By Steve Sturm - IlliniGuys Football Contributor
October 4, 2021
I'm sure it won't surprise anyone that I'm starting this week's trench report with the clip of Chase Brown's big play. However, first I wanted to write a bit about the guy I keep thinking about when I see Chase Brown do well at Illinois: Pierre Thomas. For you younger fans, Thomas played for some truly awful Illini teams from 2003-2006. Thomas was a bit small at the time and Illinois had several good runners during that period, so Thomas didn't get the carries that you might expect for a player who was so successful. In total, Thomas played 45 games in the Orange and Blue, starting 33, and racked up 2,545 yards on 453 carries. That's about 10 carries per game at 5.6 yards per carry. Because of his low profile and Illinois' terrible performance at the time, Thomas went undrafted. However, Thomas went on to have a nice long career in the NFL with over 6,000 total yards and 40 touchdowns. The reason I'm highlighting Thomas is that Chase Brown is on the same path. He's a little small to be an every down back, but he's awfully good if you can keep him fresh. He's roughly the same size as Thomas was at Illinois, and he's even averaging 5.6 yards per carry so far. I fear that Brown might slip through the cracks on his way to the NFL like Thomas did as well, but I hope that isn't the case.
Of course, this was Brown's best play on a day when he was running with a lot of determination, but I want everyone to notice how well the Illini block on this play.
Every one of these blocks is a win for the Orange and Blue. Pearl at right guard arguably allows some penetration, but he's aware the play is to the other side so I see this as a pretty savvy move as he sees his man is diving so he just helps him to the ground but doesn't finish him in a way that would draw a flag. The play is blocked so well that you can even see Brown hesitate just a bit as he approaches the Illinois 30 yard line partly because of his surprise at being so open and partly because he's shifting gears and re-adjusting his stride to take advantage of all the open green turf in front of him. This is a very standard, vanilla type of play that teams have been running for generations. But, like any play, if the offense hits all its blocks it will be successful. It just so happens that Illinois blocked it perfectly on a day when Chase Brown was truly in a zone.
Turning to Brown's counterpart, Josh McCray continued his solid production on Saturday and this was my favorite run of his on the day.
Illinois is in a two tight end set and even though Illinois doesn't block the play particularly well, McCray's talent and the play call provide Illinois an 8 yard gain. Barker gets blown back so badly that I wondered if he did it on purpose in order to get his man out of the play like Pearl on the play above. I eliminated that possibility since it would be such a bad gamble. Ford doesn't touch anyone on the weak side of the play. The line as a whole is attempting to reach block to their left and they all do their jobs decently, but none of them stand out. What makes this play work is that Charlotte stacks several defenders on the wide side of the field, and McCray does a nice job running past the initial hole between the guard and tackle to find the seam in next gap beyond the tackle. If not for a couple of lucky swipes by the pursuing weakside defenders, McCray would have taken this one all the way to the end zone and shared some glory with Brown.
Turning to the defense, Illinois showed a few new wrinkles that interested me on Saturday. This one was my favorite.
For several weeks now Illinois has been having Owen Carney line up as a true defensive end with the other outside linebacker standing up, but normally the two outside linebackers have been lining up on opposite sides. On this play, however, Illinois lines Seth Coleman up on the same side as Carney, who is essentially a defensive tackle on this play with two other outside linebackers on the field. The new wrinkle works perfectly, as Carney attacks the guard who's on his face and then works to occupy the tackle while Coleman loops inside the guard who has vacated his gap to follow Carney. Illinois runs a similar stunt on the opposite side with Gay and Newton but the left guard plays it perfectly, while the Center happens to shift toward Gay just as Coleman is looping by him. This is a common pass rushing scheme in the NFL, but you don't see it very often in college and I have to say I was impressed with how well Illinois executed it. Everyone stays in their rush lanes and Coleman fakes toward the tackle opposite him for the perfect amount of time before starting his loop.
I included this play just to illustrate the "belly" play. I wasn't impressed with Charlotte quarterback Chris Reynolds' talent on Saturday, but I did appreciate his execution and this belly play was a great example of how Reynolds is getting the most out of his ability.
The "belly" play is a designed run to the running back, but the quarterback has the ability to pull the ball back from the running back if he sees the end defender crash down the line toward the primary ball carrier. It has become a fairly common play in college football, and you'll even see it in the NFL from time to time, particularly near the goal line. In this case the end defender is true freshman DJ Johnson, who surely never saw the belly play executed as well as this last year in high school. Johnson doesn't get completely sucked in like I've seen from other edge defenders. Gay bit on the same fake earlier in the game much worse than Johnson, for instance. However, Johnson is fooled so badly by Reynolds' excellent fake that he breaks down to honor Reynolds' threat as a runner, yet still continues after the running back and even chases him through the hole before he realizes to his chagrin that he has missed his assignment and circles back to help with the tackle. Joseph fails to break down on Reynolds and whiffs on the tackle before Martin fights off the block of the tight end and combined with Johnson stops Reynolds after a 12 yard gain.
There's one other reason I wrote about the belly play this week: I want to see it added back into Illinois' playbook. I'm sure everyone reading this article remembers how many times Brandon Peters broke a big run the last two years running this play, but we haven't seen it at all this year. Appalachian State used its quarterbacks as runners fairly often last year, and as I look back through Tony Petersen's career that has generally been the case. Peters have been a little fragile the last two years though, so I'm guessing that Brett Bielema has instructed Tony Petersen not to risk Peters' health by having him run. However, I think that's a lost opportunity. Peters has often eaten up huge chunks of yardage on this play and he can always just hit the ground a little earlier if that's what the coaching staff wishes. If nothing else, if the offense makes the belly play a part of its' repertoire again, edge defenders will be a step slower to help on running plays and that has value too.
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