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Football Film Study: Previewing Illinois’ Offense

What will Tim DeRuyter and the Bears be up against in their bowl game?

Hey Cal fans, it’s Bowl season here at the football film study and, in advance of Cal’s matchup in the upcoming Redbox Bowl, I’m going to give you a quick preview of the Illinois offense. For more in-depth coverage, I’ll be previewing the RedBox and other PAC-12 bowls in my writeups and weekly Livecast, which you can find at

Illinois’ Offensive Background

Let’s start things out by looking at coaching personnel. Illinois’ OC is Rod Smith, who was a long-time Rich Rodriguez assistant and actually got his start under Rodriguez as a player, earning all-american honors in his system at Glenville State in the mid-90’s. From there, he GA’d under Rodriguez at Clemson and WVU before moving to Jim Leavitt’s USF staff from 2001-2006. He started his time with the Bulls as a QB coach/passing game coordinator, and was eventually promoted to OC in 2005. After that stop, he reconnected with Rodriguez as a QB coach at WVU (2007) and Michigan (2008-2010), before following him to Tucson as a co-OC from 2012-2017. In his time in the desert Cal fans saw Smith’s offenses three times, with him piling up a 3-0 record with wins in 2013, 2014, and 2017.

The Run Game

That was then, but now, at Illinois, Smith doesn’t have the kind of stand-out running QB that you’d expect in a RichRod-style offense. As a result, his Illini unit often plays more like a straightforward 2-back spread. For example, Illinois’ best win of the season came against Wisconsin, who runs a base 3-4 and Nickel package that look a lot like ours, and against these looks, Smith’s Illini spent most of the game in formations like this:

In this formation we see that Illinois is playing with a blocking back lined up to the weakside of the formation (the side away from the two-WR surface), and in this kind of look they can move that blocker around to create different points of attack. The basic idea is this: When the defense plays a 4-2 Nickel like this, the defense has three defenders to each side of center:

Meanwhile, the OL only has two OL to each side of Center. What the blocking back lets them do, then, is move a third blocker to whichever side they want to attack. For example, against the Badgers their main sequence was built off of an Inside Zone Solid play:

On this play the OL is all zone blocking to the left, and the blocking back (starting this play at the top of the screen) is crossing the formation to the backside (working from left to right). This gets them a third blocker to the backside of this run, and encourages a cutback lane to open up.

To supplement this, they could also run Outside Zone Lead:

On this play the OL is blocking zone to the right, but instead of working across the formation to the backside of the formation, the blocking back is releasing to the playside edge, working in the same direction as the OL and adding a third blocker to the playside. On this play we can see that this play doesn’t work very well because, when the blocking back doesn’t take out the backside DE, that DE can be free to crash down the line of scrimmage to make the tackle in pursuit.

Either of these plays could also be run as an RPO, with the two WR’s to the backside of the play running a Bubble Screen or Slants:

This is an Inside Zone Solid play to the right, with the blocking back working across the formation to kick out the backside DE, but on this play the QB doesn’t like what he sees in the box and so throws the backside bubble screen.

For Cal fans, this kind of rushing attack will be most similar to what we’ve seen from USC under Graham Harrell, and from North Carolina under Larry Fedora, and that gives us the opportunity to comment on some things to watch for in the Redbox Bowl. Against Illinois, Wisconsin had a lot of success by running split-safety coverages:

This decision let them play with an eight-man run fit, getting four defenders to each side of Center (remember that even with the blocking back Illinois can only get three blockers to either side of Center). To the two-receiver surface, they have a Safety to cover the Slot WR on anything vertical or outside, and this lets them bring their NB inside of that receiver as a fourth defender to his side. To the single-receiver side, they’re bringing their Weak Safety down into the box as a fourth defender, and so this lets them play 4-on-3 to the side of the FB’s release, no matter where he goes.

As I mentioned, in the PAC-12 Illinois’ 2-back rushing attack is closest to what USC does, and so it’s worth noting that Cal defended USC in a different way, by spinning to play a single-high coverage:

And we can compare this with Wisconsin’s look in the following image:

What we can see here is that Cal’s single-high look lets them keep the Weak Safety as a fourth playside defender, but eliminates the NB from the run fit on the backside, and so this look could be vulnerable to Illinois’ Inside Zone Solid play, which brings the TE across the formation as a third blocker to the backside. So, as you watch the game, my tip is for you to ask yourself where the Safeties are. Split-Safety looks will give you balanced numbers to both sides of the formation, which can be beneficial if the offense can use a blocking back to attack both sides of the formation. Spinning to single-high, however, only gets you an extra defender to one side of the formation, and so that’s a better indication that there’s one specific part of the field that the defense is looking to take away. The best way to follow this matchup is to look at the Safeties pre-snap, and then to watch the blocking back post-snap. If you can do that, then you’ll see a lot of what’s going on in the run game.

Passing Game

Although Illinois’ personnel and scheme look a lot like USC in the run game, things are pretty different in the passing game, where starting QB Brandon Peters is completing just 54.6% of his passes, and his leading receiver has only 634 yards. Like USC, the Illini passing attack is very sideline-oriented, but they just don’t have the athletes or the QB that the Trojans have, and so against Wisconsin, at least, their vertical attack didn’t have much success. As we can see below, there’s just a general imprecision at every level that keeps them from completing a lot of passes:

Another problem is that there are some execution issues with their pass-protection in long-yardage situations. Wisconsin was able to get at least three sacks out of the exact same blitz:

Before the snap on this play, we can see that Wisconsin has two DL toward the bottom of the screen. These defenders will occupy the RG and RT, while the RB picks up any blitzing LB. To attack this, Wisconsin is just blitzing the RB with two LB’s. The RB picks up the first blitzer, but that leaves nobody for the second, who gets the sack and the forced fumble. To pick this up the Center would have to work out to the DT, while the RG and RB would have to pick up the two blitzers, but they had a lot of trouble executing this switch.

Most of Illinois’ passing yardage, then, came on short passes that went for a lot of yards after some missed tackles:

Overall, this is definitely an offense that’s still finding its way, and I think that it’ll be hard for them to beat us unless we make a lot of mistakes along the way.