Previously: Illinois Offense
A good D-line only does so much when you have this back seven.
Nebraska had eight real drives against Illinois. This is how they went:
- Four touchdowns (13 plays-75 yards, 18-75, 11-59, 2-70)
- Drives of 11-47 and 10-53 ending in field goal attempts (one make, one miss)
- Two plays, 28 yards, hilariously bad Tommy Armstrong interception
- 5-play, 17-yard drive in Illinois territory ending in a lost fumble
The Huskers didn't have much in the way of explosive plays; they still had a scoring opportunity every time they didn't turn the ball over, and those turnovers were Nebraska making bad plays instead of Illinois doing something particularly good.
The Illini do boast a disruptive defensive line, but they can be pushed around, and that back seven is having a rough go.
Personnel: Seth's diagram [click to embiggen]:
The Illini have made a few lineup changes in the weeks since Nebraska. Taylor Barton, who did not look good at free safety in this game, has been yanked in favor of freshman Stanley Green, who hadn't played a defensive snap until the Purdue game two weeks ago. Freshman Kenyon Jackson has replaced Rob Bain at defensive tackle for reasons that elude me. Nickel Chris James has lost his role to normal starting corner Darius Mosely, who slid inside to make room for JuCo transfer Amari Hayes on the outside. The lineup above, to say the least, is not set in stone.
Base Set? Illinois had played more 4-2-5 nickel than anything else, but Nebraska's heavier formations revealed how they'll likely line up against Michigan. The Illini play a 4-3 against those sets, often with a safety rolled into the box:
They play both over and under fronts when in a 4-3. While normally a Tampa 2 team, they played a lot of one-high coverage in these scenarios.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the breakdown.]
Man or zone coverage? A heavy use of Cover 2, as you'd expect from a Tampa Bay guy like Lovie Smith. They mixed in Cover 3 when in the 4-3. They weren't very good at that—this is the nickel corner playing man while everyone else is in zone, opening up a dig route to the top of the screen:
The Illini had a few coverage busts in this game, usually on the perimeter. Screens of all varieties were killing them; this bubble was especially open since both defensive backs to that side of the field following one receiver:
Despite the awkward catch, that was an easy first down pickup.
Pressure: GERG or Greg? The one thing Illinois does consistently well is generate pressure with their defensive line, so they mostly abstained from blitzing. They bluffed a few double-A-gap blitzes and backed out of them each time—this mostly served to open up underneath throws.
Dangerman: Depending on who was on the line around him, Dawuane Smoot lined up at both SDE and WDE, and he consistently worked his way into the backfield from either spot. Here's an explosive TFL as an SDE:
And a nimble spin got him a near-sack as a WDE:
Illinois has a few solid defensive linemen, but Smoot is both the most explosive and most consistent of the bunch. He's grading out on PFF at +13.0 on the year with 10.2 of that coming from his pass rush—he's also a plus run defender, though he can be pushed off the line. JBB is going to get all he can handle; scraping out close to even would be a win for him.
If I had to do a one-play summation, this would suffice. DT Chunky Clements, an up-and-down player in the Early Hurst mold, gets immediate pressure that should result in a sack, but MIKE Hardy Nickerson Jr. inexplicably abandons his zone and allows a first-down throw:
Let's start up front. Illinois has some good players there. Smoot is a problem. DTs Rob Bain and Jamal Milan both stood out to me as strong run defenders—I clipped a nice run stuff from Milan and was tempted to add another to the video pile before realizing he isn't in the starting lineup. SDE Gimel President, an Auburn grad transfer, has the size and strength to allow Smoot to move to the weak side. WDE Carroll Phillips is more in the Winovich mold; he provides decent pass-rush, too, though he's more susceptible to getting pushed off the line—his presence forces Smoot to play SDE. Freshman DT Kenyon Jackson looks like a freshman for the most part, but did have a couple nice plays in this game.
There are players here, but I'm perplexed by their deployment. As mentioned, Illinois has been shaking up their lineup quite a bit lately. If I had to choose their best D-line based on this game, it's Smoot-Bain-Milan-President, and PFF concurs. Instead, Illinois has been rolling out Phillips-Clements-Jackson-Smoot, which I don't get. Clements shoots upfield too often, opening up big run lanes when he isn't making a play in the backfield; Jackson is a freshman DT; Phillips gets pushed around in the run game. In part because of lineup choices, Illinois was worn down on the ground by Nebraska late in this game. Still, they make a number of excellent plays up front; the problems are far bigger on the back end.
The linebackers had a really rough go in this one, especially Nickerson, who has a -10.2 PFF grade with a major negative in pass coverage and smaller but significant negatives in the other two phases. The Tampa 2 defense asks a lot out of the MIKE in coverage—he has to be able to get a deep drop in the middle of the field, identify players coming into that zone, and make plays on the ball. Nickerson simply doesn't look up to the task:
The linebacker play across the board wasn't good. All three LBs had a tough time getting off blocks and didn't always take good angles to the ball to begin with—on this play, Nickerson is blocked past the play while WILL Tre Watson (#33) is blown up:
The linebackers and safeties combined to make the screen game very, very successful. I've already embedded a video of a slip screen at the top and a screencap of a bubble. Here are two more—another slip screen and a RB swing that caught Nickerson entirely off guard:
Nebraska also had an easy 11 yard pickup on a jet sweep. The edges are there for the taking.
The secondary didn't stand out, either. It was easy to see why Barton was pulled, even in favor of a freshman safety—he had a couple whiffs in the run game and gave up a third-and-goal TD by abandoning his zone. Strong safety Patrick Nelson was one of the primary culprits on the successful slip screens (watch #21 in the clip that leads off this post). Rolling out two freshman safeties in a Tampa 2 scheme is asking for trouble.
Corner Jaylen Dunlap has a positive PFF grade and looked the most competent of the secondary; the only target against him I have in my notes was an incomplete deep post he covered very well. His lack of targets looked like a combination of solid coverage on his part and not-so-solid coverage elsewhere. This was a flat drop by Nebraska on a should-be TD:
I don't even remember why the safety (standing right below the 'x' on the 35) got as far upfield as he did, but it was a very bad idea.
We should learn one thing about Michigan's offense: who should play left tackle. Smoot is going to test both OTs in this game, and I'd expect Illinois will try to get him singled up on JBB if the starting O-line remains the same. That's a matchup Illinois will win, and Smoot will also be a tough test for Mason Cole if Cole flips outside. Everything else looks like it should be in Michigan's favor. Harbaugh's constant shifts and misdirection should open up some big plays against this shaky back seven, and running straight ahead looks like it'll work, too.