ASU’s up-tempo offense offers teaching points for Illini

Editor’s Note: The Sunday after every Illini football game, Dan sits down and reviews the previous week’s football game. His take will appear every Tuesday.

ESPN broadcaster Brock Huard mentioned that Arizona State head coach Todd Graham reminded him of Oregon head coach Chip Kelly a few times during Saturday night’s 31-point victory for the Sun Devils.

Kelly is known for running his spread offense with a fast, aggressive mentality to score as quick and often as possible, which was put on display as all of the Sun Devils’ scoring drives were less than three minutes. The speed with which the Sun Devils operated, in conjunction with the systematic rotation of their players, overwhelmed Illinois’ defense throughout the “game”:

Essentially, whether Arizona State ran four wide with one tailback or trips with a split backfield, among many other formations, receivers and running backs were always in motion.

With the constant motion came confusion. Further adding to the chaos was the frequency of Arizona State’s play action, which was no more evident than on tight end Chris Coyle’s two touchdown receptions. On both plays, the 6-foot-3 tight end came in motion across the field and evaded the Illinois defense for an easy score.

Various other plays throughout the game started with one receiver in motion and resulted in at least one wide-open target down field.

The motion caused confusion on the defensive side of the ball and broke down Illinois’ coverage before the play even started.

The coverage called for a given formation somewhat goes into flux with motion, and the result was one side of the field being overloaded with targets; one receiver would find himself into the soft spots of the Illini secondary.

Graham and his staff’s savvy play calling even carried over into special teams, as the Sun Devils kicked the ball barely into the end zone on more than one occasion as a way to confuse Illinois redshirt freshman kick returner Josh Ferguson about whether to take the ball out.

His strategy proved effective, and Ferguson hesitated on a few returns, which was enough time for the Sun Devils to get down the field and pin the Illini deep in their own territory.

As was on display in Week One against Western Michigan, the key to a successful Illinois defense is getting pressure on the opposing quarterback.

Due to Arizona State’s style of play, Illinois defensive linemen had limited time to get pressure before the play was by them. But credit should also be shed upon the Sun Devils’ offensive line as it provided good protection all game long and gave its two quarterbacks stable pockets to work in.

On the Illinois side of the ball, all was not lost in the desert, as Ferguson broke the century mark in rushing yards for the first time in his college career and sophomore Donovonn Young tacked on a touchdown and over 60 rushing yards himself.

Illinois head coach Tim Beckman altered his offensive line slightly in Week Two, starting sophomore Simon Cvijanovic — who was suspended for the Western Michigan game — at right tackle for sophomore Michael Heitz — who replaced sophomore Alex Hill at left guard.

In an obvious improvement over Week One’s 115 rushing yards, the Illini ran the ball 50 times for 231 yards. The main thing that changed from the first week was the aggression the offensive line came out with against the Sun Devils and that showed in the box score.

Sophomore tight end Jon Davis, who is poised to have a big role this season, didn’t show up in the box score — at least based on last week’s 54-yard rushing “performance”:

Davis was noticeable when he was beat really badly by Arizona State safety Chris Young and blown back into sophomore quarterback Reilly O’Toole. This resulted in a throw that sailed and gave Arizona State its third interception of the night.

In a 12-game season, one week shouldn’t stand out from the rest. The only reason this game contests that ideology is because the defense can learn to more effectively handle up-tempo offenses, featuring quick and experienced athletes.

This tape will be quite handy when the Illini head to Columbus, Ohio, and Ann Arbor, Mich., later in the year — if they want to have any chance at stopping an athletic spread offense in a hostile road environment.

Dan is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @WELINandDEALIN.