Strong Pass Rush and a Little Luck Key for Illinois
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Strong Pass Rush and a Little Luck Key for Illinois

September 30, 2016

When Illinois defeated Nebraska 14-13 in 2015, Husker fans were shocked. On the other side of things, Illinois fans were elated. A year later, Nebraska is hoping for a different outcome while the Illini wouldn’t mind a repeat. What does Illinois head coach Lovie Smith and his team have to do to make that happen?

We reached out to the The Champaign Room’s Mark Primiano and Trevor Vallese to get a feel for what Illinois will bring to Memorial Stadium. Can the Illini snag another victory over the Huskers? Maybe, but it might just take a little bit of “magic and luck.”

Q: How can Nebraska beat Illinois?

MP: By playing the exact brand of football they’ve been playing all year. I’m feeling pretty smart for calling Nebraska the most underrated team in the conference before the season started. I thought Mike Riley was an odd hire, but they were obviously a better team than last year’s fluke-driven record showed. As long as Tommy Armstrong Jr. is willing to test a fairly weak Illini secondary, the Huskers shouldn’t have much of a problem marching down the field.

TV: By showing up? In all seriousness, Illinois has not looked strong against an FBS team this season, losing by a combined score of 82-24. Yeah, they beat up on FCS Murray State, but so can pretty much any power-five conference team. This is year one in a rebuilding process that will take several seasons to complete, so I’m not expecting a whole lot on the road against an undefeated top 15 team. Nebraska can beat Illinois by doing what they do best; running a balanced offense. They’re top 20 in the nation in rushing yards per game and Armstrong has had some great moments under center. As long as they’re at least somewhat successful at making their offense go against the Illinois D they should come away with the victory.

Q: How can Illinois beat Nebraska?

MP: Magic and luck. Illinois hasn’t had consistently good or even useful recruiting classes since the early days of the Ron Zook era and it’s showing. You can talk all you want about how this is the most experienced Illini squad in forever, but they simply just aren’t very talented and are making far too many mistakes to have any margin of error. This should improve as Lovie Smith has more time to get things together, but this isn’t even akin to turning a cruise ship around. It’s more like dragging the sunken wreckage of a cruise ship off the ocean floor and slowly towing it to shore before having any dream of turning it around.

TV: By repeating what happened last season. In case you forgot, the Illini came back in the fourth quarter to defeat the Huskers 14-13 in Champaign. If the defense can have a really strong and complete 60-minute game, they can keep the offense in it. Keep the score under 20 and who knows what might happen. But without a really strong D and a really low score I don’t see the Illini winning this one.

Q: Ke’Shawn Vaughn ran for 98 yards against Nebraska in 2015. Will he run for more or less against the Huskers in 2016?

MP: Less. One of Illinois’ main issues this year (and the past few to be honest) is a complete lack of depth on the roster and this is maybe most glaringly so when it comes to the offensive line. Illinois’ last game was against Western Michigan and the Illini managed to put up 3 rushing yards on 15 attempts. WMU is a very good MAC team and will probably play in their conference championship game this winter but no Big Ten team should ever get that thoroughly dominated in the trenches by a MAC squad. Vaughn is a talented running back, but there’s currently no reason for opposing defenses to not cheat against the run and shut him down.

TV: Less. The Illinois offensive line is banged up and has lost far too many starters to still boast a strong run game. Vaughn is a really good back, but unless he compiles it all on screen passes and check downs I don’t see him reaching triple digits against the Huskers.

Q: What kind of difference have the Nickersons made (both as a coach and as a linebacker) for Illinois?

MP: It’s been a mixed bag thus far. Hardy Nickerson Jr. currently leads the team with 29 tackles, eleven more than Carroll Phillips has in second place. Pretty hard to hate on averaging just under 10 tackles a game. And while the overall numbers for the defense aren’t that impressive (60th in defensive S&P+), a lot of that comes from only being able to stay so fresh when your offense keeps putting you right back out on a shortened field. By the end of the season I feel like the grades will be a B+ for Junior and an incomplete for dad until we see just how strong his recruiting abilities are.

TV: A big one. Nickerson Jr., the linebacker not the coach, is leading the Big Ten in tackles per game at 9.7. He’s also been named to the Nagurski Trophy Watch List for defensive player of the year and the Butkus Award Watch List for linebacker of the year. He’s the best player in the Illini secondary and, being a senior graduate transfer, is someone the younger players look up to. As for his dad, Nickerson Sr. is coaching a defensive unit that is top 20 in the nation in total yards allowed and sacks. Both have been very positive additions for Illinois.

Q: How has the Illinois’ defense been able to generate such a strong pass rush?

MP: Mike Phair has been a godsend. One of the few things Beckman got right was stealing Phair away from Lovie Smith’s Buccaneers coaching staff in 2014. The defensive line improved tremendously in his first year with the team, turning Jihad Ward into a second round draft pick and making Dawaune Smoot a preseason first round prediction. Smoot’s off to a slower start this year, but the rest of the line has managed to somehow make that less damaging. Phillips and Chunky Clements have been absolute beasts in the pass rush. Auburn transfer Gimel President has already set a new career high in sacks over three games. SR DT Rob Bain has blocked multiple kicks over the past two seasons and is a steady presence clogging up the middle in ways that don’t show up in the box score. I’m not quite sure how Phair does it, but I’m terrified to think of what this team would look like without him.

TV: It’s all the defensive line. This unit, probably the best D-line in the Big Ten West, has some giant pass rushers that can put pressure on the offensive guards and get to the quarterback quickly. Dawuane Smoot leads the group and is a projected first-round NFL draft selection. Rob Bain, Chunky Clements, and Caroll Phillips as well as Auburn transfer Gimel President help round out the DL that makes the Illini’s pass rush so effective.

Q: What’s the vibe with Illinois fans on Wes Lunt? Are they happy with him or do think he’s capable of more?

MP: There have been two camps when it comes to fans and Wes Lunt since he transferred in from Oklahoma State after his freshman year: one that has hated him the entire time for his complete lack of mobility and another that accepts his statue speed because he has the arm to be a good pocket passer. But something happened along the way. I don’t know if it was the injuries, the horrid coaching under Bill and Ryan Cubit, his receivers dropping more passes than any other team in the conference or what but Lunt just isn’t getting it done. Despite having one of the strongest arms in the conference, he seems to check down every other play. He seems rattled. I don’t agree with the fans that demand he be more emotional (if it’s not who you are, why fake it?) and I sure as hell don’t agree with the fans who think he should be benched (there’s no better QB anywhere in that depth chart), but the dreams of Wes Lunt leading the Illini offense to glory have all but died.

TV: He’s been faced with a lot of criticism to begin the 2016 season but I don’t think it’s all on him. Can he do more? Sure. This is a guy who was nominated for the Manning Award Watch List in the preseason, and yet isn’t in the top 50 in the nation in QBR or passing yards per game. But to be fair to Lunt, his wideout corps is not good. They drop passes, they don’t run the correct routes and they don’t make the right reads. Lunt’s had a disappointing start to the year but it’s not entirely his fault.

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