The Daily Illini

Dual-threat quarterbacks finding the flaws in the Illini defense

Illinois+linebacker+Tr%C3%A9+Watson+%2833%29+tackles+Michigan+State+running+back+Gerald+Holmes+%2824%29+during+the+game+against+at+Memorial+Stadium+on+Saturday%2C+November+5.+The+Illini+won+31-27.
Illinois linebacker Tré Watson (33) tackles Michigan State running back Gerald Holmes (24) during the game against at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, November 5. The Illini won 31-27.

Illinois linebacker Tré Watson (33) tackles Michigan State running back Gerald Holmes (24) during the game against at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, November 5. The Illini won 31-27.

Austin Yattoni

Austin Yattoni

Illinois linebacker Tré Watson (33) tackles Michigan State running back Gerald Holmes (24) during the game against at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, November 5. The Illini won 31-27.

By Jacob Diaz, Staff writer

Three weeks into the season, the Illinois defense has looked completely different each time they’ve hit the field.

During week one against Ball State, the Illini struggled to contain the Redbird’s offense on third-and-long, allowing quarterback Riley Neal to extend drives and keep the Illini offense on the sidelines. The secondary looked shaky, and the defensive line was unable to create consistent pressure on the quarterback. It looked like the defense might have some glaring weaknesses.

Then week two came against a highly-favored Western Kentucky, and the defense looked like a completely different unit. WKU only converted two third-downs all game and freshmen defensive ends Isaiah Gay and Bobby Roundtree peppered Hilltoppers’ quarterback Mike White with pressure.

Then the team traveled to Tampa to face Heisman candidate Quinton Flowers and University of South Florida, who dominated the Illinois defense in every aspect of the game. USF’s complex attack picked Illinois apart both on the ground and through the air.

Flowers exposed a weakness of the Illini that fans caught a glimpse of in week one: the Illini struggle against mobile quarterbacks.

“You want to work to keep the quarterback contained, keep him in the pocket where you have vision on him and where you can get him,” Illini defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson said. “We just played a quarterback in Quinton Flowers who is probably one of the best in college football in terms of guys who have the ability to pull the ball down and run with it. It’s hard to defend a quarterback who is that athletic and can run like he can.”

While it is true that Flowers is a cut above most quarterbacks Illinois will face this season, the team struggled to keep even Ball State’s Neal contained in the pocket, as he ran for 60 yards on 15 attempts.

“In the first game we had some problems with our rush and the quarterback was able to slip out for some key first downs,” Nickerson said. “Like I said, when the quarterback drops back, you have to keep him in the pocket.”

The Illini gave Neal too much time to find holes in the defensive line, and he was able to punish them by converting on third-and-long.

However, against USF, it was a completely different story. The Illini put Flowers under pressure over and over again, but with a combination of elusiveness, pump-fakes and pure athleticism, Flowers evaded Illini defenders all game. Defensive tackle Tymir Oliver was the first to admit that it was a bit disheartening to see those efforts be in vain.

“It is (frustrating), but that’s just part of the game,” Oliver said. “When you have a star player like that, you have to adjust to them, just like you have to adjust to a star player receiving the ball or returning kicks. You have to prevent him from doing certain things, and we needed to adjust better.”

Oliver thinks that the Illini match up better against quarterbacks who stay in the pocket, and the defense’s record so far shows that to be true.

Luckily for Oliver and the Illini, the Big Ten isn’t loaded with dual-threat quarterbacks. In fact, there is really only one quarterback that fits that bill left on the schedule. Unfortunately, that player is Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett, who is another Heisman Trophy candidate.

Barrett has been in the Heisman conversation for four seasons now, and in that time has rushed for 2,624 yards and 33 touchdowns, while throwing for 7,138 yards and 74 touchdowns.

But Oliver also knows that playing against a mobile quarterback can’t be an excuse for the Illini defense. They need to learn from their mistakes, and they have eight weeks to do so before they travel to Columbus to take on the Buckeyes.

“We’ve been working on running and keeping an eye on where the quarterback is at,” Oliver said. “Last game (Flowers) outplayed us and outworked us, and that can’t happen again.”

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