Illinois escapes MTSU for bounce-back win
Final: Illinois 27, Middle Tennessee State 25
Telling stat: MTSU’s 38 yards rushing
Illinois’ three sacks contributed to that total, but it was still a tough go for MTSU on the ground. Jordan Parker was bottled up by the likes of Mason Monheim and T.J. Neal, Jr., both of whom finished with double-digit tackles. Illinois got back to disrupting the backfield, and finished the day with a season-high 10 tackles for loss. After watching UNC march all over the Illinois defense, that was a needed response.
Key play: Taylor Zalewski 51-yard field goal in final 2 minutes
Last week was all about Iowa’s Marshall Koehn delivering the impressive game-winning kick. This week, it was Zalewski’s turn. The Illinois kicker came up huge with the go-ahead kick to give Illinois a 27-25 lead with two minutes to play. Needless to say, that made up for a missed 38-yard attempt earlier. Without that kick, the game is virtually over and Illinois is reeling after two straight losses. Instead, Zalewski played hero.
-Wes Lunt, Geronimo Allison clicking
This is the duo that needs to get Illinois rolling. They certainly were on Saturday. Allison didn’t finish with a score, but he hauled in a season-high 10 catches and 128 yards. Still without Mikey Dudek, Allison has to be the deep threat. Nobody else can really stretch the field on this team. Lunt didn’t have a completion longer than 11 yards to anybody other than Allison. If he could establish himself as a main option, that would certainly ease the transition when Dudek is able to come back.
-Illinois’ secondary still has issues
Victory aside, Illinois needs to be better in the defensive backfield. Ed Batties had 13 catches for 175 yards while Richie James had 12 catches for 141 yards. The duo was open all day and scored all three MTSU touchdowns. This was a chance for the Illini secondary to get some confidence back and that might not have been accomplished on Saturday. Outside of Clayton Fejedelem, who had three pass break-ups, this unit did not get the performance it was looking for heading into B1G play.
What it means: Illinois still has questions
Give the Illini credit. It avoided a letdown against a talented mid-major. That’s worth something for a program that could’ve been lost after the Tim Beckman fiasco. Illinois, however, still has too many vulnerabilities heading into B1G play. Luckily for us, an opening B1G schedule of Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin and Penn State will tell us all we need to know about the Illini.