Truth/Overreaction: State of Illinois Football ahead of Week 5

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Logan Hodson

Illinois quarterback Tommy DeVito warms up before game at Memorial Stadium.

By Ben Fader, Staff Writer

For a team that hasn’t finished with a winning record since 2011, the victory against the Wisconsin Badgers tastes oh so sweet. On the road, Big Ten foe, against the Badgers, Bielema’s homecoming raised the stakes of the matchup to turn the 34-10 drubbing into a statement notifying the rest of the Big Ten West that the Illini are no longer here to get walked all over.

While the Illini deserve the respect they are beginning to receive, it is the fanbase’s job to celebrate and bask in the glow of the win at Camp Randall. For the team, it’s straight back to business and focusing on Iowa.

The Illini head into week five with a 4-1 record and tied for first in the Big Ten West with a 1-1 record. The outcome of their season is entirely in their control and almost every game seems winnable. Without a winning program to root for in over a decade, it is easy to get carried away with optimism at 4-1, but when you look at how the Illini got here, it’s hard not to feel good.

Truth: Chase Brown is a top-five running back in the country this year.

Every game brings more history for junior running back Chase Brown, as he adds to his consecutive game streak of rushing for 100+ yards. Just as the Illini star looked like he had met his match in the first half against the Badgers, he broke loose for a 49-yard sprint to the end zone where no defender had a shot at catching him.

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    Brown’s explosiveness catches the eye from a distance, as he appears to be shot out of a cannon when DeVito places the football into his hands. When you match that with his physicality and patience, you get a masterful performance, as we saw against the Badgers.

    When the opposing defense gets within arms reach of Brown, he turns into a bucking bronco, seeking hard contact with anyone who dares. This is the Chase Brown we saw in the first half, as the short gains don’t show up in the box score, but the toll it took on the defense was evident following halftime. Brown is the offense’s leader and the Illini have a chance in any game where he rushes for 100+ yards.

    Overreaction: The passing game is doing enough to keep winning games

    The passing attack has by no means been bad, but it definitely isn’t good. Sure, the strength of the offense is running the ball, but eventually, a close game or deficit will require senior quarterback Tommy DeVito and the receivers to clutch a win, and they have not proven that they are capable yet.

    The Badger’s secondary continued to struggle in coverage Saturday, and to say the Illini were bailed by two pass interference calls is putting it lightly. Offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr.’s quick passing game has been executed well in tandem with the run, but there continues to be few passes downfield. Chattanooga is the only game where the offense has looked high-powered enough to compete in a close game with a strong opponent.

    Although they still lack elements of a strong passing game, they have shown increasing improvement in different areas every week. No interceptions, dropped passes becoming scarce and fewer sacks taken in the last two games all give reason for believing they can get to the next level.

    Truth: The defensive line is as good as Iowa and Michigan

    The defensive coordinator, Ryan Walters’ unit, has been impressive to start the year, but his strongest group is the big boys at the line of scrimmage. The front allows just 70.2 rushing yards per game, good for second-best in the country. Rushers have been forced to a screeching halt and the position group only appear to be getting stronger.

    Braelon Allen came into Saturday averaging 99.4 rushing yards per game but only left the contest with two yards on eight carries. Sophomore lineman Johnny Newton, Keith Randolph Jr. and senior lineman Calvin Avery lead the way, plugging every hole and making sure there is nowhere for the running back to go.

    With no running game, opposing offenses have become one-dimensional, allowing the secondary and linebackers to be well prepared in coverage. Continuing to contain the run at an elite level will help every facet of the Illini defense.

    Overreaction: Mental errors are a thing of the past for the Illini

    Penalties and turnovers killed the Illini in the first three games of the season and although they escaped with two wins, that may have been lucky. The penalties have stuck around as the turnovers have decreased against Chattanooga and Wisconsin.

    Eight penalties were enforced against the Illini on Saturday and more were called. Penalties are crippling, especially with a lead. The Illini were able to overcome the miscues against the Badgers, but it is concerning that they continue to show a lack of focus when winning football games.

    There certainly is hope that the Illini continue to improve, as they’ve shown every game this season, but more focus and practice will determine how good they can be. Big Ten West champs is the ceiling for this team through five weeks and relying on strengths and bolstering weaknesses will determine if they get there.

     

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