|AP Photo/Ted S. Warren|
Defense: 3-3-5 Over - Mixed Cover 4, Cover 1, and Cover 3 Robber
What I'm about to say is going to feel like a common thread throughout: to me Illinois has the athletes but not the discipline. The primary trouble was pursuit angles and finishing tackles, especially from the DBs. Even the plays that got snuffed out, the pursuit angles were often poor, and tacklers had to come from behind (meaning extra YAC for the ball carrier). It's not an athlete issue, as Illinois looked plenty fast in the defensive backfield and at LB, it's fundamentals. Understand where your help is and how you need to leverage the ball. Understand that you need to keep your feet moving, eyes up, and bring your body through the tackle, wrapping up while bringing a guy down. There were just too many issues with taking bad angles or reaching out to try to tackle someone or a variety of both. Several chances for TFL or stops for a few yards turn into much bigger gains and change the entire complexion of a series.
Understanding the situation
The defensive backs just need to be smarter, period. Part of the problem is hinted at above: when I looked for what Illinois's base was, they pretty much ran everything. They ran Cover 4, Cover 1, Cover 3, Cover 3 Robber, Cover 0, Cover 2. There is nothing wrong with being multiple, but 1) you need to hang your hat on something, I didn't find that something; and 2) when you are struggling in coverage, you need to trim down the playbook, because scheming out coverage mistakes doesn't work.
For instance, you have 3rd and 20ish, you run Cover 4. Safety breaks down on shallow cross (not a vertical threat, a shallow cross from the opposite side of the field that is picked up by the OLB, ). The safety shouldn't break down anyway given that the drag isn't a threat for the first down, but the OLB picks it up, and it's the #1 vertical threat that is an issue. This puts a CB on a one on one situation on the outside to cover the entire half of the field because you don't help inside and over the top. So the coverage is run wrong nominally, it's run very wrong given the situation. Then to top it off, the CB doesn't look back to ball and gets a PI call about 8 yards short of the first down. It's a cheap first down given because your CB is alone on the outside, isn't disciplined in his coverage, doesn't understand the situation and the threats, and makes a mistake. But it's like 5 mistakes that lead to a cheap first down, when any one thing would mitigate the problem.
This is who I think is suffering the most from a lack of a base. The CBs need to understand leverage better. Can't allow outside release from the slot in Cover 1 at end of half on a long corner route. It's third down, Illinois is fighting to get the ball back, Washington is inside their own 20, and suddenly they are near midfield and threatening to score again. Where is your help? It's Cover 1, your help is in the middle, in the wash, especially from a bunch set. But instead Washington can spring big play off of a corner route right before half.
That's just an example, but there were issues like that throughout. Yes, for the most part they understand the theory, they play hang coverage in Cover 3, they play off-man or press in Cover 1 on the outside. They turn the right way, things like that. But that's high level stuff, it's in the details where they get beat. Where they become soft on the backend and make mistakes that leave receivers open. When do you rotate off, where do your eyes go, where's the threat coming from, how do I leverage this receiver into help and to see what I need to see? Those little issues were issues that Washington exploited, and unless Illinois's pressure got home, they were able to identify it post snap.
The Front 6
At this point, it's just very inconsistent. And by inconsistent, it ranges from really great flashes to really bad mistakes. It's the entire range. Again, it's not the caliber of athlete, LBs shot gaps very well at time and really messed up some run plays. The DL did some things that really caused some issues for the offense. But then LBs shot the wrong gap and were taken out of the play immediately, or they got caught in the wash and couldn't get out, or they just took a bad angle to the ball and didn't understand leverage and force and spill and all those things. So it's just really inconsistent. They are trying to play fast, but I think the game is still moving a little fast for them. Need to do better with their eyes and with their feet to get them in better positions to consistently make plays and not get caught behind the play. And they need to be more consistent finishing the play at the end when they have a chance (this wasn't a huge problem, for the most part the front tackled pretty well in the box, in space was another issue).
I know the game got out of hand a bit early, but Illinois is a team that needs to feed the RBs. The backs have good vision and good cutback ability. OL isn't great, but RBs tend to make most of what is in front of them. Combined, they can run well between the tackles and on the edge.
I think they'd be smart to use more split back sets or offset I sets from the pistol and get both runners involved, both in the run game and quick screen game. Keep ahead of the chains, and keep the defense from pressuring the QB. These guys will help the offense when they are on the field. A good running attack takes pressure off of QB and makes job easier for OL.
Lunt was late a lot with his reads. His OL didn't give him a ton of help, but the only real issue consistently was from the RT Heitz, who struggled in several ways on the edge (much of it over extended with his arms and reaching, or getting too wide in his set and being able to be pushed off balance). He maintained his eyes downfield but failed to pull the trigger on time. The ball simply needs to come out. Illinois, for whatever reason, decided they wanted to attack the hash to the middle of the field on a lot of short and intermediate passes. This didn't seem to help Lunt, as Washington ran a ton of Cover 2, which overloads the underneath coverage. But that puts even more emphasis on getting the ball out on time, when the receiver breaks, trust him to sit in the void. It seems to be a lack of trust in his receivers to make the correct read, and a lack of trust in his reading of his keys.
Also struggled appropriately reading coverage at times, taking to much time to figure out single-high vs two-high safety looks. Illinois ran a lot of 2x2 concepts with a single-high beater on one side and a two-high beater on the other. He needs to get into his progression quicker and get the ball out on time, especially if Illinois wants to dink and dunk down field.
I think at the end of the day, Illinois needs to help him here. They need to establish more of a PA run game and simply reads. Throw the ball to the outside and in the intermediate to make the reads clearer for Lunt and suck up some of the underneath coverage. Don't force Lunt to make a lot of underneath reads or he freezes up a bit. Help him clear out some area behind the play, let him make a quick read and release the football to a safer spot away from the wash (the sideline). When Illinois did that, they had some success.
Do Something Well
On both sides of the ball, Illinois is fairly multiple. Unfortunately, they aren't very good at any one thing. They need to establish something to go forward with. Too much confusion with angles, leverage, pursuit on defense (not to mention coverage), and offense looks gumbled for the QB. I don't mind being multiple necessarily. I think there are strengths to trying to scheme the other team a bit, obviously. But where are the strengths of this team? They need to be better defined, plain and simple. You need things to slow down for these guys a little bit before you can throw the whole playbook at them. That's not to say the concepts are necessarily difficult, nothing they are doing is exotic. But I just see a lot of confusion and that forces hesitation or, sometimes worse yet, playing too fast.
Also, cut the stupid penalties. Eleven penalties for 110 yards, 10 yards a pop. That is just giving so many free yards. It can't happen. And most of those penalties were from effort or technique mistakes, they were just bad penalties to take. This is a team that needs to play smarter, not faster, not more athletic, they just need to understand and execute their assignments better.