Grading Illinois football’s win over Western Kentucky


Quentin Shaw

Illinois head coach Lovie Smith looks out at his team from the sidelines during the game against Western Kentucky at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, September 9. The Illini won 20-7.

By The Daily Illini sports staff, Staff writer

Editor’s note: The Daily Illini football writers graded each facet of the Illinois football team’s 20-7 win over Western Kentucky on Saturday. The Illini offense, defense, special teams and coaching were graded.

Offense: C

The Illinois offense had trouble sustaining any sort of momentum in the first half. Quarterback Chayce Crouch found himself throwing into double and triple coverage throughout the half. Illinois managed only 118 first-half yards with 57 coming through the air. The team notched eight first downs in the first half, compared to its 19 first downs in the second. The Illini dominated the time of possession in the fourth quarter, keeping the ball for 11:37. Crouch, along with true freshman Mike Epstein continued to chew clock and keep the ball out of the hands of Western Kentucky. Illinois did not have a standout receiver this game, but Mike Dudek hauled in six catches for 46 yards. Kendrick Foster was again held to a limited role in the offense, garnering just 11 yards on three carries. Overall, the offense still has waves of improvement to make, but beating a well-respected Western Kentucky team merits a “C” grade.

Defense: A

The defensive unit looked like a lot different than what it showcased last week against Ball State. Multiple players turned in impressive games to show defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson they are worthy of more playing time. Linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips and cornerbacks Nate Hobbs and Cameron Watkins all recorded six individual tackles. Jamal Milan and Isaiah Gay were great getting to Western Kentucky quarterback Mike White. The quarterback had little time in the pocket, and that pressure forced a pick-six in the second quarter to put Illinois up 13-0 at the time. Western Kentucky was known for putting up points last season. The team scored fewer than 30 points in only one game last season, so giving up seven to a high-caliber offense is noteworthy. The Illini defense also had to deal with the absence of Tre Watson after he was ejected for committing a targeting penalty late in the second quarter. Shutting down this offense with a team captain in the locker room resulted in a high grade for the unit.

Special teams: B+

Special teams simply did what it was asked to do Saturday night. The unit did not have any standout performances, but it never made any game-changing mistakes. Kicker Chase McLaughlin was perfect on his kicks, converting on a 20-yard field goal and a 37-yard field goal. The kickoff unit also did well on its coverage, not allowing a returner to break free and find a lot of space. Blake Hayes punted seven times to help win the field position game. In a game that had little offense in it, punting played a large role in flipping the field. The Australian-style punter hit his longest of the day — 52 yards — after one of the Illini’s worst possessions. The only slip-up in the punt return game was in the third quarter when Mike Dudek muffed a catch but immediately fell straight on it. The fumble would have given the Hilltoppers the ball within the 10-yard line. Overall, special teams did its job and converted when the team needed it the most.

Coaching: B-

While Lovie Smith and his staff nailed the defensive game plan against Western Kentucky, the offensive play calling left something to be desired. Outside of the one scoring drive in the third quarter, the Illini struggled to move the ball, especially when it came to passing. Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee was adamant in his Monday press conference that the Illini would be looking to throw the ball deep a lot more often, but after the first few deep balls didn’t connect the Illini all but gave up on looks downfield. On the other hand, the defense was spot on all game long. The Illini were able to pressure the quarterback without overcommitting men to blitzing, which allowed the young secondary to really come into its own and make some important plays. While 238 passing yards may seem like a lot, Mike White threw 37 touchdowns and only seven picks last season for Western Kentucky, he threw zero touchdowns and a pick-six against the Illini. And only allowing six net rushing yards says a lot.

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