Grading Illinois’ loss to 24-17 to Minnesota


Editor’s note: The Daily Illini football writers graded each facet of the Illinois football team’s 24-17 loss to Minnesota on Saturday. The Illini coaching, offense, defense and special teams were graded.

Coaching: C-

Illinois did not have an extensive package for freshman quarterback Cam Thomas to execute in his first game as an Illini.

The coaching staff wanted Thomas to primarily run the ball himself or hand it off to Ra’Von Bonner. One of the more questionable calls came when the coaching staff decided to stick with Cam Thomas down seven points.

The staff went with Jeff George Jr. on passing downs throughout the game but decided to give Thomas a shot to bring the Illini back. The decision did not work, as Thomas threw an interception on his first attempt of the drive.

Running draw plays on third and long also were questionable. When the team has a pass-first quarterback, he should be throwing the ball in those situations.

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Offense: C-

The offense had a new look Saturday. Cam Thomas replaced Jeff George Jr. on the team’s third drive in the first quarter. The freshman burned his redshirt but led Illinois to a two-play, 15-yard touchdown-scoring drive.

George and Thomas continued subbing for each other as the game progressed, but the consistency still just wasn’t there. Thomas had some nice bursts of speed, but he couldn’t string together completions to get the Minnesota defense to respect the passing game.

George padded his stats in the last scoring drive for the Illini, but he only finished with 108 yards. Ra’Von Bonner had another grind-out game rushing the ball, but he also had trouble finding holes to exploit.

More consistency would have given Illinois a better score.

Defense: C+

The story of the defense was Bennett Williams. He was everywhere. The freshman finished with 12 tackles and laid some hard hits on Minnesota players.

The unit also did a nice job taking the ball away. Coach Lovie Smith has preached that during his time, and the Illini did not disappoint Saturday. Cameron Watkins read Demry Croft well and picked him off in the fourth quarter.

Stanley Green added one of his own earlier in the game too. However, the defensive line was atrocious. Kobe McCrary seemed like he wasn’t touched until he already gained six or seven yards.

The Golden Gopher offense rushed for 286 yards, even when the Illini defense stacked the box. If Illinois could have stopped the run, Croft would have been forced to throw more often.

Special teams: B

If it weren’t for Bennett Williams, Blake Hayes would have received the game ball. Hayes punted five times and averaged 52.4 yards with one 59-yarder.

The Australian native helped the Illini switch the field to give Minnesota more yards to cover. Kicker Chase McLaughlin missed a 41-yard field goal attempt that would have given Illinois a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter.

However, McLaughlin continued his success with touchbacks, as the Minnesota return game did not get many opportunities to bring one back.

Dre Brown had the Illini’s best return of the day, as he brought it back 25 yards to give the team the ball at its own 35 yard line. Overall, this unit performed the best Saturday.