Illinois took the field at Camp Randall Stadium last weekend hoping that a game against a struggling Wisconsin squad was just what they needed to turn around a nightmare season. After keeping it close through three quarters in which neither team could move the ball, they gave up 21 fourth-quarter points en route to a 31-14 loss. The Badgers, which entered the game averaging just 309 yards of total offense, put up 427 on 7.4 yards per play; the Illini could muster just 284 yards of their own.
As you can see, first-year head coach Tim Beckman couldn't bear to take in such a performance without putting in a lip-full of dip. Like pretty much every other decision made by Tim Beckman this year, this was stupid:
Illinois self-reported a level 2 secondary violation to the Big Ten Conference after coach Tim Beckman was seen chewing tobacco during Saturday's game against Wisconsin.
The NCAA prohibits the use of chewing tobacco for coaches, game officials and players during practice and games.
"It's a bad habit, and one that definitely will be corrected," Beckman said on Tuesday.
Illinois football, ladies and gentlemen!
[Hit THE JUMP for the full breakdown and definitely not more pictures of Beckman channeling his inner redneck. No, definitely not more of those.]
Spread, Pro-Style, or Hybrid? Spread. Illinois mostly operates out of the shotgun, mixing in some pistol and the occasional snap under center.
Basketball on Grass or MANBALL? MANBALL. Even on read options and play-action passes, Illinois usually pulled a guard; they called one or two inside zones and otherwise stuck to gap blocking principles.
Hurry it up or grind it out? For a spread team, Illinois doesn't really go high-tempo, instead moving at around average pace.
Quarterback Dilithium Level (Scale: 1 [Navarre] to 10 [Denard]): Nathan Scheelhaase hadn't done much running this season until the Wisconsin game, but he broke out against the Badgers to the tune of 107 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries (5.9 ypc) when sacks are removed. While he sometimes scrambled before his pocket broke down, he did a great job keeping passing plays alive with his feet while still looking for receivers downfield late in the game. He scored his touchdown on a rollout pass, breaking contain and turning the corner before diving in for a five-yard tally. His legs are definitely his best asset and really the one part of the Illini offense to fear. I'll give him an 8.
Dangerman: Like I said above, Scheelhaase's scrambling ability provides the one real threat from the Illini offense. He wins this category by default.
Zook Factor: You win the Zook Factor by having your fanbase pine for the days of Ron Zook. This is not a good thing to win.
BONUS: Illinois is the only other Big Ten team I've seen that still eschews the spread punt for a traditional punt formation. It's just you and Tim Beckman, Coach Hoke. Think about that for a minute.
HenneChart: Scheelhaase had a very up-and-down day against Wisconsin. He had a terrible first half, throwing an awful interception on a well-covered hitch. His second half was far more productive, though it's worth noting that his DSR vastly improved in the late going when Illinois fell behind and the Badgers went conservative with their defense. His biggest passing play of the day, a 23-yard wheel route off play-action, should have gone for a touchdown but was underthrown—I gave him a CA (mentally insert "-minus") but it could've easily been an MA. The last Illini drive was not charted as the game was well in hand.
As you can see, pressure really affected Scheelhaase; all four of his throwaways were scrambles well short of the sticks, and he rarely dropped back without facing at least some pressure.
I went over the tape with a friend who played football at the D3 level, and he was shocked by the predictability of Illinois' offense. When going to the shotgun, Illinois plans to pass; they threw on 2/3 of their shotgun snaps, and that number would be higher if not for six(!) give-up-and-punt quarterback draws on third-and-long situations. Illinois had seven charted snaps out of the pistol, running on five of them and throwing two play-action passes. From under center, they ran three play-action passes to just one run, reminiscent of Michigan's use of the I-form.
Even the plays within each set were easy to figure out. Illinois brought out a strange split-back pistol formation twice; both times they ran a fake bubble and threw a screen to a running back leaking out to the opposite side—this worked for a decent gain on the first attempt, then was completely blown up the second time around. Their runs from the shotgun were almost entirely inverted veers; all but one handoff to the running back from the gun went to the edge.
Audibles at the line were easy to decipher. When Scheelhaase checked from a run to a pass, the running back moved from an offset position behind Scheelhaase—where he'd be moving downhill for a handoff—to a position next to the quarterback, where he was in a better spot for a blitz pickup.
No wonder Illinois is 101st in total offense; if this blogger with zero football playing or coaching experience can call out plays before the snap, it's not a good sign.
Scheelhaase can make plays with his legs, and Illinois asked him to generate much of their offense on inverted veer keepers and QB draws; he was productive on the ground, in large part because their interior line handled Wisconsin's unimpressive DTs. His arm, however, looked surprisingly weak; he's not getting much zip on his throws, which led to the interception when he was late on an 8-yard hitch even though the throw was to the boundary. Couple that weak arm with some bad decisions, and there should be chances for Michigan's secondary to come up with turnovers.
The non-Scheelhaase running game was non-existent—the two backs, Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson, combined for 16 yards on 11 carries. Illinois' line got crushed on the edge all day, so Scheelhaase rightly kept on most inverted veers, and non-option runs up the middle found little room to operate. I don't expect that to change against a suddenly-competent Wolverine interior line.
Illinois tried one end-around to receiver Ryan Lankford. He gained six yards and promptly fumbled, though Wisconsin fumbled the ball right back to Illinois on the return. Derp squared.
The receivers struggled to get separation all day, contributing to the need for Scheelhaase to pull the ball down and get any yardage he could with his feet. There's no downfield threat to speak of, no big target to serve as a possession receiver—my friend noted their wideouts all resembled freshman Roy Roundtrees—and nobody who's athletic enough to get the ball in space and create yards. Starting tight end Jon Davis wasn't a major part of the offense, catching just one pass for seven yards; there's nobody to threaten the seam, either.
The offensive line continually allowed pressure off the edge, causing Scheelhaase to get skittish in the pocket as the game wore on. As noted above, they also failed to get push on non-option plays, though the interior did manage to create some seams for Scheelhaase when they ran read-option plays.
I thought Purdue was pretty bad when I evaluated them last week, but at least they had a coherent plan and some athletes to fear on the edge. There's no such threat with this Illinois team. Shut down Scheelhaase's legs and they can't move the ball. I think Greg Mattison can find a way to do that.
Any time you can make the assistant chewing gum with his mouth wide open look like less of a slack-jawed yokel than yourself, you have to do it, right?
Base Set? 4-3.
Man or zone coverage? Illinois played a fair amount of man on early downs, then went mostly with Cover 2 and Cover 3 zones on passing downs. The managed to blow coverages in both, so I guess they're equally competent in each.
Pressure: GERG or Greg? The Illini were actually more aggressive with their blitzes on early downs, choosing to sit back and rush four on third downs more often than not. This isn't a bad strategy given the presence of pass-rushing terror Michael Buchanan, speaking of whom...
Dangerman: WDE Michael Buchanan. While Buchanan only has 2.5 sacks to go along with his five tackles for loss this season, he was a constant presence in the Wisconsin backfield. If there wasn't a back or tight end helping on the edge on passing downs, he was able to go right around Wisconsin's tackles and create pressure. He'd have much better numbers if Illinois' defensive tackles could get any sort of push into the pocket, but Joel Stave always had room to step up and avoid the rush he created.
Buchanan is pretty thin at 6'6", 250, but he finds a way to affect the run game anyway. Wisconsin tried leaving him unblocked on a couple read plays and he did a stellar job of staying home and waiting to commit until the last possible moment, coming up with a couple impressive tackles. He also is able to utilize his athleticism to chase down plays that go away from his to great effect.
The one area where Buchanan is susceptible is on runs right at him; his size is an issue when he's attacked straight-up by an offensive tackle. Michigan would be wise to run in his direction instead of allowing him to chase down plays from the back-side.
If cornerback Terry Hawthorne—who was taken off the field in an ambulance after a scary collision in the Wisconsin game and is currently questionable for Michigan—can't go this weekend, this is a defense with two good players and nine below-averages ones. Buchanan has been covered; strongside linebacker Jonathan Brown is the other threat, a player who usually ends up around the ball and leads the team with 6.5 TFL after tallying 19.5 last year.
The biggest weak point appears to be the defensive tackles; both nose tackle Akeem Spence and three-tech Glenn Foster were repeatedly put on skates, allowing Montee Ball and James White to combine for 158 yards on 25 carries (6.3 ypc), most of those coming right up the gut—this isn't a great angle, but watch them get pushed entirely out of the play on this TD run. SDE Justin Staples was easily sealed most of the time, not helping matters. If Michigan can't get Toussaint going on Saturday, give up on him doing anything of substance the rest of the season; even if he's productive, it'll say more about the Illini defense than the Michigan offense.
Non-Brown linebackers were not impressive. Middle linebacker Mason Monheim is a true freshman who was a middling three-star recruit; he played like it, getting pushed out of the hole and misreading plays with regularity. At one point he had a free run at Ball and instead ran smack into a befuddled guard for no apparent reason. "STAR" Ashante Williams is a safety masquerading as a linebacker. Again, Michigan should be able to run all over these guys.
Hawthorne was impressive in coverage, but I'd be surprised if he's able to play on Saturday. The rest of the secondary should be easy to pick on. Jared Abbredaris ran wild to the tune of 117 yards and a touchdown on seven catches; his touchdown came when safety Steve Hull bit hard on a run fake despite being responsible for the deep middle in a Cover 3, allowing Abbredaris to go right over the top for 59 yards on a post. The corners tend to play off, especially in man, so there should be ample room for quick hitters.
Michigan's gameplan shouldn't change much—if at all—from the Purdue game. The inverted veer should work extremely well for Denard against the poor Illini tackles, and Toussaint may finally find some running room this weekend. With the run game presumably moving the ball at will, play-action should create some big plays in the passing game. I honestly don't see how Illinois holds this team below 35 points—I can't say I'm surprised that Michigan is currently favored by 23 points, and I'd either stay away from that bet entirely or go with the Wolverines.