CHAMPAIGN — Peorian Coran Taylor, a near-forgotten fourth-string quarterback, added some spark to the troubled Illini football operation at Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
Despite four grievous mistakes — two fumbles and two interceptions — Taylor’s flying feet brought Lovie Smith’s squad to the doorstep of a comeback thriller against mistake-prone Purdue ... only to come up short in the closing minutes, losing 31-24.
It’s good to feel some excitement these days, but a fifth straight home loss to Purdue is simply not acceptable. Yes, the Boilermakers showed moxie in beating Iowa a week ago. And yes, the Illini’s COVID-19 positives threw the offensive unit off kilter.
But you can’t excuse a healthy UI defensive unit that permitted 20 of 21 pass completions at Wisconsin, and 24 of 27 in allowing the Boilermakers to build a 31-10 lead through three quarters.
Passing fancyOpposing receivers have been rambling free throughout this 21st century, and Smith’s defensive schemes have done little to change that.
In this case, Aidan O’Connell, a junior product of Stevenson High in suburban Chicago, was the culprit. Not ranked among the top Big Ten QBs, he rocked Iowa with three TD tosses to sophomore sensation David Bell, and he finished with 29 for 35 on Saturday for 376 yards.
The sure-handed Bell caught nine Saturday, making a sensational third-down catch to prevent Illinois from getting a last chance with a minute and a half to go. This came just minutes after Illinois reached the Purdue 15-yard line, where Taylor threw three incompletions and a 7-yarder that carried Mike Epstein out of bounds.
Thus ended a spirited rally that revived memories of the Wisconsin and Michigan State comebacks a year ago. Taylor earlier uplifted the UI’s parental turnout (no other fans allowed) with fourth-quarter TD tosses to new transfers Daniel Imatorbhebhe (28 yards) and Brian Hightower (9 yards).
Defense needs helpWe must return to secondary defense for a minute. Cornerback Devon Witherspoon was back after missing the opener, and the Illini fielded an experienced unit.
But O’Connell’s first three passes went for 21, 11 and 29. Just after the quarter turn, he found sophomore Milton Wright for a 45-yard TD bomb.
As the game progressed, there were myriad twists and turns. Just after half, the UI’s Jake Hansen pounced on a fumble by Purdue workhorse Zander Horvath at the UI 2-yard-line, but Taylor threw an interception that led to a Bell TD reception. And late in the third quarter, Taylor fumbled near the UI goal line to allow an easy pickup-TD by Purdue’s Jalen Graham.
Both teams, to put it mildly, were mistake-prone, the mask-wearing refs walking off 103 yards against Purdue and 75 against Illinois.
It was messy on both sides. But it boils down to this: Defense is Smith’s responsibility, and Illinois has permitted 30 or more points on 27 occasions since he took over. This projected as his best defensive unit, but the Illini have allowed 248 aerial yards at Wisconsin and 376 more to Purdue.
So the struggles continue as Illinois arrives late to the table while others in the Big Ten’s projected also-ran category — Maryland, Rutgers, Northwestern, Michigan State, Indiana and Purdue — have enjoyed at least one enjoyable feast.
Stay turned for the arrival of 0-2 Minnesota at 2:30 p.m. next Saturday ... one more chance to compare coaches hired at the same time, P.J. Fleck and Lovie Smith. And one more chance to see if Smith can find some defensive answers.