Remember that bowl game in 2018 when two teams that were really good at forcing turnovers faced each other in a
cheezy cheesy bowl game? Well, Illinois is #2 in the country in turnovers gained per game, and #2 in the country in fumbles recovered.
Okay, first things first, I want everyone to know why this article is late. After the power went down at my parents’ place a few nights ago, the power company apparently tore down the cable while repairing the power, which left me without internet. The neighbor, with his stupid “Stanford - Fear The Tree” license plate, wouldn’t let the internet repair guy onto the public easement through his yard, and we ultimately had to get the police involved to allow access. Here I thought I was nice and fair to them in my article this year. Fear The Tree? Pfft, I hope all the trees falls over in your stupid yard.
Anyway, back to Illinois. When I watched Illinois, there really wasn’t that much that stood out to me about this defense. They weren’t elite run stoppers, they weren’t quarterback-killers, they weren’t ball-hawks. So how was this defense so successful? Well, there is exactly two things they do really well: they hit hard, and they force fumbles.
As a bit of background, Illinois head coach Lovie Smith was the linebacker coach at Tampa Bay when the Tampa-2 defense was created. Illinois likes to play a Tampa-2 defense (with split safeties), with the idea being to bend not break and keep everything in front of you, but Illinois is not reliable enough in the tackling game to play this to perfection. They often switch to a single high safety and play man coverage when they want to bring pressure.
As always, let’s take a unit-by-unit look at this team.
The defensive line is the strength of this team. The defensive line does a good job occupying opposing offensive linemen—best exemplified by the Wisconsin game, against a great offensive line—preventing them from blocking down field, which leaves their linebackers in much better position to make tackles.
Illinois has struggled to stop the run at times, with players finding themselves out of position or missing tackles. However, Illinois is still a good pass rushing team.
In particular, former 5-star recruit, USC transfer Oluwole Betiku Jr., is a force to be accounted for on all snaps. Betiku averages a sack per game, and was second in the P5 in sacks (behind only Ohio State’s Chase Young) before he missed 4 games with an injury (and yet, he still has more than double the number of sacks as the next highest Illinois player). He is an athletic mix of size and strength, and he possesses a wide array of pass rush moves to get to the quarterback. His play this year has begun to earn him NFL Draft buzz.
He’s strong and fast:
And he even beat Wisconsin’s uber-talented offensive line:
Defensive tackle Jamal Milan was also impressive, as both a disruptive force against the run and against the pass. He moves a lot quicker than you’d expect for a 300 lb. tackle:
Here’s DT Jamal Milan disrupting the pass:
And here’s Milan completely flattening Akron QB Kato Nelson:
A lot of the attention for this defense will be on the linebackers, but I think that the defensive line was the most talented unit on this defense. Most of what the Illinois defense can do starts with the defensive line.
At this point, you’ve probably heard about Dele Harding, Illinois’ answer to Evan Weaver. I found myself extremely critical of Harding because it’s an unfair comparison. I can’t follow how a play will develop by watching Harding, Harding doesn’t have the football instincts of Weaver, and Harding doesn’t shut down the run the way Weaver does. But really, who does? There’s no replacement for Weaver. I found myself overly critical of other great quarterbacks after watching Jared Goff, and now I’m finding the same thing with linebackers after watching Evan Weaver. Because of this, I nearly overlooked the impact Dele Harding had on the Illinois defense: he leads the team with 12.5 TFLs, 3 INTs (two pick-6s), and 2 forced fumbles. And of course, he’s #2 in the FBS in tackles (cough, cough). Comparatively speaking, Harding has a lot more assisted tackles than Weaver: he’s not the first to the ball, but he often finishes the tackle.
First, Harding does have a good instinct for the ball, and hence the large number of tackles for loss:
One thing Dele Harding does well: blowing up screen passes. A lot of his TFLs look like this:
As you’d expect from the centerpiece of the Illinois defense, he can hit hard:
Of course, here’s Dele Harding with the Illinois special:
One of the question marks around Evan Weaver is his pass coverage. Dele Harding might have better defensive passing statistics than Weaver, mainly because of plays like this:
But in my opinion, I think Harding struggles far more in pass coverage than Weaver does:
In fact, Illinois tends to leave a lot of soft spots in their zone coverage, mainly due to the play of their middle linebacker Dele Harding.
While I had heard so much about Dele Harding, no one had told me about Jake Hansen, and he was the linebacker that stood out far more on tape. This was one of the first defensive plays I took note of from Illinois:
Jake Hansen leads the team with 7 forced fumbles. The Illinois offense was very boom-or-bust with this type of play: they’d often try to force fumbles when they were down or needed a big play. For every forced fumble, I saw big misses from Illinois like this:
Jake Hansen is second on the team with sacks (with 3.5), and he definitely does a good job of using his speed to bring pressure on a quarterback:
Hansen was definitely the most impactful linebacker on this team— when Illinois needed a big play, Hansen was there to either strip the ball carrier or put his helmet on the ball to know it loose.
Lastly, I have to mention the Berkeley native, linebacker Milo Eifler. Cal’s Hardy Nickerson was the one who got him into football, and Eifler followed the Nickersons to Illinois (where Nickerson Sr. was the defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, and to where Cal linebacker Nickerson Jr. grad transferred).
Eifler is fast, strong, and extremely athletic— he can reportedly do a standing backflip. Like most players on the Illinois defense, Eifler is a hard-hitter:
Also, if you’re looking into Milo Eifler, it’s interesting to note that he got ejected from the Michigan State game. The referee ejected him said that he “threw a punch,” but the replay showed Eifler... giving an opposing player a friendly slap on the behind. So let’s all keep our hands to ourselves, fellas.
This is a secondary that Chase Garbers should be able to beat, as the strength of their defense lies elsewhere.
Although Nate Hobbs is probably considered the top corner, I was most impressed by the play of freshman CB Devon Witherspoon. Here he is blanketing former Cal WR Kanawai Noa:
Nate Hobbs is typically tasked with guarding the opposing #1 receiver, and one of the things I noticed about him was that he plays just enough off his man to try and bait opposing quarterbacks into a throw, so that he can make a play on the ball:
Hobbs leads the team in passes defensed, mainly on plays that look like the above. He also had an interception in the Northwestern game, but that was more the result of a terrible read by the backup-backup-QB. Nate Hobbs was also a very sure tackler— I don’t think I saw him miss a tackle.
Instead, the corner I took the most note of was Tony Adams (brief aside: Adams actually played safety to start the year, but switched to corner for the Purdue game and onwards). As I mentioned in the introduction, Adams hits hard and forces fumbles. But if there’s one player on the Illinois defense that hits the hardest... it’s probably Tony Adams:
As you can see, Adams really makes receivers pay when they come across the middle. Adams also does a really good job of putting his helmet on the ball to force fumbles:
I just realized that this is another Nebraska clip. Tony Adams was all over the field that game. I have no idea why Tony Adams hates Nebraska so much, but here’s another Tony Adams hit that was audible from the nose-bleeds:
You can tell Illinois has been coached to look for turnovers. Here’s Tony Adams doing a nice job of playing the ball instead of his man to get the interception:
Here’s another big hit by Adams, this time to save the touchdown:
Remember, Illinois made a 25-point comeback to beat Michigan State. This touchdown-saving hit could have been the difference. Illinois is a team that plays with a lot of momentum, and they often go for the big plays (big hits, forced fumbles) over the safe plays (wrap up, tackle after a few yards gained). The defense plays with the same kind of momentum that the offense does.
It should also be noted that Adams’ penchant for using his helmet caused him to miss the last game and a half with an injury— a neck stinger. He’s currently questionable for the bowl game.
The starting safeties are Stanley Green and Sydney Brown. I’m a bit higher on Green’s pass coverage skills, but (probably not a surprise by this point) the highlights I took were of him forcing fumbles:
Again, notice in all of these clips how good of a job Illinois does at going for the ball:
Green is second (behind Jake Hansen) in fumbles forced.
As I mentioned, Sydney Brown is probably not the best at covering receivers:
That said, Brown actually does have 3 interceptions, tied for the team lead (with LB Dele Harding). He had this nice play:
But his other two interceptions were more the result of mistakes by the opposing quarterback. His other interception in the MSU game was actually a pick-6, although there was some miscommunication between QB Brian Lewerke and his receiver as he ran a different route than expected, and the ball basically hit Brown in the chest. He had another interception the following game against Iowa, when QB Nate Stanley overthrew his receiver, again straight to Brown.
The backup safety is Delano Ware. Same story here, helmet on the ball to force fumbles:
Although he is less instinctive than a safety should be, and was often out of position on pass coverage:
In general, I was less than impressed with Illinois’ ability to cover receivers. A lot of players get lost in zone coverage and end up wide open for easy passes, or sit in the soft spot of zones for easy completions.
Illinois struggles to defend the run, and often lose tight ends in coverage when they think it’s a run play and expect the tight end to block. Illinois struggles in general to cover tight ends, and they often end up wide open in zone coverages. Look for big plays from the Cal tight ends.
The key to this game for Cal has to be to minimize turnovers. Illinois is 2nd in the FBS in takeaways per game, and they rely on big shifts in momentum to get going. The Illinois defense will hit hard, put their helmets on the ball during tackles, frequently go for strips, and the offense will try to capitalize on all of those swings in momentum. If the Cal offense can minimize turnovers, this is a game they should be able to handle. If they can’t, well, I hope you enjoy another Cheez-It Bowl.