By the Numbers: Illinois defense

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Established October 31, 1996
Front Page Columns and Features
Last updated: 10/20/2011 2:19 PM
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By the Numbers - Illinois Defense
By Jeff Amey

With the Ohio State offense doing its best impression of a Woody Hayes-era offense on Saturday, it was up to the defense to preserve the small 3-0 lead they inherited the first time they stepped on the field.  Not only did they preserve it, but they helped extend that lead by 14 more points by forcing three second half turnovers, two in plus territory that set up touchdowns.

One of the questions this week was how the defense would bounce back after giving up a 27-6 lead and almost 300 second half yards against Nebraska.  I thought the defense did a fantastic job of handling Illinois' option attack as well as limiting the big play ability of the Illini offense.  There were some issues with tiring through the fourth quarter again, especially during and after the Illini went on their up-tempo 16-play touchdown drive, but that's going to happen when the opponent runs 27 fourth-quarter plays while your offense is going three and out.

The performance on Saturday was made possible by some great play from some of the defense's established stars, and improved play by a couple of players that have struggled so far this season. 

Run/Pass Breakdown

69 Total Plays--284 yards--4.1 yards per play

            34 pass (49%)--20/34 for 168 yards  1 TD  2 INT

            35 rush (51%) for 116 yards--3.3 ypc

11 Defensive Possessions

            Ave. of 6.3 plays--26.0 yards

            Ave. Start--Illinois 28

First Down--29 plays (42%) for 74 yards

            9 pass (31%)--4/9 for 30 yards  1 INT

            20 rush (69%) for 44 yards--2.2 ypc

            Ave. gain of 2.6 yards

Second Down--27 plays (39%) for 151 yards

            14 pass (52%)--13/14 for 85 yards  1 TD  1 INT

            13 rush (48%) for 66 yards--5.1 ypc
            Ave. of 7.4 yards to go

            Ave. gain of 5.6 yards

Third Down--12 plays (17%) for 59 yards

            10 pass (83%)--3/10 for 53 yards

            2 rush (17%) for 6 yards--3.0 ypc

            Ave. of 7.1 yards to go

            Ave. gain of 4.9 yards

            Conversions--5/12 (42%)

Fourth Down--1 play (1%) for 0 yards

            1 pass (100%)--0/1 for 0 yards

            Ave. of 3.0 yards to go

            Ave. of no gain

            Conversions--0/1 (0%)

First Downs given up--19 total

            8 by rush

            8 by pass

            3 by penalty

Formation/Personnel Breakdown

Illinois offense vs. 4-3--5 plays (7%) for 12 yards

            1 pass (20%)--1/1 for 3 yards  1 TD

            4 rush (80%) for 9 yards--2.3 ypc

            Blitz Percentage--3/5 (60%)

            Negative Blitz plays--0

Illinois offense vs. 4-2-5--45 plays (65%) for 182 yards

            17 pass (38%)--13/17 for 105 yards  2 INT

            28 rush (62%) for 77 yards--2.8 ypc

            Blitz Percentage--6/45 (13%)

            Negative Blitz plays--0

Illinois offense vs. 3-3-5--19 plays (28%) for 90 yards

            16 pass (84%)--6/16 for 60 yards

            3 rush (16%) for 30 yards--10.0 ypc

            Blitz Percentage--7/19 (37%)

            Negative Blitz plays--0

Illinois offense vs. Base (no blitz) defense--53 plays (77%) for 194 yards

            26 pass (49%)--16/26 for 121 yards  1 TD  2 INT

            27 rush (51%) for 73 yards--2.7 ypc

Illinois offense vs. Blitz defense--16 plays (23%) for 90 yards

            8 pass (50%)--4/8 for 47 yards

            8 rush (50%) for 43 yards--5.4 ypc

Illinois offense vs. Man to man (Combo) defense--30 plays (43%) for 103 yards

            14 pass (47%)--6/14 for 49 yards  1 TD

            16 rush (53%) for 54 yards--3.4 ypc

Illinois offense vs. Zone defenses--39 plays (57%) for 181 yards

            20 pass (51%)--14/20 for 119 yards  2 INT

            19 rush (49%) for 62 yards--3.3 ypc

Other Stats of Note

~ 2 defensive penalties for 30 yards

~ Illinois did not start on the Ohio State side of the 50

~ 1/2 in the Red Zone--(1 TD)

~ 3 sacks and 3 turnovers (1 fumble  2 INT)

~ 24/69 plays went for no gain or loss--(35%)

~ Number of plays of 10+ yards--10 (14%)

~ 2/11 drives went three and out--(18%)

After last week's game the last thing I thought the Buckeyes would do this week would be to run the ball almost exclusively on offense and rely on the defense and field position to win the game, but that is exactly what the Buckeyes did.  It shouldn't have been too surprising since that is how they usually play the Illini in Champaign.  The results were quite different from the week before.  What was different?

There was some improved play in some of the players that have struggled this season, and the biggest improvement was by Etienne Sabino.  After looking like a liability on the field against Nebraska, struggling to get off of blocks and taking terrible angles, he was almost like a different player against Illinois.  I'm not going to say the light has gone on for him or anything like that, but he did a much better job of getting off blocks and was decisive with his reads.

I also think that the kind of offense Illinois runs is what Jim Heacock and company are most comfortable going up against now, and is what the defense is best at stopping.  Nebraska runs a more veer oriented option game that uses a lot of fullback while Illinois runs almost exclusively the spread-option attack that uses a lot of zone-read plays.  Nebraska used a lot of strong formations that kept Tyler Moeller in more of a linebacker position most of the game, where Illinois spread things out more and allowed Moeller to play out in space where he is much more effective.

Defensive Line

Once again John Simon and Johnathan Hankins dominated things on the defensive front and this game was a coming out of sorts for Hankins.  He's been largely unblockable by anyone this season, but he was devastating to the Illini offense, blowing up several plays in the backfield himself, and setting up other defenders for easy tackles with penetration.  Not only that, but he even ran down a wide receiver screen play from behind in the first quarter.

John Simon garnered Defensive Player of the Week in the Big Ten and deservedly so.  He was every bit as disruptive as Hankins and picked up two sacks as well.  He has a motor that just doesn't quit and looked just as strong at the end of the game as he did at the beginning.

The other players on the defensive front haven't really distinguished themselves, but once again I'm going to say that Adam Bellamy is coming on and is probably benefiting the most from the attention Hankins and Simon are receiving.  Solomon Thomas saw his first extended action since returning from suspension and his broken leg in the spring. It wasn't a very auspicious start for him.  Not only was he badly juked on an open field play, but he also was called for a roughing the passer call later in the game.

Grade--A   This area really spelled the difference in the game.  None of the called 16 blitz plays ended in a negative play, but the regular 3 or 4 man rush managed to get seven of them.


This entire season, the linebackers have been the weak point of the defense.  Some have been better than others, and Andrew Sweat has been the most steady of the group.  This isthe first week since the Akron game that the Buckeye linebackers had a solid all-around game.  Even Etienne Sabino, who has had a rough time all year, had a pretty good game.

He still had some rough plays, and was still slow to react in some situations, especially when their quarterback started scrambling, but it was nice to see him using his hands to get off of blocks and make some tackles.  He still needs to wrap up better when he gets there, but at the very least he slowed up the runners for other defenders to clean up.  It was a small step for him, but a step in the right direction.

Storm Klein looked like his injury from last week was bothering him a little bit.  He did make a few good plays, however, including forcing a fumble in the second quarter and stoning a running back near the goal line.  Ryan Shazier even got into the act during Illinois' long touchdown drive, but didn't do anything to distinguish himself on the field.

Grade--B+   I was encouraged by Sabino's play, and Sweat had a good all-around game.

Defensive Backs

The defensive line has been the strength of the defense this season, but the defensive backs have proven they aren't slouches.  Somel people, including myself, have been down on a couple of the defensive backs, especially Travis Howard, but after seven games, I think he's just better in man coverage than he is in zone.

Early in the game the Buckeyes played a lot of man to man coverages and shut the Illinois offense down.  Up to the drive where the Illini scored their touchdown, the defense ran some kind of man coverage on 20 of 44 plays.  The Illini only completed three passes against those defenses (8 attempts), and the Buckeyes did a good job of stopping their option attack.  In the same time frame, the Illini managed eight completions against the Buckeye zone coverages (11 attempts).  To be fair, both Buckeye interceptions came from the corners in cover 3 zones on two of the few times the Illini attempted passes down the field instead of underneath.

As for the safeties, I'm more impressed with Christian Bryant every week.  If nothing else, he brings a tackling presence that was missing before he was inserted into the lineup.  He's pretty good in coverage as well.  C. J. Barnett, on the other hand, didn't have a very good game against the Illini, at least in run support.  While he didn't outright miss any tackles, he was constantly making tackles on his back as he stood flat-footed and let runners attack him instead of the other way around.  The extra yards he gave up didn't really end up hurting the Buckeyes, but he's got to do better in the future attacking runners instead of letting them try to run him over.

With the Buckeyes playing several teams early this season that didn't spread their formations very much, and the Buckeye linebacker situation being what it is, Tyler Moeller has spent a lot of time playing the Sam linebacker spot instead of his customary Star position.  Illinois' formations allowed Moeller to play nearly the whole game out wide, and he was much more active in the defense, forcing the fumble that allowed the Buckeyes to go up three scores and being in on several tackles.  He also did a good job in man to man coverages lined up on the their slot receivers most of the game.

Grade--A-   It wouldn't be a defensive breakdown this season without mentioning Bradley Roby.  He came up with the interception that allowed the Buckeyes to go up by 10, and recovered the fumble that allowed them to go up by 17 to go along with his solid play in coverage and run support.

Defensive Coaching/Gameplan

There really isn't a whole lot to put here about Jim Heacock and company that hasn't been said already.  I think this kind of offense is the kind he's best at putting together gameplans to stop, and the kind of offense the defensive personnel and style of play is best suited to.  I also think the amount of option the Buckeyes have seen the past two games, and man to man coverages that Ohio State has employed in those games should help show that the Buckeyes are better on defense when they're playing man on the outside instead of zones.

The difference between the two philosophies (zone vs. man) is that man to man coverages seek to take away the receivers and allow more players to play in run support.  It forces the opposing team's skill players to make plays for the other team to move the ball.  The zones and zone-blitzes that Heacock has always seemed to prefer instead put the onus on the opposing quarterback to read the defense and find open men and the defensive line to affect him while he tries to do that.  It also relies on the defensive line to disrupt the running game so the linebackers and safeties can react to it.

Heacock has had an interesting dilemma with the personnel this season when it comes to the two differing philosophies.  He has corners that seem to thrive on man coverage, and safeties that are adequate, but linebackers that have trouble with it, especially Sabino.  On the other hand, the defensive line just hasn't been getting enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks in zone coverages to stop them from finding open men on a consistent basis, though they have done a good job against the run.

We're probably not going to see Heacock get away from the zone coverage calls when the Buckeyes have a two-score or more lead, but in both of the last two games, the defense didn't start giving up real yardage or points until they started calling more zone coverages.  For the Buckeye defense to have a chance against Wisconsin the next game, I think we're going to need to see the Buckeyes in man coverages nearly the entire game.

Grade--A-   I guess if I were to have a complaint about the defense in zones, it would be that they nearly always call some type of cover 3.  That will limit big plays, which is one of the main goals if you have the lead, but it doesn't give the quarterback much to think about if the rush doesn't get there.

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