Illinois offense improves while defense falls short of expectations


Austin Yattoni

Illinois defensive lineman Bobby Roundtree (97) makes a sack during the game against USF at Soldier Field on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. The Illini lost 25-19.

By Tatiania Perry, Staff writer

Former Illinois linebacker Christion Abercrombie is in critical condition after suffering a serious head injury on Saturday during Tennessee State’s game at Vanderbilt in Nashville.

“Tennessee State University football student-athlete Christion Abercrombie remains in critical condition at Vanderbilt University Medical Center following an injury sustained during yesterday’s game at Vanderbilt Stadium,” said a statement from Tennessee State’s athletics department. “Christion is surrounded by his family, teammates, the TSU family and members of the Vanderbilt community.”

Abercrombie was part of the large wave of players who transferred at the conclusion of head coach Lovie Smith’s second year.

The linebacker was originally recruited under Bill Cubit  but chose to stay during the transition to Lovie.

As a freshman, Abercrombie collected 11 tackles, splitting his time between defensive end and linebacker.

Many current and former Illini have taken to social media in solidarity for Abercrombie, including a statement from Lovie.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with him and of course his family and their team as they go through this tough time,” Lovie said. “We all know that injuries are a big part of our game, but when it touches home like this, it’s pretty tough. You can leave our program and still be a big part of it.”

Offensive upgrade

With the introduction of new offensive coordinator Rod Smith, the Illinois offense seemed to make a 180-degree switch.

Rod revamped Illinois’ offense and has made massive improvements in 2018. The Illini jumped around 50 spots in the national rankings from last season in turnovers lost, first downs, total offense and plays more than 10 yards.

However, the biggest turnaround so far is the team making a 104-place jump in rushing offense.

With all of these ups, Rod still sees much room for improvement.

“I want us to play four quarters instead of three, continue to be consistent in the run game; I think we’ve made some strides and we are doing some good things there,” Rod said. “The throw game needs to be better and we have to learn how to get separations.”

The young team is still learning the new schemes that Rod has put into place. The line has been creating gaps and the running backs have been mildly successful in spotting and running through them.

“I’ve said it all along: it’s a work in progress,” Rod said. “It’ll continue to keep building; there are growing pains and some things you have to go through.”

Defensive plateau

Arguably one of the best parts of the Illinois squad last season was the defense.

Though a young team, it was able to hold its own for at least half of the games, competing with top-tier teams.

However, so far in its 2018 campaign, it has fallen short of the expectations set last season. The young secondary is still going through a learning curve and has missed plenty of key reads. These missed assignments and some obvious on-the-field confusion has been the death of the offense throughout the Illini’s last two games.

When the team comes together, they have demonstrated what the can be, but until players like Isaiah Gay or Del’Shawn Phillips step up and Bobby Roundtree maintains his recent progress, the defense will continue to struggle.

Quarterback depth

AJ Bush has been out of commission since the first half of the second game of the season with a hamstring injury.

Throughout camp and through the time that he has been able to play, Rod has made it clear that he is the man for the starting position.

Despite what M.J. Rivers has shown during his time on the field, Rod has made it clear that the job isn’t going to be taken from Bush.

Though the coaching staff is still unclear as to whether or not Bush will be healthy enough to play, they are being more than careful with the injury.

“When you have a hamstring injury, you think when there’s no pain, you’re ready to go, but you’re normally not. AJ hurt it on Saturday and he thought he was ready to go Sunday — the next day,” Lovie said. “But you have to hold those guys back each week so that it allows them to heal up.”

Rivers has stepped up into the leading role, collecting a total of 422 passing yards to go along with 48 rushing.

The freshman has thrown for two touchdowns in his two and a half games played as well.

“M.J. has shown me that if something does happen to our guy that he can be our guy as well,” Rod said. “We’ve got a good situation going forward; knock on wood no more injuries happen.”


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