Positives, Negatives: The State of Illinois Football ahead of Week 4

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Sydney Laput

Sophomore offensive linebacker Seth Coleman (49) and senior defensive back Sydney Brown takes down a Wyoming opponent on Aug. 27.

By Ben Fader, Staff Writer

The Illini head into week four of the college football season with an opportunity to start 3-1 for the first time since 2015. Hosting the Chattanooga Mocs on Thursday night gives the Illini one final chance to fine-tune their game before conference play, which kicks off in Madison against a formidable Wisconsin foe.

What to like:

Defensive Line:

The defensive line has arguably been the brightest spot of the Illini team in their last two games, posting 10 quarterback hurries, 15 tackles for loss and six sacks. Sophomore lineman Johnny Newton led the way, with sophomore Keith Randolph Jr. and senior Calvin Avery following his lead to clog the line of scrimmage and wreak havoc on opposing QBs. Continued success for the defensive line is critical when conference play arrives, as the team that controls the line of scrimmage will often win games in a tough Big Ten schedule.

Play calling:

Offensively and defensively, the play calling has been better and smoother than in years past. Ryan Walters’s unit hasn’t allowed a touchdown at home through two games, and other than the final two minutes against Indiana, the defense has dominated all three opponents. Walters has been able to generate pressure because of how junior cornerback Devon Witherspoon and senior cornerback Quan Martin have played in man-to-man coverage.

Spread the wealth:

12 Illini already have more than one reception on the season as new offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. has already implemented his diverse gameplan. Sophomore receivers Isaiah Williams and Pat Bryant are the lead guys, but the Illini have plenty of other pass-catching options, making them unpredictable to guard.

What to improve:

Turnovers:

This was the easiest category to list and likely the easiest to fix. With eight turnovers in the last two games, the Illini have shown an inability to keep the football safe, whether in close games or blowouts. Every position group is at fault over the two-game span, as running backs, receivers and the quarterback have all been culprits. The Illini will have difficulty winning any conference games if the issues persist, and Chattanooga is an ideal opponent to clean things up.

Penalties:

As bad as the turnovers have been, penalties have reigned even harder. The Illini have 25 penalties through three games compared to 12 for their opponents, which makes it even more impressive that they find themselves 2-1 with two blowouts at this point in the season. Similar to the turnovers, practice should fix this issue, but dedication to being focused on every play will determine the season’s outcome for this team.

Kicking:

Junior kicker Caleb Griffin is 4-8 on field goal attempts this year, showing that the Illini may not be able to trust him in late-game scenarios. It may be time to consider attempting to convert more fourth and short scenarios rather than attempt a kick. Even if Bret Bielema still chooses to kick, fourth-down conversions may prove the difference makers later in the season, and it would not hurt to test the playbook against the Mocs.

Final thoughts:

The Big Ten West division is up for grabs three weeks into the season, giving the Illini a chance to compete for a title for the first time in a while. Relying on strengths and cleaning up the weaknesses of this team from the first three games could make the Illini a real threat come conference time and win some big games.

 

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