Their Yards Meant More
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:
Ah, hell, while we're at it, the offensive rotation today was more or less 19 players:
Nine freshmen (seven of them started)
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...