Illinois managed to survive giving up more big plays than it produced. At least for one week and one win.
Adrian Martinez’s 75-yard touchdown run was Nebraska’s most notable big play in the Week 0 game in Champaign, but it was far from the only one. The Cornhuskers broke off 11 big plays — seven passes of 15-plus yards and four rushes of 10-plus yards — against Illinois, but complementary football saved the day. The Illini offense controlled time of possession, and punter Blake Hayes regularly delivered tough field position for Nebraska.
That hasn’t happened the last two games as the number of big plays allowed by the Illini defense has only grown with 12 against Texas San Antonio and 16 against Virginia. Consecutive losses has been the result.
So that’s three games and 39 big plays allowed for an Illinois defense that is searching for answers ahead of the 8:05 p.m. Friday kickoff against Maryland (2-0) at Memorial Stadium.
“One bad play can’t turn into three or four and then a whole series and another series. You can’t have success — especially defensively — that way. We’ve got to hold each other accountable, myself included, and continue to try to get better every day.”
“We’ve got to be able to hit the reset button when we get a bad play,” Illinois defensive coordinator Ryan Walters said Tuesday. “That can’t turn in to a snowball effect. Right now, that’s what’s happened the last two weeks.
The snowball picked up considerable speed in Saturday’s 42-14 loss at Virginia. The Cavaliers took an early 14-0 lead on a pair of drives that exemplified the idea of “chunk” plays, including completions of 31, 32, 39 and 28 yards by quarterback Brennan Armstrong.
Armstrong threw for a career-high 405 yards in the win against Illinois. That included 11 “big-play” completions for 301 yards. Five more rushes of 10-plus yards just were almost an afterthought compared to what Virginia did through the air.
Walters pointed to several factors that hampered Illinois’ pass defense against the Cavaliers. Among them? Technique issues and a lack of pre-snap communication as Virginia’s dynamic offense utilized unique formations and a considerable amount of pre-snap motion. “It all ties into together, right?” Walters said. “A lot of those (big plays) weren’t in man coverage, so we’ve got to get better at our zones and just understanding the ‘whys’ of why we need to be where we’re at on the field and having the other guys count on players being where they’re supposed to be.
“Those things take time. They take experience. Sometimes, you have to learn the hard way. I just hope we don’t have to learn the hard way anymore.” Coverage in the secondary hasn’t been Illinois’ only issue the last two games. After sacking Martinez five times in Week 0, the Illini have just one sack since after Keith Randolph took down UTSA quarterback Frank Harris a single time. Armstrong camped out in the pocket Saturday, taking his time to let coverage breakdowns happen before he found open receiver after open receiver.
“There’s two ways to apply pressure, right?” Illinois coach Bret Bielema said. “Mental and physically. Mentally to give different looks and make (the quarterback) understand what he’s processing before the snap is one. The physical pressure is whether we want to bring three, four, five, six or seven. “A little bit of the game flow plays into that. Also what kind of quarterback you’re facing. Through three games, we’ve faced quarterbacks that do run the ball really well and escape pressure. You want to make sure you can corral them and understand what we’re trying to bring with pressures.”
“They’ve put in the time to be confident and I feel like they’ve prepared the right way to be confident,” Walters said. “They’ve just got to cut it loose and be confident on game day. For whatever reason the last two weeks, that hasn’t been the case. I feel like I saw it in (the) Nebraska (game) and saw it in the second half against UTSA. I didn’t really feel like I saw it the last game.” Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).
While frustrations mounted for the Illinois defense on the field Saturday at Virginia with the resultant unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, the Illinois defensive staff was feeling some frustration, as well. What Walters and Co. saw on the field against the Cavaliers didn’t match what they saw during a week of preparation. Walters said he has to continue to develop different pass rush looks to put the Illinois defense in better position to get to the quarterback. Expect a little more aggression by Illinois (1-2, 1-0 Big Ten) against Maryland (2-0, 0-0). Making life difficult for quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa might be the only way to slow down the Terrapins’ passing attack, which has accounted for 606 yards and six touchdowns in wins against West Virginia and Howard.
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