Column | Defense‘s improved playing doesn’t vindicate offensive game plan

Running+back+Chase+Brown+sprints+with+the+ball+during+the+game+against+Rutgers+Oct.+30.+Defenses+improved+playing+doesnt+justify+offenses+game+plan.

Cameron Krasucki

Running back Chase Brown sprints with the ball during the game against Rutgers Oct. 30. Defenses’ improved playing doesn’t justify offenses’ game plan.

By Carson Gourdie, Staff Writer

Brandon Peters only threw nine passes against the Minnesota Golden Gophers. He completed seven of them. If your quarterback completes 77.8% of passes, why would you stop? 

You can make the argument that Illinois wants to play smash mouth football, and given the way the defense played against Minnesota, it was the smart decision to handcuff Peters. But the way Illinois’ defense plays doesn’t mean the offense should continue its overly conservative offense. 

Offensive coordinator Tony Petersen has been driving me nuts. Against UTSA, he called a draw play with no timeouts when Illinois was trying to score a game-tying touchdown. That call wasted 20 seconds for Illinois and halted all momentum it was gaining with the passing game. In the Penn State and Minnesota games, instead of having former quarterback Isaiah Williams throw the ball, he chose Casey Washington and Caleb Griffin to throw passes on trick plays. But the bigger problem is how conservative the offense has been. 

Sure, the product on the field is a lot better, and the Illini aren’t getting blown out like they did under Lovie Smith. But, it’s also fair to say that these Big Ten offenses are very poor in quality compared to other years. 

The Penn State, Rutgers and Minnesota games are pretty much identical. The offense tried to run the ball, and the defense played well. But the reason why Rutgers won was because of smaller variations. 

Rutgers had a full week to prepare for Illinois, with Greg Schiano preparing a good game plan to slow down the running game. Rutgers did a good job of catching Illinois off guard with the quarterback option plays, which allowed the Scarlet Knights to move the chains on third downs. Somehow, Rutgers is actually a worse matchup for Illinois than Minnesota was. 

Minnesota and Penn State were literally the same games. Both of those ranked programs had their offenses compromised by injuries, and Illinois did a great job of applying consistent pressure on both of the quarterbacks. 

If Illinois had to face the 2019 Minnesota Golden Gophers, who had a 30-touchdown season from Tanner Morgan and multiple NFL wide receivers, it would get crushed. But, in 2021, Minnesota is suffering from missing its top three running backs while losing key wideouts to the league, so the offense can hide behind the defense.

If Penn State’s Sean Clifford is healthy and plays like how he did against Ohio State, Illinois doesn’t defeat Penn State. If Illinois has to win a shootout — or even score 24 points against a power-five program — it will lose. The Illini wouldn’t be able to run the ball every play if they want to stay neck-and-neck with a team that can actually score. 

As Penn State and Minnesota showed you, even if you can run the ball, you will need to eventually pass to take the drive to the next level. In fact, Illinois punted on its last seven possessions against Minnesota, as it continued to just run the ball with very little success.

There is absolutely no reason Minnesota should’ve had a prayer of winning against Illinois that day. The defense played terrific with six sacks and two interceptions, not to mention slowing down a running game that had gained over 600 yards in the past two games. But Petersen continually took his foot off the gas when all Illinois needed was a field goal to put the game away.

Illinois is sitting at 4-6, and you could make the argument that Maryland, Purdue and Rutgers should’ve been victories. But, why? When an offense is only averaging 17.2 points per game — which ranked 122nd out of 130 in the FBS — you really shouldn’t be anywhere near bowl eligibility. 

I don’t care how good the defense has been playing, the path to victory for Illinois isn’t sustainable. Even when Illinois is effective on the ground, it could only score one touchdown against Penn State.

Illinois can’t count on playing a Minnesota team with no running backs. Illinois can’t count on playing an injured Clifford. Every little thing has to go perfect for Illinois to win a game, which means no penalties that stall drives and perfect field position so they can pin opposing offenses back deep.

Illinois fans aren’t being fair to themselves into thinking that scoring 14 points against Minnesota is acceptable, especially considering the fact that they didn’t score five seconds after the second quarter started. Illinois only scored 14 points against Rutgers, and fans weren’t happy. Just because the defense played better against Minnesota than Rutgers doesn’t mean Petersen did a good job. 

 

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