Underperforming passing game, penalties create bad start to season

Sophomore++Coran+Taylor+narrowly+stays+in+bounds+as+he+slips+through+the+Minnesota+defense.+As+a+fourth-string+quarterback%2C+Taylor+has+had+a+lack+of+game+experience.+

Cameron Krasucki

Sophomore Coran Taylor narrowly stays in bounds as he slips through the Minnesota defense. As a fourth-string quarterback, Taylor has had a lack of game experience.

By Carson Gourdie, Assistant Sports Editor

Lovie Smith’s Illini are off to an 0-3 start. This was certainly not how Illini fans envisioned Smith’s fifth season going. However, they are, and certain statistics point to why they’re 0-3 for the first time since 1997. While other Big Ten teams — Northwestern, Purdue and Maryland — have surprised pundits thus far, the Illini continue to prove them right. 

Passing Attack

Nobody ever mistook the Illini for Quarterback University. Of course, Juice Williams was entertaining, Nathan Scheelhaase was solid and senior Brandon Peters was sneaky. But none of these quarterbacks could regularly sling the pigskin around the field and get 300 yards a game. This year, though, the passing attack has been silent. 

Save for a surprising 273-yard performance from sophomore Coran Taylor against Purdue, Illinois has been shut down by opponents, averaging only 162.7 yards through the air. Granted, Peters has been out since Wisconsin; however, the senior quarterback only threw for 87 yards. 

In today’s age of college football, a passing attack needs to be established to consistently move the ball. Yes, Navy and Army get away with no passing game, but they run a triple-option attack. 

It’s OK if Taylor isn’t Johnny Manziel. It’s fine if the Illini rely on his legs and their running backs. But when the Illini have a defense that struggles to shut down offenses, it’s nearly impossible to come back down multiple scores if offenses can’t gain yards through the air. 

“I don’t think they did anything differently,” Taylor said. “They showed the same coverages as we saw. We just need to execute as an offense.”

Pass Defense

In the secondary’s defense, they might not have been the main problem with the defense Saturday. Minnesota did run for over 300 yards on the ground, but Minnesota’s success with running the ball doesn’t vindicate Illinois’ pass defense this season. 

Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan finished with a modest 216 passing yards, and the Illini forced 10 incompletions. Coming into the game, the Illini had only forced seven incompletions. Still, despite the slightly improved performance, Morgan had little trouble, finishing with a  Total Quarterback Ranking of 78.9. 

Illinois’ struggle to bottle up the passing game puts them in an impossible position to keep them in games. 3rd and longs shouldn’t be easy to convert on. But, throughout the season, Graham Mertz, Aidan O’Connell and Tanner Morgan consistently moved the chains through the air. 

How can the Illini improve the pass defense? Well, it’s more than just the secondary. Consistent pressure on the quarterback would be a good start. Tighter coverage would also help. If the Illini had a better pass defense, it’s not hard to imagine the Illini stealing a victory against the Boilermakers. 

As of now, giving up an average of 278.3 yards won’t cut it.

Penalties

This will destroy a team. When positive offensive plays consistently get called back, it halts all momentum and creates unmanageable conversions. When a defense commits them, it gives opponents a new life. The way the Illini have played so far — undisciplined — has created a sometimes unwatchable product on the field. 

Smith’s squad committed 12 penalties on Saturday, totaling 120 yards. P.J. Fleck’s squad committed only two penalties for 22 yards. Now penalties probably aren’t the sole reason why Minnesota came up on top today. However, there’s definitely a correlation between championship teams and a lack of yellow flags being thrown. 

Holding calls happen; an occasional pass interference call will occur as well. Penalties like delay of games and 12 men on the field, however, are unacceptable. They’re silly penalties that stall drives and lead to failure. The Illini are averaging 85 yards in penalties this season. Their opponents are averaging 47 yards.

Given the fact Illinois is missing its starting quarterback and — let’s face it — are less talented than top-tier programs like Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin, playing clean and fundamental ball is a must, and penalties only make it harder for Illinois to win. 

“There is just a lot of football to play,” Smith said. “Long football season. Disappointed in what has happened so far, not the only football team that is disappointed. We can still play better with what we have right now.”

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