‘We just have to be better’: Illini Pass Defense Still Has Highly Perplexing Problems

Illinois head coach Lovie Smith still confused and frustrated by a second week of blown coverages in his secondary during loss to Purdue.
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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Lovie Smith leaves a second straight game in 2020 still shaking his head about the coverage problems in his Illinois defense.

One week after allowing five touchdown passes from a quarterback making his collegiate debut at Wisconsin in an embarrassing blowout loss, the Illini defense surrendered 371 passing yards to a Purdue quarterback originally from the state of Illinois who didn’t have a Division I scholarship offer four years ago coming out of Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire.

“(Their receivers) getting behind us and those 40 to 50-yard throws, those are ones that are tough,” the Illini fifth-year head coach said following another disappointing Big Ten loss. “We continue to get plagued by touchdown passes. That's something we're going to have to get cleaned up.”

In the midst of the 31-24 loss to Purdue Saturday, Boilermakers starting quarterback Aidan O’Connell completed his first 13 passes and didn’t have a pass hit the Memorial Stadium turf until there was one minute and 13 seconds left in the first half. In the 45-7 loss at Wisconsin a week ago, Graham Mertz finished 20 of 21 and averaged over 10 yards per completion. 

O’Connell finished with his second career game of 300 yards passing (371) as he hit 29 of 35 receivers and two touchdown passes including a 45-yard pitch-and-catch to Milton Wright that embarrassingly exposed veteran secondary members Sydney Brown and Nate Hobbs in a coverage communication breakdown.

Illinois continued to struggle with its pass defense Saturday vs. Purdue as the Boilermakers finished with 371 yards through the air. Purdue wide receiver Milton Wright (0) is shown here catching a 45-yard touchdown pass over the top of Illinois secondary members Nate Hobbs and Sydney Brown.

Illinois continued to struggle with its pass defense Saturday vs. Purdue as the Boilermakers finished with 371 yards through the air. Purdue wide receiver Milton Wright (0) is shown here catching a 45-yard touchdown pass over the top of Illinois secondary members Nate Hobbs and Sydney Brown.

Despite forcing two turnovers, the first two fumbles of Purdue’s 2020 season, Illinois (0-2) will likely enter its third week of this campaign with one of the nation’s worst pass defenses after Lovie Smith’s Cover-2 scheme has allowed 309.5 yards per game. Entering Saturday, that kind of average would’ve placed a team tied for 93rd in all of FBS with Minnesota, the Illini’s upcoming Week 3 opponent.

“I can’t give you an exact thing about it,” Illinois linebacker Jake Hansen said. “We just have to be better in the back end. And it starts with me, our middle linebacker.”

Purdue, which didn’t have the services of star receiver Rondale Moore for a second straight weekend, spread the football around to seven different receivers and Illinois failed to identify the opponent’s top target coming into the matchup. David Bell, who had 13 catches and three touchdowns last week in a win over Iowa, finished Saturday with nine catches for 122 yards and a score.

“It wasn’t just Nate Hobbs (covering him), it was our entire team,” Smith said. “Sometimes it was man-to-man, sometimes it was zone and sometimes it was a great player making great plays. It’s a tough duty each week but that’s where we are.”

This disturbing trend of allowing passes to get over the top of their veteran secondary is a similar concern to the Illini defense from a year ago. In the 2019 campaign that saw the Illini allow only 212.9 passing yards per game, Smith’s defense did allow 49 passing plays of 20 yards or more, which ranked tied for 105th in 130 Football Bowl Subdivision programs. This season, the Illini has already allowed 10 in two games this season.

“It’s not just coverage,” Smith said following his 31st Big Ten loss in 39 games. “Sometimes when you look, when you have a lot of time back there, that can contribute to it as well.”

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