Their Yards Meant More

Oct 07, 2017

Illinois' average starting field position: the 27. Iowa: the 40. It may not sound like much, but it's everything. Every. Thing. Illinois had 13 offensive drives, and with that deficit, Illinois needed 170 additional yards of offense to even things back up. And that doesn't even factor in the pick six.

Here's what I mean. Iowa started drives at our 37, our 27, our 4, and their own 45. And, technically, they "stated" a fifth drive at our goal line (the pick six). We started one drive at their 35 (after Bennett Williams' interception), but that was it for starting across the 40. If you want to know how Illinois can out-gain Iowa in total yards, beat them in time of possession, even gain more yards on the ground and yet lose 45-16, there you go.

OK, yes, the culprit is "turnovers". That's how they started those drives in such great shape. But the "all you need to know" statistic, to me, is field position. We grabbed more yards. They grabbed more turnovers, tacked on return yards to those turnovers, recovered an onside kick, and took advantage of the resulting short fields. Game, set, match.

I mean, just float the wheel route to Bonner instead of (I think) firing short to Dorsey and the game is 38-23. Just get rid of the downfield penalty on Lowe which took 7 points off the board (we threw an interception in the endzone a few plays later) and it's 38-30. It's easy to make this a one possession game just by flipping two mistakes.

But this is how football works. This team will gain some yards, that team will gain some yards, and if they're evenly matched in those categories (and Iowa and Illinois were almost identical in all of those categories today), then the team that wins the field position battle will win the game. Their yards will mean more because they're happening closer to the endzone.

How do you win that battle? Turnovers are the big thing, but there are little things as well: Solid return game (both kickoffs and punts). Solid coverage teams (like, say, executing an onside kick to give yourselves the ball in your opponent's territory?). Pin them deep with punts. Avoid three-and-outs and get further down the field before you have to punt. Every "little thing" helps win the field position battle.

And Iowa won it today. First downs were even at 20 to 20? Sure, but because of field position, we needed 12-15 additional first downs just to even the game (you know, theoretically).

It's just how I view football. Start off with defensive scores. Iowa scored on a long pick six, we didn't score on defense, so it's starting out Iowa 7, Illinois 0.

Now go to average starting field position. Illinois the 27, Iowa the 40, mostly because Iowa was +2 in the turnover department. That's probably a 17 point advantage every time you do that. Iowa 24, Illinois 0

OK, now lets hand out points for each team's total yards. They were nearly even (446 yards for Illinois, 441 for Iowa), so let's say each of them get 17 points. that would make our score... Iowa 41, Illinois 17.

Oh hey look at that.

OK, fine, it's #badmath. I'm not really even going for math. I'm looking for "how do two teams gain the same number of yards yet one team wins 45-16?" and the answer, to me, is simply "field position". Get turnovers, shorten your field and lenthen theirs, and your yards will mean more. Their yards meant more. The end.

+ This will be the weekly HOW ARE WE STILL GETTING YOUNGER bullet point. If you've grown tired of this, please skip to the next little plus symbol.

Vederian Lowe is now healthy, so why not - let's start him at tackle (what?). Which means we're down to four freshmen redshirting: Cameron Thomas, Deon Pate, Kendrick Green, and Lere Oladipo, but that's another topic for another time.

This meant that our offensive line was four freshmen (Larry Boyd, Alex Palczewski, Doug Kramer, Vederian Lowe) and one junior (Nick Allegretti). I'm totally and completely serious with this next question: has any college football team done that (started four freshmen on the OL by choice, not by injury) in the last 30 years? I'm sure some team was decimated by injuries and had to turn to their 10th, 11th, and 12th offensive linemen who were all freshmen (or something like that). But finally getting all 14 offensive linemen healthy and then starting four freshmen? I know I say this every single week but it's INSANE.

And they played well! Even.. great? Iowa's defense was allowing 134 yards rushing on the season, and we put up 200. That's a seriously good effort from four freshmen and a junior. 200 rushing yards and one sack against a solid Big Ten defense? A defense that held Michigan State to 88 yards rushing last week? A decent performance from any Big Ten line. An incredible performance from four freshmen and a junior.

Like, remember raving at how well Jeff Allen played in that 2008 game at Penn State? We had an injury at right tackle and he had to go in there as a true freshman and hold his own. We talked about it all that next week - "so impressive for a freshman to be able to do that". We had FOUR freshmen doing that today on the offensive line.

And, of course, it wasn't just the offensive line. The leading rusher was... a true freshman (Mike Epstein). Of course, the bulk of the carries went to... a true freshman (Ra'Von Bonner). The most receptions went to... a true freshman (Carmoni Green). The guy with the most receiving yards was... a true freshman (Louis Dorsey).

And that's just the offense. The defense today started two freshmen, six sophomores, two juniors, and one senior. Looking at the participation chart, it looks like we rotated 11 second-string guys: three freshmen, three sophomores, four juniors, and one senior. So if your scoring at home, our current defensive rotation:

Five freshmen
Nine sophomores
Six juniors
Two seniors

Ah, hell, while we're at it, the offensive rotation today was more or less 19 players:

Nine freshmen (seven of them started)
Five sophomores
Four juniors
One senior

Not counting special teams (which would trend this even younger), we put up 28 underclassmen and 13 upperclassmen against Iowa today. Each week we get younger and younger. What's the word? It's... insane.

+ OK, I want to talk about the timeout decision before the half because I hate it so much. I know I did that tweetstorm but I still have more thoughts because it still bothers me.

If you missed the game, we called timeout with Iowa at midfield facing third and 17 with something like 1:15 on the clock. They picked up 12 yards, setting up fourth and 5 at our 40, and we called another timeout (hoping to get the ball back with just under a minute to go. What did Iowa do with these free clock stops? Faked the punt, got the first down, punched it in for a touchdown and a halftime lead. If we don't call timeouts, we lead at the half. Plain and simple.

I get the theory behind it. Call timeout, get the ball back, maybe you can make something happen. But with this offense, and an interception-prone QB, even if we get the ball back I don't want us to go into the two minute drill. I'd want us to kneel and go to the locker room. So I get calling timeout... but not with our offense. Just let the clock run out. That's what Iowa was going to do.

To make matters worse, we don't call for the "prevent" punt formation. I'm guessing half of the people watching the game expected a fake punt there. There's very little risk to Iowa - worst case scenario we stop it and then are faced with our turnover-prone QB at his own 35 with less than a minute to go. They'll take those odds. So why not go for it. They did, half our guys were turned around punt blocking, and they gained an easy 20 yards. Awful all around.

This is why I always think a team should employ a spotter. Give him a mic on every coaches headset and tell him he's only to speak up in situations like this. And when he sees this happening, just get in everyone's ear and say "guys, do we really want to stop the clock here? If we get the ball, what will we even do with it? Risky downfield throws in hopes of a miracle field goal? Wouldn't a certain lead at halftime be better?"

I spent my whole halftime fretting over this. In the end it was silly - we lost big and the timeouts didn't really change anything. But if we do this in a few years when these freshmen are experienced juniors and it turns a win into a loss? Man, that tweetstorm will be 45 tweets long.

+ Some good things today:

  • Chase McLaughlin now 8 for 9 on field goals this season. Putting himself squarely in the "best kicker in the Big Ten?" conversation.
  • A couple walkons showed out - linebacker Jimmy Marchese and tight end Bobby Walker. Both might find themselves on scholarship soon.
  • Dre Brown (Dre Brown on the field!) saved us 50 yards of field position by stopping Nate Hobbs from bringing kickoffs out from 7 yards deep. All three would have barely made it to the 10.
  • I liked the throw to Crouch. If he's not going to be the starting QB, I still want the ball in his hands. However we can make that happen.
  • Doug Kramer at center. There will be a lot of talk about the three true freshmen, but the redshirt freshman center (now back from injury) played really well.

+ The bad thing from today:

  • Jeff George Jr. throwing three more interceptions. If he can't stop doing that, we're not going to win again.

Because, in case you haven't heard, field position is kind of important...


rml on October 07 @ 08:08 PM CDT

I'm hoping Lovie learned a litttle more about the college game today. I was one of the thousands saying "watch out for the onsides kick!" after the penalty (you should always think about an onsides kick in that situation). After we appeared to be completely unprepared for that, I was one of the thousands muttering "what are you doing?" on the first timeout, crying "no! no! no! no! no!" after the second timeout, and then screaming "its a fake, its a fake!" when the Iowa guys seemed to rehuddle before the snap, all looking surprised and giddy about the call. It's Ok with me if Lovie is never that daring in his playcalling (though I wish he would be), but hopefully now he realizes that other colleges coaches will be that daring, and he needs to be prepared and have the team prepared for it.

HiggsBoson on October 07 @ 09:19 PM CDT

NO postgame thread at Scout and only 4 screens in the game thread. That's truly pathetic. Robert may end up being the last man on the planet who cares about Illini football.

I've already reached that point in the season where I just want football to be over so we can see if the basketball team's got anything. And Underwood has gone 0-4 on recruiting targets this week.

ATOillini on October 07 @ 09:33 PM CDT

The onside kick and the fake punt were just awful, awful, awful (especially the latter which combined with our misguided timeouts was like watching a train wreck in slow motion over several minutes). When knuckleheads like us can see what's happening, but the coaches/team don't.....ugh. They're really turnovers. So we had 6. Hard to overcome.

You talked coming into the year about hoping to see improvement as the year progresses. We did see that today on many levels. Here's hoping that continues.

Go Illini.

DB50 on October 07 @ 09:50 PM CDT

The special team's coach has to answer the question "How did your players get caught off guard twice in the first half?" The onside kick they were fortunate Iowa was greedy and didn't kick the field goal & went for it on 4th down & failed. The fake punt changed the momentum of the game. Instead being up 3 at halftime, they went in down 4. I lay that massive "faux pas" at the feet of the special team's coach, just awful.

LosAngellini on October 07 @ 10:45 PM CDT

If Iowa had worse field position then they probably would have had a lot more yards and time of possession. It's not like our defense was the 85 Bears. I think you have the cause and effect backwards.

Bear8287 on October 07 @ 11:09 PM CDT

Yes LA. For someone who continuously harps about turnovers and the TO Fairy, this also struck me as a bit strange. Don't turn the ball over and suddenly Iowa's field position doesn't look as good...

Written many times before that Robert has probably forgotten more about football than I'll ever know. Whatever... :-D

Bear8287 on October 07 @ 11:34 PM CDT

Actually enjoyed watching the game today. (Keep in mind I record the games and don't watch them live. 30 sec skip is just about perfect from the time a play is dead and the next snap. Can typically watch every play in ~1 hour. )

Iowa's defense was allowing 134 yards rushing on the season, and we put up 200.

200 Yards rushing? Why that's more than the total yards that the team put up on offense last week against Nebraska.

How about the 3rd and short fake handoff and the throw to Dorsey for a big gain?

Someone said that the Freshmen are "going to Freshmen" and given that JGJr is a So and didn't start the season at QB, experience-wise he's close to a Freshman starting from the beginning of the season. If not for another Freshman mistake you could erase one of the INTs and replace it with a TD.

446 yards of total offense? Given how young this team is and playing a defense the caliber of Iowa's, there was a lot to be excited about the future of this program. It's fun to think about what this team could do if they had a Dave Wilson at QB even with all of the youth around him.

Started the season thinking that 4 wins would be a good year and continue to think that.

If the Freshman grow quickly enough and can eliminate some of the mistakes, they're going to surprise somebody before the season is over.

Go Illini!

illiniranger on October 08 @ 07:03 AM CDT

Yesterday was a classic "Ron Zook" game. Expected from underclassmen, but RZ never fixed it. Can Lovie? That's the whole magilla next 3 years.

1970 John on October 08 @ 11:56 AM CDT

The couple of observations for a non-expert: The talking heads on the sport shows are going to write Illinois off again based on the final score. I don’t think the game, as I heard on the radio and saw through assorted gifs,I don’t think the final score represented how our guys played. One sack. How many tackles for loss? It seemed like our guys running got something every play. It might be just a couple of yards or three. But there was no, or at least from what I heard on the radio, running into the proverbial brick wall. I don’t have the stats, so I could be wrong, but that was my impression.

And the passing game, well, was a game. JGJ crew too many pics, But again, on the radio, there was enough to jump out of my chair. It’s a good thing I wasn’t driving. I would’ve wound up two lanes over on a two lane road.

I know there are always “ifs” going both ways, But for a, yes, freshman mistake, we would’ve had a touchdown instead of a pic.

The pics six was a huge momentum changer, and a 21 point they fourth-quarter don’t represent what happened during the game.

I’m going to be a crazy optimist and call for these guys to do a lot more than anyone expects over the rest of the season. Exactly what, I don’t know, but I think the future looks brighter sooner than I did after Nebraska.

And what’s with the non-call of the targeting of Crouch? I flinch every time I see a replay of that hit.

Bear8287 on October 08 @ 01:51 PM CDT

And what’s with the non-call of the targeting of Crouch? I flinch every time I see a replay of that hit.

So that wasn't just me then?

Incredible. In real time it looked bad and in replay it looked worse than what's gotten Illini players ejected so far this season... and it looked like Crouch hit was out of bounds too.

1970 John on October 08 @ 06:40 PM CDT

I’ve shown that gif to neutral parties and they were stunned—as I’m surprised Crouch wasn’t—that targeting wasn’t called. There are a lot of people saying “it’s tackle football.”

And yes, it looked like a heck of a hit for marginally in/out of bounds. But you want to knock the ball loose, right? Yeah, there was not much of a chance of that.

Groundhogday on October 08 @ 12:30 PM CDT

Doug Kramer at center. There will be a lot of talk about the three true freshmen, but the redshirt freshman center (now back from injury) played really well.

This. We have a different line with Kramer in there. Not a big guy, but mobile and so sound. And he frees up Allegretti to just maul at the strong guard position. Originally a grey shirt, Kramer could well be a 4-year starter and all-B1G guy as an upper classman.

DaleHouston on October 08 @ 06:13 PM CDT

Lovie is obviously a solid coach...for the NFL. You need a different mindset for the college game, especially if your talent is not on par with your opponents. You have to take more risk both offensively and defensively. Quarterbacks the last two games had all the time in the world to pick apart our secondary. We did not rattle either QB. You have to take extra risks to blitz and get the QB to get quick feet. Both were very comfortable and never felt rushed.

Also, I felt the safety, Williams, was far too back and hesitant. He missed many opportunities on passes that he was far too back to have any impact...sad

Sweetchuck13 on October 09 @ 09:30 AM CDT

I'm not nearly as discouraged as some apparently. I'm not big on the whole "moral victory" thing, but this was clearly a sign of progress. At the end of the 3rd quarter, it was 24-16 - on the road at Iowa. Clearly the 4th quarter spiraled downhill quickly, but being competitive on the road against a solid B1G team is a step forward. Watching it, this felt much more like a 35-20 game than a 45-16 game. We're not close to where we need to be yet, but it's progress.

Good to see the OL finally put together a solid game. Like 1970John said, it seemed like we were consistently getting some yards every run - it wasn't like we would hit a wall 3 times and then bust for 15 yards like our running game last year.

George is going to throw some picks, and it seemed like he got away with staring down a couple of receivers more than he should. But his ability to anticipate a receiver breaking open and throwing to a spot is so much better than Crouch the difference is unbelievable. Glad to see Crouch show up as a TE though - he's clearly an athlete that should get the ball in his hands a few times per game, however we can make that happen.

And pretty solid play calling by McGee - seemed like a definite improvement over previous weeks.

The fake punt was terrible. We should basically be playing a prevent punt D anytime they're in Illinois territory to begin with, let alone in that particular situation.

Finally, I'm with Bear above. Predicted 4 wins and still think that's likely. I'll also say we put a good "scare" into another team that results in a close loss. Hope to keep seeing more improvement the rest of the year. Go Illini!

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