into halftime. He remains perfect on fields goals and extra points this season.
Punter Ryan Frain returned to his starting role after missing two weeks due to a bicycle accident. He failed to pin the Cornhuskers deep on his final punt, allowing them to start on the Illinois 30 before scoring two plays later to put the Illini down by two scores.
Coaching: C
Smith and company gave some new players chances to step up, and most took advantage of their expanded roles. As previously mentioned, Corbin and Foster looked like backs who deserve more carries, and on defense, redshirt freshman Patrick Nelson led the team with 16 tackles in his first start at safety.
A questionable choice to punt on 4th-and-1 with the Illini down eight and a little over three minutes remaining in the game puts a damper on Smith’s effort. The punt led to Nebraska’s third straight touchdown against a sluggish Illini defense that had just endured a 10-minute and a six-minute drive on their two previous possessions. During his postgame presser, Smith said he didn’t second-guess the decision.