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Screen defense a focus for Illinois entering final regular season game

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Illinois Michigan Football

DUPLICATE***Illinois wide receiver Casey Washington (14)***Illinois defensive back Xavier Scott (14) tackles Michigan running back C.J. Stokes (23) in the first half of an NCAA college football game in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

CHAMPAIGN — Illinois’ defense has been among the best in the Big Ten, but one area of vulnerability in the past couple of weeks is in the screen game.

Michigan running back Blake Corum had a 41-yard reception out of the backfield, and since the Illini’s game against Nebraska, teams have been able to have a couple of chunk plays with screen passes out of the backfield.

“Just the recognition, one, and two, we’ve been caught in specific calls when we’ve seen those screens that have worked,” defensive coordinator Ryan Walters said. “There’s not a defense out there that can stop every play. If there was, I’d call it all the time. There are some things we can do from a technique and an eye progression standpoint to help us out there.”

For a defense that has been one of the nation’s best — it's third in scoring defense in FBS — it has allowed at least one reception from a running back for 14 or more yards in each of the past four games.

“We’re starting to see them out of certain formations. We’re getting certain formations,” Walters said. “Obviously, without divulging too much information with how we’ll combat that, we feel like we’ve come up with some good answers. There have been times where we have gotten screens called out of that formation and different calls where it’s not been an issue. I can be smarter and more strategic about how aggressive or when I’m aggressive in a play call to help us out in that situation.”

That unit was relatively stout against Michigan in most respects, keeping the Wolverines out of the end zone after their opening drive Saturday and keeping the Wolverines under 20 points for the first time all season.

The full season performance of the unit and Walters led him to be announced as a semifinalist for the Broyles Award, given to the nation’s top assistant coach, on Monday.

“I think it’s a culmination of what the entire defense staff and the players in the locker room, it’s just a reflection of what they’ve been able to do up to this point this season,” Walters said. “To be recognized for the hard work they’ve put in so far is nice. It’s cool to be recognized.”

Lunney talks extension

Barry Lunney Jr.

Illinois offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. 

Illinois offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. received an extension Nov. 9, and talked about the extension publicly for the first time Monday. The Illini are gaining over 65 more yards of total offense per game this season than in 2021.

“When I was approached about that a few weeks ago I was very excited about the security involved in that and just the commitment,” Lunney said. “More than anything the commit on both sides to say, ‘This is where I want to be,’ and, ‘This is where they want me to be,’ and to help build this program on a consistent basis and a yearly basis. That was important to me.”

During the team’s three-game losing streak, there have been times in which the offense has stalled. Illinois started the game with two three-and-outs against Michigan, and couldn’t get enough first downs to run out the clock on the drive before Michigan’s late field goal.

“I think we’re at a point where we have enough talent. I think we have enough grit and toughness that when we do things the way we’re capable of doing, we can move the ball and score points on whoever we play,” Lunney said. “But when we don’t, the margin of error is pretty slim. When I don’t put them in a good position, at times, with play calls, and we don’t execute the way we’re capable of, then you see the results of punting and being three-and-out and those types of things. It’s a real fine line there. Our effort and intentionality to move the ball was there the whole game the other day.”

Follow Anderson Kimball on Twitter at: byAndy Kimball


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