Illinois writer: Illini defense hasn't bought into new system
Illinois is off to a troubling 2-4 start, and hasn't won a Big Ten play. It looks lost under first-year coach Tim Beckman.
That could be because the players -- at least on defense -- haven't fully bought into the new system. And that's a problem, with No. 25 Michigan looming Saturday (3:30 p.m., ABC).
Marcus Jackson, Illinois football beat writer for the Champaign News-Gazette, says the Illini must find a way to again stop Robinson -- who has pedestrian career numbers against Illinois -- to stand a chance of pulling the upset. Problem is, the defense hasn't fully embraced new coordinator Tim Banks' system.
Jackson discusses that and other topics in this week's beat writer Q&A:
MLive: Illinois is off to a 2-4 start, and is 0-2 in league play. Things haven't exactly gone swimmingly in Tim Beckman's first season. What's wrong?
Marcus Jackson: Where do I start? Well, for one, the defense, which was expected to carry the team, hasn't lived up to the hype. There's plenty of talent on that side of the ball, with as many as four NFL players, but these guys haven't been on the same page for much of the season. They won't say this publicly, but they were really comfortable with former defensive coordinator Vic Koenning and they haven't completely bought into Tim Banks' system. Basically, guys have been playing for themselves and not the team. Offensively, they were limited with the injury to Nathan Scheelhaase and the offensive line has been terrible this season.
MLive: QB Nathan Scheelhaase seems to finally be healthy, after posting his best game of the year against Wisconsin. How does he look right now?
Jackson: He looked as good last week as he has since the first half of the season opener. He can't be an effective quarterback unless he's able to run without pain and he hasn't had that much of the season. When he can pull the ball down and run with success, that makes it much easier for him to suck in the defense and find throwing lanes. The key for him now is to have enough faith in the offensive line to give him enough time to throw instead of fleeing the pocket so soon.
MLive: Illinois did a good job of shutting down Denard Robinson last year, but that defense has struggled this year. What's wrong with that unit, and what do you anticipate it doing to try to stop Robinson again?
Jackson: Like I said about the defense before, it's been a unit that hasn't been on the same page for much of the season. Now, they're better when safeties Steve Hull and Supo Sanni are on the field together, which hasn't happened much this year. Last week, the defense looked like the defense of a year ago for three quarters against Wisconsin, but ran out of gas in the fourth quarter. There was more energy and a better flow to the ball and I think the older guys on the unit are realizing their careers are coming to an end and they're willing to play more into the team concept in an effort to enjoy some success.
MLive: Where will Illinois hold its biggest matchup advantage against Michigan?
Jackson: In the postgame media session, perhaps? They've got some colorful personalities and guys like Akeem Spence and Donovonn Young are the go-to guys for great quotes. On the field? Well, Illinois has a future star in freshman linebacker Mason Monheim and Jonathan Brown has established himself as one of the best linebackers in the Big Ten. Those guys bring it every week and you'll notice them quite a bit Saturday. Other than that, it's hard to find an area where Illinois has a distinct advantage.
MLive: Illinois is a heavy underdog in this game. It pulls the upset if ...
Jackson: The defense plays like it did for the first 45 minutes of last week's game and it finds a way to contain Denard Robinson on the ground like it has in the previous three meetings. They've held Robinson to 86 rushing yards on 33 carries in their three meetings against him and they'll need to keep that up. The offensive line is going to have to play markedly better than it has all season to give Scheelhaase and Co. some opportunities to put points on the board. That being said, I don't see an upset happening.
Marcus Jackson's prediction: Michigan has proven it can put points on the board and the Illini are last in the league ion scoring defense. Once the Wolverines get it going offensively, Illinois won't be able to slow it down. Plus, they've lost 11 of their last 12 games against ranked opponents a trend that's likely to continue based on how the season has played out so far. Michigan 38, Illinois 13