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It's funny--leaving the Mizzou-Illinois game last year, I was pretty impressed with the Illini defense. I thought Vontae Davis and the Illini D did a wonderful job on Jeremy Maclin (4 catches for 31 yards, 3 carries for 2 yards), and the D-line showed great athletic potential (Derek Walker even yoinked a pick six from Chase Daniel)...but Missouri gained 549 yards and scored 52 points. Illinois teams are perpetually full of athletic potential, but when will they consistently show it?
S&P+: 111.81 (#31)
Standard Downs S&P+: 114.48 (#23)
Redzone S&P+: 91.85 (#84)
Q1 S&P+: 98.39 (#69)
1st Down S&P+: 110.71 (#28)
Rushing S&P+: 110.80 (#39)
Standard Downs: 118.50 (#23)
Redzone: 107.94 (#44)
Line Yards+: 111.81 (#26)
Passing S&P+: 109.31 (#34)
Standard Downs: 104.58 (#48)
Redzone: 74.39 (#115)
Adj. Sack Rate: 8.6% (#10)
In all, this really wasn't too bad a defense--Top 40 overall, against the run, and against the pass. But breakdowns killed them. They gave up far too many big plays on Passing Downs--they were just about the worst in the country about giving up big runs on Passing Downs, which suggests that either a) they were worried about the secondary and tried to give them help against the pass, leaving them vulnerable to draws and runs, or b) this just isn't a very smart defense. I don't know the answer--will leave that up to you. Beyond that, they were also very poor in the redzone, and their splits were all over the place--they were great in Q2 and Q3...and below average in Q1 and Q4. Figure them out, I dare you.
2008 Unit Ranking: #23 in the nation (#2 in the Big Ten)
Projected Depth Chart
Josh Brent (DT, 6'2, 315, Jr.)
Doug Pilcher (DE, 6'5, 265, Sr.)
Corey Liuget (DT, 6'3, 290, So.)
Jerry Brown (DE, 6'4, 265, Jr.)
Sirod WIlliams (DT, 6'0, 295, Sr.)
Daryle Ballew (DT, 6'1, 310, So.)
Antonio James (DE, 6'5, 255, Sr.)
Clay Nurse (DE, 6'3, 260, Jr.)
The highest-ranked, most athletic unit on the Illini defense in 2008, the defensive line faces having to replace starting DEs Derek Walker and Will Davis and DT David Lindquist. The athleticism is still there, but the depth is not, especially after the requested transfer of highly-rated RSFr Reggie Elis. Doug Pilcher likely returns to the starting lineup after 20 starts in 2006-07, and if Jerry Brown can stay above water academically, he should be pretty good (plus, he had two solid games against Mizzou in 2007-08). At DT Corey Liuget came on strong last year, earning a couple starts as a true freshman. This unit is still the likely strength of the defense, but there's more uncertainty here than there was last year.
2008 Unit Ranking: #60 in the nation (#8 in the Big Ten)
Projected Depth Chart
Martez Wilson (6'4, 240, Jr.)
Russell Ellington (6'2, 225, So.)
Ian Thomas (6'0, 225, So.)
Dustin Jefferson (6'0, 240, Jr.)
Aaron Gress (6'0, 230, Jr.)
Justin Staples (6'4, 225, RSFr.)
The bad news is, the Illini LB corps loses all-conference performer Brit Miller and two part-time starters in Rodney Pittman and Sam Carson. The good news is, the unit really wasn't that good with them, so they might not miss them that much (at least not Pittman and Carson). People are expecting big things out of former 5-star recruit Martez Wilson, and they could be right--his sophomore performance in 2008 (73 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 1 FF, 2 FR) was pretty solid. Then again, it's not Weatherspoonian ('Spoon as a sophomore: 130 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 2 FF, 1 FR), so we'll see how much improvement he can do.
Meanwhile...yeah, that's about all they've got. Gress and Staples are newbies, and Ellington, Thomas and Jefferson did next to nothing last year. Maybe there's a sleeper in here somewhere...and maybe not.
2008 Unit Ranking: #38 in the nation (#6 in the Big Ten)
Projected Depth Chart
Donsay Hardeman (FS, 6'2, 210, Sr.)
Bo Flowers (SS, 6'2, 215, Jr.)
Dere Hicks (CB, 5'10, 175, Sr.)
Travon Bellamy (FS, 6'0, 205, Jr.)
Tavon Wilson (CB, 6'0, 195, So.)
Ashante Williams (CB, 5'10, 195, RSFr)
Garrett Edwards (SS, 6'2, 210, Jr.)
Antonio Gully (CB, 6'1, 180, Jr.)
Lots of upperclassmen here, I can say that much. No Vontae Davis, though. Bellamy and Hardeman both racked up some tackles last year, but the secondary needed to produce infinitely more turnovers and opportunities than they did in 2008, and now they lose their lockdown corner. There isn't a lot of new blood here, which would probably be a good thing; I picture this unit as a bunch of Hardy Ricks's. Athletic, pretty smart, decent hitters...and not a whole lot of play-making ability. With good decision-making from Gabbert, this is potentially a good unit for the green Missouri WR corps to start with.
2008 Unit Rankings: #113 Net Punting, #94 Punt Returns, #63 Kickoff Returns
K - Matt Eller (So., 39-41 PATs, 15-20 FGs)
P - Anthony Santella (Jr., 53 punts, 31.6 net punting)
PR - Arrelious Benn (Jr., 15 returns, 7.6 average)
KR - A.J. Jenkins (So., 22 returns, 22.3 average, 1 TD)
You see Benn's name atop the list of punt returners, and you think this could be a pretty good special teams unit, but...it wasn't. He did next to nothing fielding punts--Illinois was one of the worst punt returning teams in the country. Jenkins was solid returning kickoffs, and Eller was curiously a better kicker the further out the ball was placed (he was 1-for-4 on FGs from 30-39 yards...and 8-for-10 from 40+), but the net punting (and, as Jeremy Maclin can attest, net kicking in general) was atrocious. I am still tweaking my special teams unit rankings, but it's safe to say that this unit was pretty damn poor. All four starters return, but there is plenty of tweaking to be done here.
Really, this game might come down to the matchup of Mizzou's OL versus the Illini DL. If Blaine Gabbert doesn't have to run for his life, and if Derrick Washington is finding holes through which to run, Mizzou will score a lot of points. If the UI line can't put pressure on the Mizzou offense, I'm not sure the back seven can. Who knows--maybe there are some playmakers in there somewhere; but right now I don't know who they might be. Pilcher, Brown, Brent, and Liuget really could be solid up front, and if Dan Hoch has a rough first game, or if they're just able to confuse the Mizzou OL like Oklahoma State did, then Illinois could get enough stops to win the game. But to the extent that I'm confident about this game, it's because I'm not sure the Illinois D can do enough to take advantage of Mizzou's offensive youth.
Projections on Friday.