With Lovie Smith stepping into the head coaching role and a defensive line full of athletes that most coaches dream of having, the Illini defense was supposed to be the strength of the team. Smith is, after all, a Tampa 2 legend, having served as the LB coach in Tampa Bay for 5 years after coaching LBs and DBs at various college stops for the 13 years before that. And while the Illini defense has been adequate, ranking 40th in total defense, they’ve given up too many points and currently sit at 79th in scoring defense. Let’s try and figure out why.
The Illini Defense
Base Scheme and Complementary Concepts
It’s not surprising with Smith’s Tampa 2 background that Illinois is a classic 4-3 team. Slightly undersized but lighting fast defensive ends, one plug up the middle and a three technique that can shoot gaps with various coverage schemes behind them. That’s not going to be anything new for the Huskers, as Wyoming, Oregon and Northwestern based out of a 4-3.
What makes Illinois different is their elite personnel on the defensive line. The defensive ends are slightly undersized, with Dawuane Smoot going a generous 255 and Carroll Phillips flying around at 240. What they lack in size they make up for in pure get off. Phillips in particular can absolute motor off the edge:
Not to be outdone, Smoot has a plethora of moves, from the straight speed rush to a surprisingly strong bull rush for a 255lb man:
Smoot is 5th on Kiper’s list of best defensive ends for a reason, and Phillips, though not having prototypical NFL size, is impressive as well.
Like many defenses that prefer to pin their ears back, though, the Illini defensive ends can get out of their gaps on the pass rush. They haven’t faced great running QBs yet, and this should be an area where Tommy Armstrong can hurt them. If #4 can hold up against the inevitable pressure and not get gun shy, he should find some room to pull the ball and go.
And getting out of gaps doesn’t just burn Illinois in the passing game. Their run fits have been a consistent issue this year, both with interior defensive linemen getting completely washed out of their gap and the LBs and safeties struggling to fit behind them. In fact, the Illini have already given up 4 runs of over 20 yards this year, including a couple against Western Michigan that killed any chance of an Illini comeback. For whatever reason, their linebackers can’t seem to seal the deal even when the defensive line gets almost immediate penetration. And even when the Illini back 7 defenders do get to the right area, they miss too many tackles and their safeties struggle coming down in run support as well. They’re 70th in run defense right now, but that largely owes to holding Murray State to -10 yards in the opening week. They’ve been putrid against good talent.
We may have some struggles initially, but over time I expect the Huskers’ rushing attack to wear on this defense. Nebraska hasn’t popped a ton of long runs this year, but if there’s ever a team to do it against, it’s Illinois. This could be a big game for Mikale Wilbon and Terrell Newby, both of whom have the speed it takes to bust off long runs down the seams.
Behind the Illini run defense, they’re not a large blitzing team. Understandable given how easy it is for them to generate pressure with their front 4. And though Lovie Smith is a Tampa 2 guy, the Illini have primarily run single-high safety looks while trying to take away a lot of the ever present RPOs in the college game.
Though they don’t blitz much, they will move their defense around a lot before the snap. They’ll line up in a 2 High shell and then spin the safeties just before the snap:
In fact, they’ll spin safeties both ways from single high to 2 High and vice versa. In third and short, they’ll frequently go pure Cover 1 to take away the quick passing game. When it comes to obvious passing downs, they’ll move back into the 2 High structure that is Lovie’s comfort zone. Much like this play, it’s usually followed with terrible tackling that leads to a large gain.
The Illini defensive talent is a mixed bag. No doubt, as seen above, Smoot and Phillips are an impressive pair on the edge, and interior defensive linemen Chunky Clements (really?), Rob Bain, and Jamal Milan can all penetrate as well. With Nebraska starting three walk ons across the interior offensive line this week, this isn’t a great match up for the Huskers.
Nevertheless, if the Huskers can lean on the Illini’s undersized defensive ends in the run game and find a way to get the ball out in the air before they get home to Armstrong, there is plenty of damage to be done. Cornerback Jaylon Dunlap is pretty good in run support and can play straight man pretty well, but as the clip above shows, he gets caught looking in the backfield too often in off coverage and can be had on RPOs. At the other corner, senior Darius Mosley is going through a Daniel Daviesque final campaign struggle. If you’re going to play Cover 1 as much as Lovie has this year, you need corners that will hold up on vertical passing plays. Mosley is anything but that:
Though there have been times where Mosley has pretty good coverage on vertical routes, he lacks ball skills to do much damage even when he’s in phase with the WR. With as good as the Savage Professionals have been getting vertical this year, I suspect they’ll attack Mosley pretty relentlessly if they can’t immediately establish the run. Brandon Reilly in particular should be a favorable matchup against Mosley.
There will definitely be an adjustment period for Coach Mike Cavanaugh’s offensive line early in this game. We’ve struggled in the first quarter as it is, and we haven’t seen a defensive line this year anywhere near Illinois’ unit. They’re fast, they love to shoot gaps, and because all four are solid, you can’t send help anywhere without opening up another guy to get in. That said, because they’re undersized for the most part on the edge, they wear down during the course of a game and I expect no different tomorrow.
And beyond them, the Illini defense is a disaster. The secondary does nothing well, and the Husker air attack should be able to work on them all night long. The only potential hiccup is that Nebraska has favored the short Curl and Hitch concepts over the past couple of weeks to give Armstrong easy throws. With Illinois favoring Cover 1, those throws aren’t going to be there. Thus, Langsdorf and Armstrong will need to take the lid of the passing game at times to test the Illini corners.
In the end, too much talent and conceptual diversity in the red column and not nearly enough yet in the orange one. We may bog down a bit early while we adjust to the Illini defensive line’s speed and the lack of easy access throws, but eventually we’ll beat them up. Keep an eye on the Slant/Bubble RPO that Moore housed against Wyoming and also the Switch and Wheel concepts we like to run. Against a Cover 1 team, those natural rubs are back breakers and I expect OCDL to use them heavily this week.
Onward toward the Top 10.