Grading Illinois football’s win over Ball State

Quarterback+Chayce+Crouch+celebrates+with+his+teammates+after+completing+a+two+point+conversion+in+the+fourth+quarter.+The+Illini+won+24-21.

Quentin Shaw

Quarterback Chayce Crouch celebrates with his teammates after completing a two point conversion in the fourth quarter. The Illini won 24-21.

By The Daily Illini sports staff

Editor’s note: The Daily Illini football writers graded each facet of the Illinois football team’s 24-21 win over Ball State on Saturday. The Illini offense, defense, special teams and coaching were graded.

Offense: D+

While the offense managed to score all four times they made it into the red zone, that’s where the positives end. Individually, Chayce Crouch, Mike Dudek and Malik Turner all played well enough, and freshman Mike Epstein breathed some life into the ground game, but the offensive line was a huge problem for the Illini. Crouch was sacked four times, and that really limited the damage he could do through the air. Then on the ground, the Illini had to take the ball out of Kendrick Foster’s hands early because the line couldn’t create space for him in between the tackles. To make matters worse, center Doug Kramer went down with an injury and didn’t return. The Illini will need to find a way to establish their run game in the future, because 2.4 yards per carry isn’t going to be enough against stiffer competition.

Defense: D

The Illini struggled on the defensive end. Hardy Nickerson Jr., Dawuane Smoot, Chunky Clements and Carroll Phillips are not easily replaceable, so the team looked to multiple freshmen to step up Saturday. Ball State converted 12 third downs — many of those coming with eight yards or more it had to reach. Illinois could not get much pressure on the quarterback throughout the game. The defensive line was overmatched, totaling three sacks on the day. The absence of Jaylen Dunlap also hurt the Illini in the secondary. Tony Adams was the first Illini true freshman to start at cornerback since Vontae Davis did so in 2006. The inexperience showed when Ball State quarterback Riley Neal found multiple receivers in open space. James Crawford also missed the game due to a suspension, which affected the defense. The whole unit has improvements to make heading into its next matchup against a more powerful offense than Ball State’s. If Ball State can convert third downs against the Illini defense, Western Kentucky can just as well.

Special teams: B+

This unit saved the Illini from an opening day loss. One of the biggest plays of the day came from Mike Dudek, who returned a punt 52 yards late in the fourth. The team was down five at the time, and a long return was just what head coach Lovie Smith was hoping to get out of his junior. The return set up the scoring drive that sealed an Illini victory. Punter Blake Hayes also turned in a nice performance. The Australian-style punter booted a 50-yard punt while also pinning Ball State inside the 20-yard line. Kicker Chase McLaughlin went 1-2 on field goals, missing a 44-yard field goal attempt in the fourth quarter. Almost all of his kickoffs were received within the 5-yard line, giving Ball State a longer field with which to work. Mike Dudek’s questionable decision to field a punt without calling for a fair catch could have cost him big time, as an oncoming tackler blew him up. Overall, special teams was good when the team needed it.

Coaching: C+

It took a mixed bag of decisions by Lovie Smith and the Illini coaching staff to bring the team so close to defeat, and just narrowly escape the way they did. Right from the beginning, the decision to have Mike Dudek returning punts seemed like an unnecessary risk, but in the end, it payed off as his 52-yard return in the fourth put the Illini in a position to win a game that had seemed all but lost a minute before. And while the botched 2-point conversion on the opening touchdown was a bit of a head-scratcher and going for a 43-yard field goal on fourth-and-3 when the team needed a touchdown wasn’t the best decision in retrospect, overall the coaches decisions worked out. Deciding to go to freshman Mike Epstein outside instead of the proven Kendrick Foster up the middle and the call to look up top to Malik Turner that resulted in a pass interference call were both crucial decisions that helped the Illini scrape out the win.