Late defensive penalties kill Illinois football momentum
October 4, 2016
It was third-and-12 late in the third quarter when Nebraska had the ball and Illinois was up 16-10. Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. caught the snap and looked down field. The Illini defensive line broke through and forced him to his left.
While Armstrong Jr. tried to buy time with his feet, Illini defensive lineman Chunky Clements was on his tail. Clements chased him all the way to right sideline. At the last second, Armstrong Jr. cut up field. Clements dove to make the tackle, but his right hand hooked the inside of Armstrong’s pads, warranting a horse collar penalty from the officials.
It was an automatic first down for Nebraska.
“The effort was there, but (as a line) we need to get better from a mental aspect,” Clements said. “I wish I would’ve hit him lower, but it was just bad hand placement trying to make a play for the team.”
That was the start of the problems for the Illinois defense. Clements committed the penalty on the eighth play of the drive. Four plays later, on fourth down, Illinois defensive back Darius Mosely committed a pass interference penalty to give Nebraska another automatic first down.
The drive continued for another 10 plays, culminating in Nebraska taking the lead, 17-16.
Over the 22 plays, the Illini defense was on the field for almost 11 minutes.
“I thought we started off really fast, making plays, flying around,” linebacker Hardy Nickerson said. “But the third quarter was just disappointing. Looking back at the tape there are so many things we could’ve done better; on critical third downs, third and longs, penalties, keeping their drive alive and just trying to get the ball back to our offense.”
After the 22-play drive, the Illini gave up 14 more points. The final blow for the Illini was a 63-yard touchdown run from Nebraska running back Terrell Newby.
Before the 22-play drive, the Illini defense contained the Nebraska run game. Before Newby’s touchdown run late in the fourth quarter, the Cornhuskers only had 140 rushing yards on 47 attempts.
Armstrong, who had been averaging 53 rushing yards per game, only picked up 23 rushing yards against the Illini.
Despite limiting Armstrong Jr., head coach Lovie Smith said his defensive line “has to play better” if the Illini are going to win games.
Nebraska gained 150 yards and scored 21 points in the final quarter. Smith said his team might have been worn down, but in a game like that against a top team in the nation, his team has to be ready to get worn down.
Nickerson said he doesn’t think the defense got tired, but when the defense is out on the field for so long, mistakes like the horse collar penalty are bound to happen.
“I don’t think we were wearing down,” Nickerson said. “We are all in great shape, so it is just one of those things that we were on the field for a long time. We got to step up in that situation and make a big play.”
Carroll Phillips not out for long
The Illini defensive line took a big hit against Nebraska when defensive lineman Carroll Phillips left the game with an injury.
The senior leads the nation in tackles for a loss per game with 2.5, even after leaving Saturday’s game early.
Phillips did not return for the rest of the game, but Smith said Phillips’ injury is not a long term injury. He would not provide any details on the injury, but Smith “hopes” that Phillips will be back for the Purdue game this week.
Phillips got hurt right before Nebraska scored their first of three touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
From then on, the Illini defensive line could not contain the run game. Defensive end Gimiel President filled in for Phillips, and according to defensive coordinator Nickerson, he will continue to fill in for Phillips until he gets back from injury.
“It never helps when you lose a guy who has been playing really well for you,” Nickerson said. “ But President is one of those guys that is in the rotation, and he is always ready when his number is called.”