A few weeks ago, Illinois head coach Lovie Smith said he hadn’t changed much with his defensive philosophy and it was the media that pushing him to do so.
After an extensive film review of Illinois’ 37-34 come-from-behind victory, the fans calling for Smith to diversify his defensive scheme looks got exactly what they wanted and it may have worked.
“They started playing Cover-1 as I saw it,” Dantonio said. “We hurt ourselves with some different things, we had opportunities to score. Football is a game of technique and execution. When you execute, in the first half and you're doing the same type of stuff. You run power, gap schemes, inside and outside zone and throw the ball down the field in all different ways you can think of. But you've got to make plays too. That's not to lay it on our players. We moved the ball effectively, we had 500+ yards, but you can't turn the ball over and give up big plays. If you take those two things away, you win the football game and you walk away.”
However, the turnovers that occurred in the second half that allowed Illinois (6-4, 4-3 in Big Ten Conference) to help its comeback effort were done in a Smith’s classic Cover-2 look.
NOTE: We should always preface this by explaining to the reader that we aren’t exactly sure what each Illinois player is being asked to accomplish in the scheme. So this is never intended to be an individual indictment or applause on a player’s success or failure to execute his job but simply pointing out a noticeable difference from week to week. In this case, it is noticeable that Illinois played more Cover-1 (otherwise known as man-to-man on the outside with cornerbacks and a single high safety essentially playing a centerfield role) schemes in early downs and then went back to Cover-2 (a zone-based scheme for all members of the second and third level of defense) on third down.
Throughout the first half of this game, Michigan State, which was down its leading receiver Darrell Stewart Jr. to an injury, was going to need to find a secondary target. That secondary target came in the form of Cody White. White abused Illinois over the middle of the field in the first half for most of his 128 yards on seven receptions.
This screenshot shows the first-and-10 play late in the third quarter where it clearly shows Illinois in man-to-man coverage with Sydney Brown as the safety in the deep center. The result of the play is Lewerke trying to make a sideline throw but Tony Adams plays the coverage perfectly for an incompletion.
“There were a lot of disappointing moments in that game,” Smith said. “But you don't have time to harp on it, you have to move on to the next play as it turns out we didn't give him an opportunity to get the ball back. So it all worked out the way we needed it to.”
This next screenshot comes on a third-down sequence two plays later and Illinois has clearly switched back to a Cover-2 scheme. The Michigan State tight end does break free down the middle of the field but pressure from the defensive front forces him to the near sideline and Lewerke can’t fit the football into the incredibly tight window between the cornerback and Sydney Brown rotating over.
In the next possession, this first down play shows nine Illinois defensive players near the line-of-scrimmage but RPO fake to the tailback doesn’t affect the man-to-man coverage allowed for Cody White to be called for an offensive pass interference penalty.
This final screenshot is a third-and-10 play following Lewerke getting kneed in the head on a tackle by Illinois linebacker Dele Harding. The Michigan State tight end waves over the training staff on the sideline but Lewerke, not wanting to come out of the game waves off the official, and proceeds to stay in the game.
“No, we looked at him. No, we didn’t go through any protocol,” Dantonio said Tuesday. “We looked at him very quickly. Just, I asked him, and he said he’s good. He motioned that to our trainers as well, so he just went on with it.”
Illinois goes to a Cover-2 look and Lewerke stares down his primary receiver and severely underthrows the route allowing Brown to jump it for a interception that was returned 76 yards for a touchdown. All but one of Lewerke’s four turnovers came when Illinois was in a Cover-2 look and the one that wasn’t was the snap over the quarterback’s head that was recovered by the Illini defensive front.
In the second half, Lewerke was clearly fooled and confused after Illinois changed defenses. The fifth-year senior was 5 of 15 for 49 yards and the interception returned for a score in the second half.