Column | ‘They are who we thought they were’: Illinois football falls apart in final matches of 2022 season

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Sydney Laput

Sophomore defensive lineman Keith Randolph Jr. (88) takes down Purdue during the last home game of the regular season on Saturday.

By Ben Fader, Staff Writer

Following consecutive heartbreaking losses to the Michigan State Spartans and Purdue Boilermakers, we need to look back at the Illini to see what happened. They were 7-1 and seemed like a lock for the Big Ten championship game, so why have they fallen apart? 

It turns out, as former Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green would say, “they are who we thought they were.” Entering the season, the Illini were expected to show some improvement and make a bowl game after a 5-7 season last year, but the hot start was completely unexpected. 

As exhilarating as the six-game winning streak was, it has become abundantly clear that the Illini peaked midseason and have since returned to Earth. While disappointing, the problems with the Illini in the last two weeks are eerily similar to those in the first three weeks, proving that they could mask errors while hot but not get rid of them completely. 

In the first three weeks, penalties crushed the Illini, averaging over eight penalties per game. The costly errors have returned as they averaged eight penalties per game in their last three matchups, including an absurd 121 yards worth of penalties against the Boilermakers. Repeated automatic first downs in third-and-long situations, 20-yard runs called back and late hits out of bounds are blatant mental blunders that have destroyed the Illini when a single possession determined all three losses.

Another factor that has resurfaced is turnovers. The Illini have not won the turnover battle in either of their last two outings and the timing of offensive mistakes has been poor. Junior running back Chase Brown fumbled in the red zone against the Spartans and senior quarterback Tommy DeVito’s interception against the Boilermakers came in the final minutes, defeating any hope of coming back.

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    The final and most glaring issue with the Illini during their fall from grace has been their offensive play calling, although it’s been mediocre for longer than you’d think. Despite the great start, the Illini offense hasn’t been much of an upgrade over last year’s group, but let’s look at the stats and then come back to the calls. 

    The Illini average: just four more points per game, the same conversion percentage on third down (a poor 38%), fewer yards per carry and more turnovers per game compared to the 2021 team. Those aren’t the statistics you would expect for a group that supposedly upgraded at quarterback and offensive coordinator while everyone else had an extra year under the belts. The only real improvement from 2021 in yards per game, where the Illini average 80 more yards per contest now. 

    That feat has been completely canceled out with the team’s performance in the red zone, which has been horrendous, to say the least. Entering Saturday, the Illini were tied for 111th best in the country at scoring when entering the red zone, at only a 75% clip and scored touchdowns just 40% of the time. While that number improved against the Boilermakers, the Illini remain among the worst teams at capitalizing inside the twenty and there is no shortage of reasons why. 

    The Illini have been an aggressive team all year, with 22 fourth-down conversion attempts. This has stalled several drives inside the twenty when a field goal would have added points to the board. While the aggressiveness has been complimented many times this season, it may have hurt the Illini in a few key spots where field goals would have benefited the team later in the game. 

    Another reason is the lack of weapons. Without a wide receiver on the roster who can create consistent separation, DeVito has had trouble getting the ball to his targets, especially when the field shrinks and they run out of room to run. Add that to the dropped touchdowns that have piled up over the year and you can understand the trouble punching it in. 

    Finally, we have looped back around to the playcalling. You can blame drops, lack of separation and lack of execution, but in most situations I have seen this year, players have not been put in optimal conditions for them to succeed in these opportunities. The Spartans and Boilermakers were well prepared for a bland Barry Lunney Jr. called offense and were rewarded with a victory. 

    Brown hasn’t rushed for 5+ yards per carry since Wisconsin and the offense has put up fewer points than the previous week in three straight performances. Something needs to change with the offense, because it has been a frustrating group to watch of late. Still, it is important to note that while we may have expected a more efficient and productive offense in 2022, we should take a step back and recognize the season’s accomplishments. 

    A majority of Illini fans would have celebrated a 7-8 win season in August, which is the most reasonable outcome at this point. Although it is unfortunate how the team has spiraled in recent weeks, progress was made in the program’s culture, and the future still looks bright. While a Big Ten Championship plus Orange Bowl appearance look out of the question now, I bring us back to “they are who we thought they were” and an eight-win bowl game appearance is a step in the right direction. 

     

    @benfader7

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