It just didn’t make sense.
The University of Wisconsin football team had been so good in the red zone this season that it seemed like each trip turning into a touchdown was a forgone conclusion. So how did Illinois of all teams get crucial red-zone stops and pull off the upset of the Badgers?
Let’s take a step inside the film room and find out:
Situation: Second-and-goal from Illinois’ 6, early second quarter
Play: Jack Coan pass incomplete, intended for Quintez Cephus
Breakdown: This play breaks down quickly, as Illinois’ zone coverage brackets Cephus (87).
For any chance at a completion, Coan would’ve had to throw the ball the second Cephus’ left foot plants on the 2-yard line and he turns his body toward the line of scrimmage. Cephus was open for that split-second, but it would’ve been a dangerous pass for Coan to make. Instead, Coan continues his rollout to the right, and then lofts the ball out of the end zone.
My issue with this play is that it’s a one-man route — Illinois’ defense only had to cover Cephus to prevent a touchdown. Tight end Jake Ferguson, who played great against the Fighting Illini, is trailing far behind the play on a crossing route, but Coan can’t risk throwing back across his body against the zone coverage. The way Illinois’ Milo Eifler (5) mirrors Nakia Watson (14) takes away any chance Coan has to scramble as well.
It becomes eight-man protection, and without a play-action fake to potentially get a linebacker to cheat up, Coan only has one option.
Situation: Third-and-goal from Illinois’ 6, early second quarter
Play: Jonathan Taylor rushes for no gain
Breakdown: This is an example of how the Fighting Illinois controlled the line of scrimmage inside the 10 against UW.
Both right guard Josh Seltzner (70) and right tackle Logan Bruss (60) are pulling to their left, which means center Tyler Biadasz (61) and left guard Kayden Lyles (76) must block the defender to their right. Both fail to stay engaged on their lineman, which allows penetration before Taylor can get the handoff.
The play looks to be designed to follow Bruss through the hole, and had Tymir Oliver (96) been blocked, Taylor would have had a lane to the end zone and just a safety to beat for the score. Instead, UW kicked a field goal on the next play.
Situation: Second-and-9 from Illinois’ 20, late third quarter
Play: Jack Coan pass incomplete, intended for Jonathan Taylor. Penalty—holding on Cole Van Lanen
Breakdown: Cole Van Lanen (71) has been stellar for UW this season, but this was a rare bad play for the left tackle.
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His pass set is good, but he gets caught flat-footed when Isaiah Gay (92) makes his move inside. He tries his best to run Gay through the pocket, but Gay still puts pressure on Coan and forces him to throw early.
Van Lanen’s holding call pushes UW back, and it leads to a missed field goal.
Situation: First-and-goal from Illinois’ 3
Play: Jonathan Taylor rushes for 1 yard
Breakdown: For the most part, Illinois tackled well on Saturday, and it was good tackling that stopped Taylor here.
UW went back to a similar formation that scored a touchdown earlier in the game, but once Taylor gets to the line, he’s stuck by two defenders. He’ll often get through that initial hit, especially near the goal line, but the Fighting Illini rallied to the ball and didn’t allow extra yards on a late push.
This play, and series, was where UW not having its full offensive line at its disposal hurt — the Hippo package likely would’ve been used with Jason Erdmann on the field.
Situations: Second-and-goal from Illinois’ 2; Third-and-goal from Illinois’ 1, early fourth quarter
Plays: John Chenal rushes for 1 yard; John Chenal rushes for minus-1 yard
Breakdown: I was genuinely stunned the Chenal didn’t score on that first carry.
The play design is good, handing off right while Taylor serves as a decoy to the left. The right side of the line gets a good surge, but Chenal leaves his feet a bit too quickly. It’s an admirable effort once he’s on top of the pile and trying to push his way in, but to no avail.
The second play is the same formation, similar design, just flipping the directions the backs go. The left side of the line allows too much penetration, and another good display of tackling gets Illinois’ defense off the field.
UW coach Paul Chryst has been criticized for kicking the field goal on the ensuing fourth down, but going up two possessions was imperative at this stage of the game and the correct move.
Situation: First-and-goal from Illinois’ 5
Play: Jonathan Taylor rushes for 5 yards, touchdown
Breakdown: It wasn’t all bad for UW’s line in the red zone.
Watch as the right side of the line — Seltzner (70), Bruss (60) and Cormac Sampson (85) — create a giant rushing lane and wall off the inside linebackers. Taylor makes a great move to avoid a tackle in the hole, as well.
This is what the Badgers are accustomed to doing near the goal line, and will have to do more consistently down the stretch of the season to keep Big Ten Conference championship hopes alive.