The internet appears to be looking out for me, as the only Illinois game readily available was their 31-16 loss at Nebraska a few weeks ago. This prevented me from going over more recent games against Purdue and Rutgers. Thank you, internet.
The Illini managed intermittent success on the ground against the Huskers in a game that was close until midway through the fourth quarter. Their lack of a downfield passing game doomed them; that has been their biggest issue on offense with Wes Lunt at quarterback.
Of course, we're not sure who Illinois will play at QB on Saturday. Lunt exited the Purdue game and missed last week's Rutgers game with a back injury. He's back at practice; replacement Chayse Crouch would provide more a dual-threat, spread-option look if Lunt is benched or can't go.
Personnel. Seth's diagram [click to embiggen]:
Another week, another pair of stars added to the Michigan defense; this time around, Ben Gedeon and Delano Hill add theirs. Only Dymonte Thomas and Mike McCray to go, and to be honest, neither is too far off.
The Illinois lineup can only be a guess. Lunt is questionable, three different tailbacks have started, and the offensive line has had five different starting combinations in six games—though they've at least kept this look for two straight weeks.
Spread, Pro-Style, or Hybrid? Hybrid. Illinois spent a lot of early downs in a three-WR I-form, a lot of passing downs in the gun, and they mixed in their fair share of Ace and pistol looks. It's hard to pin down an offensive identity for them.
Basketball on Grass or MANBALL? Mostly zone blocking in this game, with a couple interesting wrinkles, one of which will be covered later.
Hurry it up or grind it out? A slow grind. Illinois is 124th in adjusted pace. They don't huddle that often; they do stand around forever staring at the sideline.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the breakdown.]
Quarterback Dilithium Level (Scale: 1 [Navarre] to 10 [Denard]): Lunt was the quarterback for all but a few snaps in this game, and he's not much of a running threat with 26 yards on six non-sack carries this year. This game featured his longest run of the season, a 14-yard scramble when the Huskers abandoned their lanes up front—Lunt hit the deck as soon as a safety presented himself. He gets a 4.
I haven't seen as much of Crouch, but he has 191 yards on 26 non-sack carries this year. He's a far bigger threat on the ground.
Dangerman: Malik Turner had a tough time getting separation against Nebraska corner Josh Kalu, who's been excellent when I've watched him this year. Against other defensive backs, however, he found room to operate. Turner isn't the quickest or fastest receiver, but he's got a big frame and good route-running skills:
If the Illini need to go downfield, Turner is almost always the primary target. He's grading out at an impressive +10.3 on PFF; no other Illinois receiver to get serious playing time has a positive grade. He can make contested catches, something he'll probably have to do against Michigan's corners, who are better than Kalu and a whole lot better than Nebraska's non-Kalu corners.
Zook Factor: Lovie Smith is a conservative NFL guy who's probably going to do some conservative NFL things. Or just bork clock management. Illinois had a scoring opportunity at the end of the first half following a Tommy Armstrong interception that set them up just inside NU territory with 28 seconds left. Lunt scrambled for a first down on their first play of the drive, temporarily stopping the clock. With two timeouts and 20 seconds on the clock, Illinois tried to hurry to the line instead of using one of their two timeouts; four seconds burned off the clock before the Lovie realized it was a better idea to call a TO.
Illinois managed to get only one offensive snap off after that when Lunt left a throw to the inside, keeping his wideout inbounds. Lovie had no choice but to use their final timeout and kick a field goal. This is a minor nitpick—Illinois was mostly hoping to improve FG position and they did make the kick—but clock management may not be their forte.
HenneChart: Lunt is notorious for playing it safe to a fault and rarely going downfield, and that's important to keep in mind when looking at the chart:
That's a thoroughly meh outing, and it's worse when you note Lunt barely cracked ten yards per completion. Lunt is a strange player to evaluate. He'll occasionally make incredible touch passes:
He'll also do stuff like throw this ball on third and goal:
Lunt plays it way too safe when throwing downfield, which prevents interceptions but also keeps Illinois from sustaining drives. His bad reads weren't of the "this should've been picked" variety, but instead were marked as such for dumping the ball off short of the sticks on third downs when a receiver with some hope of converting would've been a better target.
Crouch did come in for part of one possession near the goal line; he handed off on a blown-up read option, found an open receiver in the flat for a first down, and took a delay of game before Lunt came back in. Even if Lunt plays, don't be surprised to see Crouch as a change-of-pace option.
This really is a grab-bag:
Certain formations were blatant tips: pistol meant run, shotgun almost always meant pass. Game flow played a large part in that. Illinois tried to establish the run on early downs and had some success; when they failed, they got into obvious passing downs, and that didn't go so well.
Illinois faced ten third- or fourth-down tries. They passed on all ten—out of necessity—and converted only two. That included a dumpoff swing pass to a running back by Lunt on Illinois's final, desperation drive down two scores late in the fourth; he was tackled for no gain on a play that summed up the Wes Lunt experience.
Lunt's conservative ways aren't entirely his fault. Turner was the only receiver who been his man with any frequency. I had Seth label Justin Hardee as a sore spot in part because of his negative PFF rating but more because I went through an entire game without really noticing he was on the field; somewhere in there he grabbed three passes for 17 yards. He couldn't get open downfield at all. Slot Zach Grant didn't fare much better, getting a decent chunk early on a wide open crossing route and otherwise having a quiet game. This passing game is nothing to fear for Michigan.
The running game showed some life. Illinois flips their offensive line based on boundary/field alignment; the side with Christian DiLauro and Nick Allegretti opened up some nice holes, including this zone stretch for a touchdown:
Kendrick Foster, the RB on the play above, didn't stand out too much beyond running fast in the open field, but his stats indicate he finds the open field with regularity. That was certainly the case for Reggie Corbin, who looked explosive between the tackles in a Chris Evans-like fashion. Corbin had several runs that reached the secondary, including back-to-back carries when Illinois actually managed to tempo Nebraska:
That sequence also shows one of Illinois's interesting zone run changeups; note on the first play that while the rest of the offensive line is blocking an inside zone, the right tackle (DiLauro in this case) pulls to the inside and leads through the middle. James Light helped me out in identifying the blocking scheme:
@AceAnbender Rather than double the 3 tech up to the LB like you typically would on IZ, RG blocks down & RT folds around. Good angles @ LOS
— James Light (@JamesALight) October 19, 2016
He called that an inside zone with a Dart/Fold tag, which can be a check at the line based on a certain alignment from the defense or its own separate playcall.
While there was room to the DiLauro/Allegretti side, the same could not be said for the opposite side, which in this game featured Gabe Megginson at tackle and Darta Lee at guard. They were bad in both phases, and while Lee is back on the bench, Megginson has started every game and amassed a -22.5 PFF grade, which portends DOOM against M's D-line. Megginson gave up an easy sack, took a hold to prevent another, and got stonewalled in the run game. DiLauro didn't fare much better in pass protection, giving up pressures on a couple plays that kept Lunt from going through his full progression. Even with Austin Schmidt back at tackle, this offensive line isn't a match for M's defensive front.