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.
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:
Penn State 1.83
Michigan State 1.03
Ohio State -0.60
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*