Debating Myself – Part II

You’ll like this one better.  Everyone will like this one better.  Well, except for maybe one person.

This is Part II of my two part debate with myself.  Here’s the explanation I gave in Part I yesterday:

Given that it’s August 1st, I have decided to launch into this month with the most negative post I’ve ever written. But I promise to follow up on Thursday with some Kool-Aid. I’ll be my own high school debate team. Today: Why Illinois Football Will Go 3-9 This Fall. Tomorrow – Why Illinois Football Will Go 9-3 This Fall. Point, counterpoint.

So on to Part II. Wherein I drink the sweet Kool-Aid of the Outback Bowl.

Eight Reasons Why Illinois Football Will Go 9-3 This Fall

1) Our special teams might be legitimately special under Tim Salem

I’ll just post the numbers I posted back in January.  That’s really all that needs to be said:

Illinois was 120th out of 120 teams last year in kickoff returns, averaging a hard-to-believe 15.71 yards per return. Central Florida, where Tim Salem was the special teams coach? 3rd nationally, averaging 26.93 yards. Think about that. That’s one first down the offense doesn’t have to gain on every single drive. 42 kickoff returns for UCF, meaning 42 drives with one less first down required. 11 less yards needed to get into field goal range. 11 yards closer to setting up the other team with poor field position even if you go three-and-out.

And if you think it was just a fluke, in 2010 UCF’s kickoff return teams were #1 nationally, averaging a stunning 27.78 yards per return. 2009? Oh no – only 13th nationally.

Kickoff coverage? UCF was 9th last year (Illinois was 82nd). Fluke? Nope. In 2010 UCF was 3rd, and in 2009 UCF was 10th.

Let’s recap all of this. Kickoff returns the last 3 years – Salem: 3rd, 1st, 13th. Zook: 120th, 101st, 105th.

Kickoff coverage the last 3 years – Salem: 9th, 3rd, 10th. Zook: 82nd, 84th, 90th.

What about punt returns? Salem: 60th, 12th, 29th. Zook: 118th, 117th, 114th.

2) Defense Wins Outback Bowls

Terry Hawthorne. Michael Buchanan. Justin Green. Jonathan Brown. Akeem Spence.  Five of our eleven defensive starters have a legitimate chance at making the first or second All Big Ten team.  We were 7th in the nation (second in the Big Ten) last year in total defense, and we only lost Mercilus, Thomas, and Henry.  Big Whit is a big loss, but I think Houston Bates and Ashante Williams can do a fine job replacing Thomas and Henry.  Plus, we have Mike Buke to give us his best Mercilus impression.

2013 might be a struggle, as all of the players I listed above might be gone.  But in 2012, we have a chance at a top-3 defense in the Big Ten.  Do that again, get something (anything!) out of the offense, don’t have the worst special teams in the entire country, and hello Outback Bowl.

3) Our spread athletes will actually be running a spread

Nathan Scheelhaase was recruited to run the Locksley spread offense, but he spent two years in Petrino’s hybrid, multiple, sometimes-it’s-kinda-spready-but-our-QB-is-under-center-a-lot offense.

Hugh Thornton was recruited as a big, mobile, spread-out, zone-blocking offensive lineman.  But a lot of times the last two years, he was asked to catch-and-turn.  Or line up with twin tight ends and a fullback and drive the pile.

Josh Ferguson was probably undersized for the Petrino offense, and now he gets to find space on the edges.  Jon Davis isn’t a blocking tight end, but could flourish in an offense that could use his athleticism.  And did I mention that Nathan was a spread QB lining up under center?

This new offense could be a great fit for a large collection of athletes who were recruited to run the spread.  A lot of that is Nathan, but a lot of that is the offensive line.  It’s no secret that the line looked completely lost the final 7 games of the season last year.  Enter a new scheme that’s similar enough to not be new but different enough that the out-of-position players might flourish.  We have the horses.  We just couldn’t put together a team and drive the sled.

4) In the next 200 years, we will never have an easier route to the Big Ten Championship Game.

We can lose at Michigan and Ohio State and still go to the Big Ten Championship Game.  We’d just have to beat Wisconsin and then watch them lose one Big Ten game.  That’s it.

I won’t be able to say that for the rest of my lifetime.  Most every year, we’ll have to say things like “win at Ohio State, Michigan State, and Nebraska and hold serve at home and we can get to the title game”.

Thanks to Penn State and Ohio State, the door is wide open.  Win a four team race between us, Wisconsin, Purdue, and Indiana, and we go to the title game.  The stars have aligned.

5) #TFLU

Last season, Illinois was fourth nationally in tackles for loss.  The defense was based on drive-stopping, turn-second-and-5-into-third-and-8 tackles for loss.  Whitney the Mercilus, Jonathan Brown, and Michael Buchanan all aveaged more than one TFL per game.  And while Big Whit is gone, Brown and Buchanan return to wreak havoc on opposing backfields.  (I think that’s my first ever “wreak havoc” – I feel 9% more sportswriter-y now).

Of course, Vic Koenning is gone, and he was the architect of our #TFLU defense.  If only we could hire HEY LOOK THE GUY WE HIRED HAD THE #1 TFL TEAM IN THE COUNTRY LAST YEAR.  So you have a coordinator who likes to get into the backfield (Cincinnati led the country with a stunning 111 tackles for loss last year), and you have a team of athletes like Jonathan Brown and Michael Buchanan who can thrive in a defense like that, plus complimentary guys like Houston Bates and Akeem Spence who can get into the backfield.  If we lead the country in tackles for loss this year, there’s a good chance we win 9 games.  And we can lead the country in tackles for loss this year.

6) We’re due for some luck

As much as most Illini fans sometimes don’t want to admit it, 2007 was a fairly lucky season.  So many things went right.  Penn State has us on the ropes… and then they turn the ball over four times in the final 16 minutes.  Wisconsin is driving for the go-ahead score… and the ball floats right to Vontae.  Ohio State is on the doorstep, and the ball deflects right to Antonio Steele.  Not to mention Dufrene’s fumble that the officials missed.

We were resilient, but we were also very lucky in the turnover department.  Football Study Hall had a great post about turnover luck back in the spring.  They looked at percentage of fumbles recovered (if you’re recovering 60% of them, you’re pretty much just getting lucky), and PBU’s vs. INT’s (some broken-up passes fall harmlessly, while some fall right to your free safety).  They then put that to a point total (turnovers produce about 5 points on average – see their numbers in the link), and here were the Big Ten “luck” ratings last season:

Michigan 3.97
Penn State 1.83
Nebraska 1.40
Northwestern 1.09
Michigan State 1.03
Purdue 0.28
Ohio State -0.60
Wisconsin -0.61
Indiana -0.81
Minnesota -1.01
Illinois -2.06
Iowa -2.23

Given that these numbers will pretty much average out to zero when you look at it over 10 years, this tells me that Michigan (who led the nation by recovering 75% of all fumbles) is due for some bad bounces, and Illinois and Iowa (gross) are due for some lucky ones.  2007 once more, please.

7) Redshirt junior quarterbacks sometimes make The Leap

Quick – what were Nathan’s touchdowns and interceptions last year.  Take a guess.  You said more interceptions than touchdowns, didn’t you?

13 touchdowns, 8 interceptions.  Not great, but not awful.  OK, now do completion percentage.  55%?  Nope, go higher.  59%?  Nope, higher.

Would you believe 63.2%?  As in, the highest completion percentage for an Illini quarterback since Jason Verduzco in 1990?

So if Nate can do that in an off season where our offense struggled and our line play was, um, underwhelming, what can he do in this new offense?  This is his fourth year of college football and he has 26 starts under his belt.  He had a surprisingly steady freshman campaign and then a sophomore slump.  What’s to say he doesn’t break out this year.

I really think it would be a great blindfold test for any Big Ten fan.  Here are two quarterbacks – pick your starter:

Quarterback A: .567 completion percentage, 29 touchdowns, 18 interceptions, 6.8 yards per attempt in 22 starts.
Quarterback B: .611 completion percentage, 30 touchdowns, 16 interceptions, 7.1 yards per attempt in 26 starts.

Quarterback A is Wisconsin’s new savior, Danny O’Brien. Quarterback B is Nathan Scheelhaase.

8) Ron Zook is no longer in charge.

Can anyone fully appreciate the first kickoff return yet?  The one where it’s into the wind, so we actually line up our returners at the 10 instead of the goal line, and they’re fully prepared to catch the kick, and the blockers are aligned for a shorter formation like this, and we return it to the 37 instead of the 19?  And how the 33 yard drive that follows results in a field goal instead of a punt?  Do you have any idea how awesome that will be?

Or the decision to call a time out at the end of the third quarter to force Penn State to punt into the wind instead of against the wind.  And how that punt is 23 yards instead of 68 yards, setting us up at the 49 instead of the 4?  Do you realize the deafening cheer that will rain down from the Memorial Stadium stands?

We have a field goal attempt to beat Purdue, and we let the clock bleed down to 10 seconds before using our time out instead of hurriedly calling time out with 40 seconds left to set up the kick.  Or some future road game at Iowa where we decline a penalty when Iowa is forced to kick a field goal on fourth down instead of giving them third and long where they score a touchdown.  I can hardly wait.  It’s going to be amazing.

And punts! We might actually try to return punts!  And punt coverage!!  Actual, aggressive, well-thought-out schemes for punt coverage!!! DO YOU UNDERSTAND HOW MANY EXTRA GAMES WE WOULD HAVE WON THE LAST SEVEN SEASONS IF RON ZOOK HAD PAID ATTENTION TO ANY OF THIS????

*breathes into paper bag*

Debating Myself, Part I

Camp Rantoul starts in five days. I’ve already started laying out my outfits. It’s the absolute best time of the year, and I can hardly sleep as I count down the days.

The arrival of Camp Rantoul means one thing: the arrival of August Syndrome. If you’ve read this blog for long, you know about August Syndrome: every fan of every team reads August practice reports and firmly believes a 9-3 season is about to unfold. Last August, somewhere in Terre Haute, two Indiana fans sat around discussing some quote from some returning starter saying “things are just different with this coaching staff – this whole team seems to click with them”. They then discussed if 7-5 and the Insight Bowl was possible, and they quickly found seven wins on the schedule. Maybe eight!

They finished 1-11.

Every year, from now until expansion, Big Ten teams will finish a combined 48-48 in conference. And every August, when combining the proposed win totals from fans of all 12 teams, fans will expect something like 59-37. August Syndrome. It’s not just for the NFL anymore.

Given that it’s August 1st, I have decided to launch into this month with the most negative post I’ve ever written. But I promise to follow up on Thursday with some Kool-Aid. I’ll be my own high school debate team. Today: Why Illinois Football Will Go 3-9 This Fall. Tomorrow – Why Illinois Football Will Go 9-3 This Fall. Point, counterpoint. Starting with an August Syndrome vaccination: why this season will be full of FAIL.

Eight Reasons Why Illinois Football Will Go 3-9 This Fall

1) 7, 14, 7, 14, 17, 7, 20.

Those are the point totals from our offense the last seven games last season. Seven games, 86 points. We scored 79 points against Indiana and Northwestern… and then 86 in our next seven games. We finished 85th nationally in total offense, which was very close to the worst Illini offense in 15 years (I believe the 2003 offense was 87th nationally, just barely edging out 2011). I can’t see any way someone could look at that futility and expect anything other than a 3-and-out-fest all of next season.

Wait – I just remembered that Terry Hawthorne scored in the KFHB on a pick-6. That means the offense only scored 79 points in the final seven games. 79 points against IU and the Fitzees, 79 points in the next seven games.

2) New schemes are always an adjustment.

Indiana finished 5-7 in 2010 and fired Bill Lynch.  They convinced the Oklahoma offensive coordinator to come to Bloomington, he assembled an impressive coaching staff, and… they finished 1-11.  Partly because of a young team, but also partly because new schemes take time.  Look at Michigan under RichRod, switching from a pro-set to a spread and looking miserably lost their first year.

We have a brand new offensive scheme and a similar (but certainly not the same) defensive scheme.  It might be November 1 until the players are comfortable.

3) Neither Offensive Coordinator has ever called a play.

They’re proving they can recruit.  But can they coach?

We shall see.  Gonzo will call the plays, and with all of that experience along side Urban Meyer in Bowling Green and Utah and Florida, he might do a fine job.  But he also might take a while before he’s comfortable calling that naked bootleg on third and 2.

And it’s also worth noting the Meyer passed him over for the offensive coordinator job at Florida, giving the job to Steve Addazio instead.  Was there a reason for this slight?  It’s cause for concern.

4) 1-6?

Western Michigan will win the MAC. Louisiana Tech will win the WAC. Night games in Arizona never go well for us (Mark Hoekstra’s 5 interceptions, anyone?). Penn State wants to punish Tim Beckman. First two Big Ten road games are Wisconsin and Michigan. Yeah, I can see us starting 1-6, too.

No, really.  Besides our FCS gimme game, Arizona State might be our easiest non-conference game, but that’s on the road at night in Arizona (*flashes back to Fresno State loss*).  Say Alex Carder throws for 401 yards and beats us in the opener, and then we lose at Arizona State the following week.  You’re expecting a 1-6 start at that point, right?

5) NFL players are gone.

Whitney the Mercilus, Tavon Wilson, Corey Liuget, Martez Wilson. The heart and soul of the last two Illini defenses, all off to the NFL. Plus, we graduated players like Ian Thomas and Trulon Henry.  This defense has a lot returning, but it also has a lot of holes to fill.

And I saw on Twitter that Jack Cornell is running with the first string at Ravens training camp.  If our offensive line struggled last year, and we lost two guys who might start in the NFL this fall, um, just how bad is our line going to be?

6) Did you WATCH the Minnesota game?

Here, go watch these highlights.  I will only take a minute.

It’s all rushing back, isn’t it? A Minnesota defense that was 101st nationally in rushing defense and 113th in Pass Efficiency Defense held us to 7 points and 160 total yards.  I know we were on the tail end of a long losing streak, and the coach was about to get fired, and an implosion like that can lead to a result like that.  But still – Western Michigan and Louisiana Tech were significantly better than Minnesota last year.  And we’re expecting to breeze through both and head into the Penn State game 4-0?

I often wonder where our expectations would be had Terry Hawthorne not jumped a route for a pick-6 and turned around the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.  We lose 14-13, finish 6-7 by losing to 6-7 UCLA (our seventh loss in a row), and suddenly the beginning of the Beckman era looks completely different, doesn’t it?

7) Vic Koenning is in North Carolina.

Remember that feeling you had when you heard it was finalized? Vic Koenning had accepted the North Carolina Defensive Coordinator job and would not be joining Tim Beckman in Champaign.  Remember thinking we just lost our best defensive coordinator since Denny Marcin/Lou Tepper?

Well, where did that feeling go?  Why are we all now saying things like “the defense will be solid – it’s on the offense to take us to another bowl game”.  What if the defensive success was 50% Vic Koenning brilliant play calling?  What if Tim Banks can’t do the same?  What if the defense takes a significant step back?

8) We’re Illinois Football, and we can’t be trusted.

We’re Illinois Football, and we can’t be trusted.

August Syndrome – A Study In Tweets

I’ll finish the mailbag tonight, so look for that tomorrow.  In the meantime, the Big Ten Network is at Camp Rantoul today, continuing their tour of all of the Big Ten training camps.  I’ve been following their journey by subscribing to Dave Revsine’s tweets, and let me tell you, it’s the highest of you-must-be-high comedy.

To wit.

EVERY team has looked great – even Indiana and Purdue, who are “better than people think”.  Every linebacker has “looked good in his uniform” so far, every QB looks “poised”, every offensive lineman “blocks out the sun”.  Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana, and Purdue are all “greatly improved” and will be “dominant”. As I said before, it looks like this will be the year that the Big Ten finally doesn’t finish .500 against itself.  11 teams in bowls!!

As you can probably tell by now, August Syndrome drives me nuts.  Yes, I know that the BTN is trying to drum up support for their new “Fourpack” of shows, and so Revsine is encouraged to Tweet things that the fans will eat up.  That’s fine.  But when he says things like “Tate Forcier is the PERFECT QB for the Michigan system” and “it’s amazing how poised and confident he looks”, I want to punch a gopher.  Yes, “poised and confident” – on a practice field, wearing a red jersey, with no pass rush.  Got it.

So in the interest of balancing out what’s sure to be an Illinois slobberfest this afternoon (of course, wouldn’t it be funny if it wasn’t?), I will now predict 5 Dave Revsine Tweets from practice this afternoon:

  • True freshman offensive lineman Leon Hill is a really big boy. Where did the sun go??
  • Sirod Williams’ arms are huge! Has anyone ever gone from injury redshirt to first team All Big Ten?
  • Juice looks poised.  Can he throw for 5,000 yards this year? With these receivers, I’m thinking yes.
  • Justin Staples is an All Big Ten pick waiting to happen. Illinois will be fine at linebacker.
  • Illinois will be absolutely fine without Will Davis and Derek Walker. Lead the Big Ten in sacks? Probably.

Did you read those and think “you know, I think a lot of that is true”?  Then you have August Syndrome.

It’s OK – so do I.

Big Ten Media Day: August Syndrome Spreads To July

Here’s a breakdown of news articles, blogs, and press releases about the recently completed Big Ten Media Day(s):

Penn State? Well on their way to double digit victories.

Northwestern? Won’t miss a beat despite losing all of their receivers because their offense will have “better chemistry”.

Ohio State? They went hard in summer workouts, so they’ll be even better.

Purdue? Danny Hope thinks this season is going to be “special”.

Michigan State? With Dazzling true freshman talent all over the field, watch out.

Indiana? Things are looking up. They have the best pass rushing tandem in the country!

Michigan? RichRod’s track record shows a huge leap in victories in year 2, and Tate Forcier’s dad has been training him since he was 5.

Iowa? They’re starting to have “Michigan or Ohio State-like continuity”.

Minnesota? Their players see themselves in contention for the Big Ten Championship, and new wideout Hayo Carpenter is “All America”.

Wisconsin? Media Day reminded Bret Bielema of 2006 when his disrespected team went on to 12 victories.

As for Illinois? Well, if we start 4-0, we’ll have legitimate national title aspirations. Duh.

Looks like for the first time in history, the Big Ten won’t collectively finish .500 in games against each other.  Since I’m pretty good at predictions, I’ll go with 52 wins and 36 losses in conference games.

I love August Syndrome.  And it’s only July 29th.