The running game shows a pulse and Big Rich throws it short. The IU offense employed a different recipe for success against Illinois. Let’s look at the charts.
- Last week I mentioned the potential positive benefits of continuity along a finally-healthy offensive line. And then the offensive line got off to a fairly sluggish start against Illinois and the staff started tinkering. In the end, 8 linemen saw action in this one. Only Wes Martin didn’t rotate. Delroy Baker saw time at both tackle spots, while Harry Crider and MacKenzie Nworah subbed in at center and right guard, respectively. Although it hasn’t been mentioned, I suspect that Simon Stepaniak may have been dinged up because he played the first six possessions before giving way to Nworah for the last nine. Stepaniak wasn’t setting the world on fire with his play, but I don’t think his play (or Nworah’s in his stead) would have justified a complete removal. The crazy thing: all 8 of these guys should be back next year.
- Other than the offensive line, the other main participation story is a general return to health. Morgan Ellison and Cole Gest both saw significant action. Ian Thomas was still somewhat limited, but he seems to be coming around. While the offense is still missing Donovan Hale, J’Shun Harris, Nick Westbrook, Mike Majette and (probably) Peyton Ramsey, things have definitely improved from a few weeks ago.
Believe it or not, this was IU’s best rushing performance of the season against a Power 5 opponent. Excluding carries by Lagow and by receivers on jet sweeps, IU’s running backs carried it 32 times for 147 yards (4.6 ypc) and a TD. Not too shabby. IU’s gap running (counters, powers, sweeps), a problem all season, was actually fairly strong, averaging more than 5 yards per rush.
Make no mistake, the Illini’s porous front seven contributed to these improved numbers, but some credit should be given to Coach DeBord & Co. for putting the backs in a position to be successful by playing to their respective strengths. Ellison was featured in short yardage situations; Devonte Williams had a few outside runs; most of Gest’s runs came on inside zones that allow him to find a seam and hit it. And, as discussed more below, they all made plays in the passing game.
Richard Lagow was effective despite only completing 3 passes that traveled more than 10 yards downfield. File that under “sentences I didn’t think I would write.” Rich completed 78% of his passes of 10 yards or less – despite 3 drops – for 226 yards (6.1 YPA) and 2 TDs. Two of the big knocks on Lagow to this point in his IU career are (1) he tends to force the ball downfield into coverage and (2) he can be inaccurate on short throws. Neither was a problem against Illinois. A third occasional criticism of Lagow is that he tends to lock on to Simmie Cobbs. While he did target Cobbs 10 times, he also completed passes to 9 other receivers.
This game seems like a sign a progress for Mr. Lagow. The question is whether it will translate from one Memorial Stadium – the one in Champaign – to the other.
Solid pass protection also played a role in Lagow’s success. The 14% pressure percentage is the lowest of the season against Power 5 competition. That’s all the more impressive given the shuffling on the offensive line. Play-calling also helped because Lagow was frequently asked to make a simple read that allowed him to get the ball out quickly – and credit to Lagow for generally getting the ball out quickly, even when he had to go through some progressions.
All of these positives aside, this offense only put up 24 points against a bad Illinois defense. So yeah, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. A number of promising drives stalled almost inexplicably. You’d like your top wideout to not drop 3 passes. Whop Philyor needs more than 3 touches. Ian Thomas, even at something less than 100%, should be targeted more than twice. The next two defenses IU will face, although a far cry from the Wisconsins, Ohio States and Michigan’s of the world, will be better than Illinois – and in Purdue’s case, significantly better. Lagow, DeBord and the rest need to build on this performance, not settle for two more like it.