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Injuries piling up for Illini

Illinois+wide+receiver+Dominic+Thieman+scrambles+for+yards+during+the+game+against+Rutgers+on+Saturday%2C+Oct.+24.++The+Illini+lost+35-24
Illinois wide receiver Dominic Thieman scrambles for yards during the game against Rutgers on Saturday, Oct. 24.  The Illini lost 35-24

Illinois wide receiver Dominic Thieman scrambles for yards during the game against Rutgers on Saturday, Oct. 24. The Illini lost 35-24

Quentin Shaw

Quentin Shaw

Illinois wide receiver Dominic Thieman scrambles for yards during the game against Rutgers on Saturday, Oct. 24. The Illini lost 35-24

By Jacob Diaz, Staff writer

If being the first team that Rutgers has defeated in their last 17 Big Ten conference games wasn’t bad enough for the Illini, injuries sustained during that game have left the team noticeably thinner at a few key positions.

Head coach Lovie Smith will take this week of practice to evaluate some of the injuries, but Illinois could be without Mike Dudek at wide receiver and without a good portion of their linebackers.

“Dudek and Tré Watson have knee injuries,” Smith said at his weekly press conference. “Julian Jones has a knee injury. Del’Shawn Phillips has a shoulder injury. It is still the early part of the week; tomorrow when we get back out on the football field we’ll know a little bit more.”

While the Illini picked up injuries across the board Saturday, the linebacking corps was hit the hardest. Unless one of the players is able to return, the Illini might be down to five players at the position this week against Minnesota.

“Overnight it’s gone from being the deepest group on the team to being the most shallow,” defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson said. “This is the absolute thinnest we’ve been at linebacker since I got here. We’ll see how the week goes; we might be able to get a couple guys back. We’ve got five healthy bodies right now.”

Tackling in the open field was a huge problem for the Illinois against Rutgers, and the team will hope that one of its regulars will be healthy enough by the end of the week to return and address that issue.

Elsewhere on the team, Smith was unclear about Dudek’s status going forward. The Illini definitely hope that the former freshman All-American will be back sooner rather than later, but with Ricky Smalling’s breakout performance last week, the team might be in fine shape even if Dudek remains sidelined this week.

Arguably the biggest loss from Saturday’s game for the Illini was a player who didn’t make it onto the field at all. Starting running back Mike Epstein left the field against Iowa with a foot injury, and after Saturday’s game, Smith confirmed that the Illini will be without their leading rusher for the rest of the season.

Based on Saturday’s game plan, it seems that true freshman Ra’Von Bonner will shoulder the brunt of the load going forward, with shares of the carries falling to Reggie Corbin, Dre Brown and potentially Kendrick Foster.

Illini struggling to contain opposing quarterbacks

At Monday’s press conference both Smith and Nickerson spoke about the Illini’s continued struggles to contain opposing quarterbacks.

Starting all the way back in the first game of the season against Ball State, Illinois has allowed opposing quarterbacks to find their way out of the pocket and extend plays, and sometimes to scramble to pick up key first downs and extend drives. This was again an issue against the Scarlet Knights, whose quarterback averaged 5.9 yards-per-carry on seven scrambles against the Illini.

“We want to keep (quarterbacks) in that bowl,” Nickerson said. “If he does have to move around, we want him to step up in the middle where all four guys can converge on him. Quarterbacks have been able to slip through the B-gap slots on us.”

The B-gap refers to the space between the offensive tackle and the guard next to him, an area that can open up when there is too much space between the defensive tackle and the defensive end on that side of the line.

In most situations, the responsibility to plug that gap falls to Illinois’ defensive ends.

James Crawford, one of those ends, said that he will be working on the use of his hands to try and stop opposing teams from exploiting that space. He figures that if he can be better with his hands, he can be quicker to react to opposing quarterbacks headed toward that gap and not get stuck on the lineman trying to block him.

Crawford also emphasized the importance of the defensive linemen knowing the role each member of the unit has to play.

“It’s all about knowing your responsibilities and the angle that you take,” Crawford said. “If you take an angle where you win and the quarterback is still in the pocket, that’s the angle that you want to take. But you don’t want to take an angle where you shoot inside but he can bounce outside when you have outside contain.”

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