Three and out: Takeaways from Illinois’ comeback loss at ReliaQuest Bowl

By Carson Gourdie, Sports Video Editor

Three and Out: Illini offense struggles, defense plays well in bowl loss

Carson Gourdie, Ben Fader and Jonathan Alday discuss the Illini’s 19-10 loss to the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the Reliaquest Bowl.

After leading the Mississippi State Bulldogs after three quarters, the Illini got outscored 16-0 in the final frame, dropping to 8-5 this season after starting 7-1. 

The Illini, a 3.5-point underdog, held their own against their SEC counterparts, but offensive struggles allowed the Bulldogs to stay within striking distance. The program will look different next season, with quarterback Tommy DeVito transferring and coaches such as Ryan Walters and Kevin Kane leaving the program for Purdue. 

Here are some takeaways from Monday’s game:

Defense plays well, held the Bulldogs below season averages 

The Bulldogs are known for its air-raid offense, but the Illini performed well against quarterback Will Rogers. 

The Bulldogs came into today averaging over 300 passing yards a game, but they were held to 264 yards and 13 offensive points. While the Illini didn’t sack Rogers, good pass coverage downfield forced the Bulldog quarterback into tough situations, resulting in two interceptions. 

Fresh faces stepped up for Illini defense 

The Illini led the nation in scoring defense, but once Ryan Walters and Kevin Kane left to be head coach and defensive coordinator, respectively, of rival Purdue, questions swirled whether the unit could replicate its success with the promoted Aaron Henry. 

The Illini defense’s performance didn’t falter. 

“I’m sure there is (difference with Henry’s playcalling), but our trust in him isn’t any lower,” freshman free safety Matthew Bailey said about Henry taking over from Walters. 

Henry was handpicked to succeed Walters over Kane by Bielema, and the 32-year old assistant could provide stability for the Illini as a head coaching job is probably still years away. With former play caller Andy Buh on staff, as well as defensive minded Bielema, the Illini are well suited to continue its rise as a top unit in the conference. 

Offense continues to struggle 

The Tony Petersen era was lackluster, and Bielema replaced him with Lunney, and the statistics improved. The Illini averaged 24 points per game, and the yardage total was one of the most improved in the Big Ten. 

But toward the season’s end, the running game slowed down and the points dropped. In the last five games of the season, the Illini scored 15, 23, 17, 41 and 10 points, respectively. The 41-point performance against Northwestern was aided by defensive scores — and they finished with under 300 yards of offense. 

Today, the Illini finished with 10 points and under 300 total yards for the second straight game, and were held to 35 total yards of rushing on 29 carries.

However, the Illini were missing Chase Brown, Luke Ford and Brian Hightower today, but DeVito missed open targets and got sacked on several occasions. A mobile quarterback, like Luke Altmyer, could help the offense makeup for the lack of playmakers at wide receiver and provide another dynamic in short yardage situations. 

“We need to have an identity,” head coach Bret Bielema said about the offense. “It’s easy to say we’re an up-tempo offense, we have the “up-tempro” thing, but what are we, right? At times we are pretty hard to defend but other times we don’t seem to go anywhere in a hurry.” 

Program trajectory is still positive 

The Illini, coming off of the Lovie Smith era, gave up 35 points per game, not exactly a recipe for success.

In the past two seasons, the Illini have allowed 20 points and 13 points, respectively. Despite Walters’ departure, the Illini are loaded with defensive minds. The offense last season struggled to throw the ball. With a Syracuse transfer who was benched, the Illini improved by nearly 50 yards a game and nearly earned a spot in the Big Ten championship. 

With the addition of Luke Altmyer, the Illini can build chemistry and an identity under Lunney. The offensive coordinator, who had a dual threat Frank Harris at UTSA, will have a quarterback who fits his system better, and will likely have Isaiah Williams back for another season. 

The schedule shapes up well for the Illini as well next season. They avoid Michigan and Ohio State, and they catch Penn State, who is replacing Sean Clifford, early at home next season. With key defensive line pieces likely returning and with Henry seeming to be a decent replacement, the Illini are an adequate air attack away from potentially winning the Big Ten West — the last year they will probably be able to do it as divisions may vanish once USC and UCLA arrive in 2024. 

“I think if we are disappointed with an eight-win season, we’ve made a step in the right direction,” Bielema said.

 

@GourdieReport

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