Grading the Illinois football team after its 24-14 loss to Northwestern
November 29, 2015
The Illini showed the bad habits that they’ve exhibited all season long against Northwestern on Saturday.
Illinois got off to a hot start, scoring on its first drive, but the early success stopped after quarterback Wes Lunt scrambled into the end zone to give Illinois a 7-0 lead. The receiving corps continued with its struggles of dropping passes, finishing with 10 and recording more than 60 on the season. The drops hurt the team when it tried to gain momentum and move the ball downfield. Illinois was 6-for-18 on third down and converted once on its two tries on fourth down.
Lunt finished with 241 passing yards but threw a crucial interception in the fourth quarter in Northwestern territory with the Illini trailing by 10. The quarterback also had trouble completing some throws and scrambled in the sloppy grass at Soldier Field.
The running game was as ineffective as its been all year. Ke’Shawn Vaughn finished with 62 yards and senior Josh Ferguson finished with 40 in his last game as an Illini.
The defense gave up 21 points in the first half to a Northwestern team that averaged 23.0 points per game heading into Saturday’s game.
Needless defensive penalties like a facemask penalty and a penalty on Caleb Day for vaulting the punting shield cost Illinois on two scoring drives. Northwestern added a field goal in the fourth quarter to put the game away for good.
After the fast start to the game, Illinois’ defense took control. The Illini forced five three-and-outs and limited quarterback Clayton Thorson. Senior linebacker Mason Monheim brought Illinois closer when he intercepted a Thorson pass and returned it 58 yards for a touchdown, but by the time the defense could figure things out, Illinois’ offense had nothing left in the tank.
Thorson finished with 146 passing yards, a touchdown and an interception — he also ran for seven yards. Justin Jackson led the way on the ground with 172 yards and one touchdown.
Special Teams: D+
Illinois’ special teams continued with the struggles it’s had all season.
Kicker Taylor Zalewski had a tough game after he was consistent for the past few games. He missed both of his attempts Saturday, including one from 30 yards that would’ve made it a one-possession gamelate in the fourth quarter. Northwestern had three kick returns for 44 yards.
V’Angelo Bentley continued with his difficulties in the return game. He returned two punts on eight attempts for 19 yards. The kickoff return combo returned three kickoffs for 68 yards.
Punter Ryan Frain struggled at times but also booted a few good punts. He finished the night with seven punts that averaged 41 yards.
Illinois head coach Bill Cubit didn’t help himself with some of his playcalling, despite now being the permanent man for the next two seasons.
All season, Cubit and his team have shown little urgency in crucial moments when the offense needed to move fast and this apathy arose again at the end of Saturday’s first half.
The offense moved the ball down the field, but the players weren’t quick to get to the line and snap the ball and Cubit failed to use his timeouts wisely in the last minute, which might have cost Illinois a shot at some last-minute points
There were some offensive and defensive playcalling that was questionable at times but players also failed to make plays. The offense has been limited the entire season due to injuries and Saturday was no different, with starting center Joe Spencer having to leave the game with an injury — Wes Lunt bobbled a pair of Teddy Karras snaps when Spencer was sidelined. Defensive schemes could’ve been better, but at the end of the day, the players failed to execute when they needed to the most.