Run defense that eliminated the big play + a dominating pass rush + Lil’ #16 = a strong defensive performance against the hapless Illini.
- Pretty standard along the defensive line. One minor change was Ja’merez Bowen seeing time at both interior DL spots. Given how little he has played in his three years at IU, I thought Bowen, a redshirt junior, might forgo his final year of eligibility and go pro in something other than football. But Bowen has seen a little more action the last few weeks and just might carve out a niche for himself in the rotation in 2018. Sure enough, Bowen’s name was not among those participating in Senior Day festivities on Saturday.
- On the other hand, I was more than a little surprised to see Dameon Willis on the list of Senior Day participants. With Covington moving on, Willis seemed like a decent bet to start at MLB as a redshirt senior in 2018. That said, playing B1G football is a huge commitment, and his playing time is by no means guaranteed. Hard to question his decision. For now, Willis returned to action against Illinois after missing the last two games with an injury.
- Speaking of guys returning from injuries, A’shon Riggins is back! Sort of. He played a little special teams and then came in at boundary corner at the very end of the game. As discussed later, he was needed.
Illinois back Kendrick Foster found a little running room, especially early, but IU never let him get loose in the secondary. As a result, IU’s rush defense stats looks considerably better than in the past few weeks, when a few big runs really hurt the Hoosiers.
Solid tackling certainly helped. Aside from one bad wide receiver screen during which Tony Fields and Jonathan Crawford both missed tackles – and Illinois scored its 2nd TD – IU only had three other missed tackles all game.
IU’s pass rush dominated the young Illini offensive line.1 The 50% pressure rate is almost double the next highest pressure percentage in 2017 (30% vs. Wisconsin), and it’s by far the highest since I began tracking pressure percentage at the beginning of 2016.2
Jacob Robinson had a massive game, especially down the stretch. He had three of his five pressures in the last five defensive snaps, including a forced fumble and a hit that contributed to Scales’ interception. It’s been an up-and-down year for Robinson from a pass rushing perspective. He’s tallied 10 total pressures – 5 against Illinois, 4 against UVA and 1 total in IU’s 7 other games against FBS opponents. So, apparently, Robinson really likes to hit QBs wearing blue and orange.
IU really needed that pass rush because when he had time, Jeff George Jr. was surprisingly effective down the field. George’s 4 deep completions were the most allowed by IU in a single game this season. Andre Brown’s struggles continued. He was called for another penalty – his 4th hold or pass interference in the last three games – and gave up completions on the only two passes to receivers he was covering. After Brown left with an injury, his replacement, Raheem Layne, didn’t fare much better. He gave up a 31-yard reception and would have given up another intermediate catch if not for a drop. These struggles led to the brief appearance by A’Shon Riggins at the end of game – his first action since the Georgia Southern game back in September. In light of Brown’s and Layne’s struggles, the return of Riggins is a godsend. Hopefully, Riggins’ week of practice goes off without a hitch, and he’s ready to play significant snaps against Rutgers.
And we have to talk about Rashard Fant. He’s had a somewhat quiet senior season, largely due to QB’s staying away from him.3 When he has been targeted, however, Fant has occasionally seemed to lack the aggressiveness that allowed him to rack up the PBUs in his first three seasons. Not so last Saturday. Sure he dropped a couple picks, but it’s hard to be too upset about 4 passes defended on 4 targets, including an INT that essentially sealed the win.
On to The State College of New Jersey
Based on 10 games of film, in my mind, this defense has two weaknesses: (1) intermediate and deep passes to receivers covered by anyone other than Rashard Fant or, to a lesser extent, Jonathan Crawford; (2) runs between the tackles, particularly gap concepts (powers and counters) that take advantage of slanting d-linemen and aggressive linebackers. Looking ahead to Rutgers, I’m not sure they have the passing game to take advantage of Weakness #1 (and Riggins’ return may solve that problem), but they just might have the running game to exploit Weakness #2. If IU can hold up against inside runs and eliminate any big gains, they will be well on their way to notching win #5.