Steve Sturm, IlliniGuys Football Analyst
November 15, 2023
Illinois racked up the most scrimmage yards they've ever had in a conference game. Their 662 yards gained made for a fun afternoon at Memorial Stadium and the memory of a lifetime for John Paddock. However, the Illini also allowed 451 yards, and their 139 penalty yards made this a much closer game than you'd think. Not only that, but after re-watching the game I came to the conclusion that much of this success was the result of playing the 14th best defense in the Big Ten. It's going to be a whole different ballgame when the Illini face off against the 4th ranked defense in the Big Ten next week in Iowa City. However, the poor defense was primarily in the Hoosier secondary. The line held up pretty well, and I'm starting this week's trench report with a series of plays at the end of regulation and overtime that show some great defensive line play (and some poor blocking)
On both of these next two plays the Hoosiers rush only three and drop eight, yet they still get home. I have to believe that this first play was a miscommunication of some kind, because Gesky and Crisler retreat in good order with the rest of the pocket but neither guy even thinks to look in the middle. Indiana's outside linebackers are strong pass rushers have 5 and 5.5 sacks on the year and are quality players, but in any situation one of the guards has a secondary assignment to help the center. Andre Carter commits a penalty by driving his hand in Josh Kreutz' facemask, but he was winning this rep regardless, and neither Gesky nor Crisler ever look at that part of the action. Illinois was bailed out in a way because Kreutz had just as much of Carter's facemask, and even finishes the play by ripping the helmet off entirely. I wanted to highlight that this blocking scheme could not have intended that both Gesky and Crisler are blocking air while Josh Kreutz is on his own.
I know I focused on the guards on the play above but take a second and go back and watch Pearl. He's beaten on that play and might have given up a sack but for the penalty. Lanell Carr of Indiana fakes going wide but gets Pearl off balance and off the ground when he drives into him. Pearl's footwork is all wrong because he has one foot in the air at initial contact, and then makes the mistake of taking both feet off the ground when he tries to recover. As you might imagine, that's a huge problem because you can't resist a pass rusher when you have no contact with the ground. Look at this bottom play. This time Carr makes no pretense of going around and bull rushes Pearl to get an even bigger win. This time it's not Pearl's feet but his hands that are the culprit. When you're pass blocking, you can't let the pass rusher get into your chest with his hands, but Pearl's hands are so wide that he has no chance to stop Carr. Carr drives Pearl straight back into Paddock. Pearl not only stumbles back to give up the pocket, but he also even gets in Paddock's way and leads to the sack. I was really surprised to see that from the super senior Pearl.
Most Illini fans were plenty happy to just celebrate after this play. However, take a look at the blocking. Once again Illinois gives up an ugly pressure and in an entirely different way than the two plays above. Gesky shows poor awareness and chases his man across the line horizontally to open up space to the side the allows Josh Kreutz' man to zip right by him. There is no pass blocking scheme that would call for a left guard to cross over and open his hole like this and it just about cost the Illini the game. Isaiah Adams also loses this rep by ducking his head and falling for a rip move such that Paddock has to retreat in order to get away. Of course, all's well that ends well, but this one was the third ugly pass blocking rep in 5 plays when the game was in doubt.
Turning to the defense, I'm starting with a highlight that you're going to see again and again on NFL draft coverage because this play is going to be part of Jer'Zhan Newton's highlight reel when he's drafted early. Trent Howland only has average speed, and he's slowed by the attempted tackle by Rosiek, but you have to appreciate this kind of hustle from Newton. That's a 300-pound man who just made a tackle 15 yards down the field with a special level of effort. I'm going to go out on a limb and project that we're not going to see another play this impressive from the defensive line in 2024.
If we do, it might just be from this guy. Gabe Jacas has been a mild disappointment for me this year. I thought he'd make a sophomore leap and put up some big sack numbers, but he only has 18 tackles, and this is his second sack. It shows a glimpse of what he could be if he puts it all together. This isn't a case of the offensive lineman not being ready or having his feet in a bad position like I showed above with Pearl. Instead, it's a case of a 270 pound outside linebacker with a head of steam putting a 315-pound guard flat on his back. Obviously, part of that is that the guard and tackle were both preoccupied with Illinois' best player, but Mike Katic of Indiana sees the stunt and squares up to Jacas before Jacas runs over him like a freight train.
I have to harp on something that I've brought up repeatedly this year: confusion on the defense. Illinois had a bad day on defense overall, but this last touchdown was just ugly. The game is on the line. Illinois has a timeout to use if it wants. Indiana didn't even snap this ball in a particular hurry. Just check out the thirteen defensive players in the still shot at the beginning of this clip. Only Dylan Rosiek and Xavier Scott are looking at the offense. And, in the four seconds before Indiana snaps the ball, things get even worse since only then does Tyler Strain attempt to leave the field. Jaheim Clarke has barely gotten into position when the ball is snapped and in what has become a common occurrence this season, he isn't ready for the play to start. I can't see Clayton Bush and Mackie Resetich on the screen when the ball is snapped but given that they're looking at each other when the touchdown is scored and Bush is pointing, it looks like they are no more prepared than the rest of the team when the ball is snapped. This level of disorganization would be unacceptable on the first play of the first game. However, in a critical situation at the end of game number 10, his is just mind boggling. Subbing in this situation is practically suicide, but even if Aaron Henry hadn't done that, it looks to me like over half of his defenders even knew what they were supposed to do when the ball was snapped. Not only that, but Illinois was going to be flagged for 12 men on the field even if there was no touchdown on this play. Brett Bielema, an experienced head coach and defensive coordinator, still had a timeout in his pocket.
Regular readers may remember that I took the refs in the Minnesota game to task for letting everything go and keeping their flags in their pockets last week. Well, this crew went the opposite way, throwing 21 flags in total for 219 yards. For the most part, the flags were on decent enough penalties. However, the zebras were calling the game too tightly to allow either team to get into a flow. You have to feel for Big Ten coaches that have to deal with one set of refs who either turn a blind eye to everything or throw the laundry every time they see a jersey grab. The truth is: both sets of refs were bad. One crew was determined not to interrupt the game while the other made themselves a huge part of the story. I remain puzzled at how Big Ten football officiating can be so consistently bad, and in different ways. They shouldn't be part of the discussion of the game, yet they always are. I guess we'll see how the zebras will be part of the story next week.
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