Cut And Paste

Sep 30, 2017

I probably quote my own words more than anyone you read. I'm not really sure why I do it so much. I guess I'm just writing about my journey as a fan, and this is my journal, so I often want to go back and read previous entries to see how we're progressing. That's what this post will be.

As I was driving home last night, I remembered a "month by month" section that I wrote in my football preview back in August. I was looking at this as a 24 game season, not a 12 game season (combine 2017 and 2018 because they're basically the same players), so I wrote the following month-by-month breakdown:

September 2017: Hand me my program, Mildred, because I don't know any of these players.
October 2017: Avert your eyes -- there's a Big Ten program on the field but it's not us.
November 2017: You know, if you squint, you can see what this team is supposed to be.
September 2018: See, now this is how a Big Ten team should roll through a non-conference schedule.
October 2018: Wait, are we sure this is going somewhere? Big Ten football is hard.
November 2018: It took some time, but THIS is what a Big Ten program looks like.

After that, we roll into 2019 with a blossoming program, and on October 12, 2019, we make our return to the grand stage (a home game, which must be at night, against Michigan). There's no guarantee it's completely rebuilt by then - Lovie's first recruiting class will only be third-year juniors and redshirt sophomores by then - but that's where my eyes are focused.

Is it a guarantee that it will work? Of course not. But my broken record stance over the last decade is one thing: stop changing things every other season, hoping that the next thing will be the thing that works. Hire one coach, install one offense and one defense, recruit to it for four years, and see where you're at that fifth season. Just try it once in my lifetime. If it doesn't work, fine, go back to "it's the offensive coordinator - we need to get a new one in here". But just once, give me a full-on, five-year, no-changes build.

So on my chart above, this was September. Actually, it was a little more October. Last night was "there's a Big Ten program on the field, but it's not us". Why aren't we a Big Ten program yet? Let's go back to the preview.

Yes, I think it might be 17. SEVENTEEN. We've played 28 true freshmen over the last five full seasons and this year alone we might play SEVENTEEN.

Which 17? In my opinion...

Locks to play immediately: Ricky Smalling, Carmoni Green, Mike Epstein, Kendrick Green, Larry Boyd, Alex Palczewski, Bobby Roundtree, Owen Carney, Tony Adams, Bennett Williams, Blake Hayes

Probably won't redshirt: Kendall Smith, Louis Dorsey, Dawson DeGroot, Ra'Von Bonner, James Knight, Jamal Woods

Probably will redshirt but seriously they might not: Cameron Thomas, Vederian Lowe, Isaiah Gay, Deon Pate, Lere Oladipo, Marc Mondesir, Nate Hobbs

OK, fine, it might only be 14 freshmen (still an insane number). But I could honestly see 20. It doesn't make me hesitate at all to say that of the +/- 55 lettermen (players who are on the field, not the sideline), 20 might be true freshmen.




I often get to "I'm not sure I can find the words to emphasize this point" moments when writing, but this might top them all. I cannot get over how many true freshmen I saw in the regular rotation at training camp. I've covered nine straight training camps for the blog, and I thought 2013 was young (go back in the archive and you can find me saying things like, "I think eight of these freshmen play this fall -- EIGHT!") and this year will likely double that.

Now, maybe this is just a camp curveball. Maybe Lovie is playing these freshmen with the first and second string at camp to get them ready, but once the season gets here, he'll lean on the older guys. Perhaps this is a camp overreaction.

But even if he doesn't lean on 17 true freshman, Illinois will still be the youngest team in the country. Not just of the Power Five conferences, but of all 130 FBS schools. If you go with the scholarship numbers (excluding the walk-ons), here are the roster numbers:

Seniors: 8
Juniors: 14 (22 upperclassmen TOTAL)
Sophomores: 19
Freshmen (true and redshirt freshmen): 35

8-14-19-35. Just take those numbers to any college coach in the country and watch his reaction. Nine open scholarships (nine!), 22 upperclassmen (twenty two!), 54 underclassmen (FIFTY. FOUR.). And -- AND -- it appears that they're looking at that roster and saying, "The freshmen are more talented -- we're running with them."

That's like... I don't know what that's like. I'm struggling to find an analogy. It's like rehabbing the downstairs of a house while living upstairs, but then deciding, "You know what? Let's just rehab the whole thing but still live here," so you're showering in the "bathroom" which consists of a hose on the wall with wooden floors and a drain in the floor that's not connected to anything. Normally, for a college football rebuild, you rely on the other guy's upperclassmen while you bring your underclassmen along. But this feels like we're taking the youngest roster in the country and choosing to make it younger.

How did I do with my freshman predictions? I guessed that 17 would play (19 have played now), and the only real miss was thinking that Kendrick Green would play (and he still might) and that Hobbs (who had mono and missed camp) and Gay (who was 207 lbs at camp) would redshirt.

But the part I want to focus on is the numbers. I feel like they're the reason why my Twitter mentions are ablaze while I'm mostly calm. Those numbers:

  • Nine open scholarships. I'm guessing 76 is the smallest scholarship roster in the country? USC and Penn State have climbed back to 85 after their sanctions, I think North Carolina got back to 85 a few years ago - maybe UAB, who is re-starting their program - has less than 85? Maybe Coastal Carolina as they transition to FBS? 76 scholarships is pretty much a probation year.
  • 22 upperclassmen. Again, probably the smallest number in the country. Looking at the participation chart from last night, we put 61 players on the field: 7 seniors, 13 juniors, 15 sophomores, and 26 freshmen. When you only put 20 upperclassmen on the field (Nebraska played 40 upperclassmen), I'm not sure anything will ever go smoothly. Actually, I should say that another way. When you put 41 underclassmen on the field, nothing will ever go smoothly.

So I watch a game like this - Nebraska's players are two-thirds upperclassmen, Illinois' players are two-thirds underclassmen - and I see Nebraska sustain drives while Illinois stalls, and I chalk it up to all of the numbers above. And then my Twitter mentions light up with MCGEE IS NOT THE ANSWER and BLOOM IS OFF THE LOVIE ROSE and I'm not sure how to respond other than to point back to these numbers.

As I mentioned in the FTS, my Twitter was alive with "USC now playing a true freshman left tackle and a true freshman left guard and Darnold has no protection" and I can't help but think "uh, we're doing that all season". And USC is probably plugging in two four-star future NFL linemen. It's just that freshmen are rarely ready.

But, we have to run with our freshmen. I believe it is the right choice in rebuilding this program. So we're going to take our lumps. As I said last night, those were lumps.

The biggest thing tweeted @ me is Chayce Crouch angst. So let's go back to that section of the preview from August:

Crouch is in an interesting spot as far as the fans are concerned. I think most Illini fans expect very little from him. Not a highly-ranked recruit, has only started one game, and, perhaps most importantly, did not look good in the Rutgers game. I remember when he threw that interception against Rutgers (it was a BAD interception in the red zone) my Twitter lit up with, "Well, your boy Crouch isn't the guy."

No one knew he had ripped up his throwing shoulder three plays before (he didn't even know), and as he made some fluttering throws the rest of that game, the volume of, "Crouch isn't the guy, we're in trouble for the future" grew. That's fairly silly, given the injury, but we're Illini fans, and we've been waiting for the next Kittner for 15 years, so we've always been quick to "NEXT!" our QBs.

But Crouch might also be... overrated this August? I interact with fans a lot, and there seems to be a, "We can FINALLY see what this offense is supposed to be with a dual-threat QB" this month. Yes, that's true, and I just spent a few paragraphs on it above, but this is still a guy starting his second game ever on September 2. Why are there so many "bad team beats good team" September upsets (compared to less of those as the season goes on)? Many times, it's because the good team is breaking in a new QB and the game is still too fast for him.

I think it's likely that Crouch has that kind of September. I think it's likely that fans will be calling for Jeff George Jr. before the month is out. (When we last saw JGjr he was throwing four interceptions in one half against Wisconsin, but Backup Quarterback Syndrome demands that heads roll). Perhaps we'll see some, "Pull the redshirt off Cam Thomas and play him" call-outs (I don't hate the idea).

My point: Crouch is both underrated (he can do some very athletic things and was really good in his first real action against Purdue last year) and overrated (he's not the savior and will need at least four games to settle in). What does that mean for this season? Well, I go back to "24 games." In game one, it will be rough. By game 24 next year, I think he can be a really good Big Ten quarterback and lead this team to a solid 2018 season.

I still believe that. I'm stubborn like that. I thought we'd see a rough September from Crouch and we have. I'm now hoping for some improvement in October and then maybe a breakout game in September. We let him run a little more last night, and here's hoping we can get that going even more in the next few weeks.

(I also don't hate the idea of two QB's? If JGjr can cut down on the interceptions - and remember, in camp, I saw him throw five in one scrimmage so the coaches have reason to be concerned - then maybe we can go passing QB/running QB? That's a thought for another post.)

For now, I remain in Crouch's corner. I think the offense will work best if we can get him going (because of his legs). He's had his rough September. Now it's time to snap out of it.

OK, one more cut and paste from the preview. Several people mentioned Mike Leach on Twitter last night, and I looked at Leach's Wazzu rebuild when I wrote the preview (along with several other moribund programs who were rebuilt). Here's that section from the preview:

Wisconsin is probably the best example of where we currently sit in the college football landscape. 1963 to 1992 for Wisconsin is very, very similar to Illinois from 1992 to 2016. Actually, our current program is in better shape than Wisconsin was when Alvarez took over, if you can believe it. At the time, they were on a run of three bowls in 30 years (seven winning seasons, 23 losing seasons -- yes, at Wisconsin). And then Alvarez slowly and deliberately built the program you still see today.

So here are those rebuilds, season by season:

*Barry Alvarez (Wisconsin) *
1990: 1-10 (0-8)
1991: 5-6 (2-6)
1992: 5-6 (3-5)
1993: 10-1-1 (6-1-1)
1994: 7-4-1 (4-3-1)

David Cutcliffe (Duke)
2008: 4-8 (1-7)
2009: 5-7 (3-5)
2010: 3-9 (1-7)
2011: 3-9 (1-7)
2012: 6-6 (3-5)
2013: 10-2 (6-2)

*Kevin Wilson (Indiana) *
2011: 1-11 (0-8)
2012: 4-8 (2-6)
2013: 5-7 (3-5)
2014: 4-8 (1-7)
2015: 6-6 (2-6)
2016: 6-6 (4-5)

*Mike Leach (Washington State) *
2012: 3-9 (1-8)
2013: 6-6 (4-5)
2014: 3-9 (2-7)
2015: 8-4 (6-3)
2016: 8-4 (7-2)

*Mike MacIntyre (Colorado) *
2013: 4-8 (1-8)
2014: 2-10 (0-9)
2015: 4-9 (1-8)
2016: 10-2 (8-1)

What can we learn from these five? Let's start with average wins per season:

Year 1: 2.6 wins
Year 2: 4.4
Year 3: 4.0
Year 4: 7.0
Year 5: 6.8 (doesn't include MacIntyre who is entering his fifth season this year)

You know what? Let's add Art Briles to this because he is proof that you can take an absolute nobody program and turn it around quickly (as gross as mentioning him may be). And Jerry Kill at Minnesota should probably be in here, too (took a bad program and scratched to 6-6 his second year). The new numbers:

Year 1: 2.8 wins
Year 2: 4.3
Year 3: 4.6
Year 4: 7.4
Year 5: 6.5

After writing that a friend pointed out that I should add Harbaugh at Stanford and Mullen at Mississippi State to the list of "moribund programs brought back to life". Both of those were examples of a program being brought back to life immediately. So after adding those numbers, here's the progression:

Year 1: 3.2 wins
Year 2: 4.7
Year 3: 5.1
Year 4: 7.9
Year 5: 6.4

It's so interesting that year five is a step back nearly across the board (and then another step forward in year six).

Anyway, that's the target, I think. I believe Lovie is hamstrung by a few things (he took over in the spring so this season is maybe year 1.5; the Beckman scandal and fallout, including the not ideal two-year interim thing, left a crater because Illinois football recruiting was more or less dead for 11 months), but I think this is a chart we can generally hold to. 3 wins is the average for the first year, 4-5 is the general expectation the second year (I don't think we'll get there, but with 76 scholarship players and a team running 2/3rds underclassmen, I think that's OK for now), bowl or on the edge of a bowl in year three, and then a jump (a consistent leap across the board - nearly every program got significantly better) in year four.

That's still where I sit. Would love to get to four wins this year, but three seems likely (and two still scares me). Next year, a big improvement over that with more or less the entire team returning. And then on October 12, 2019......


ATOillini on September 30 @ 02:31 PM CDT

Robert....thank you for this excellent, calmly written and well articulated piece. It's a perfect follow up to your From the Stands podcast yesterday.

I wish I shared your enthusiasm regarding October 2019, but I'm not there. As a lifelong Illini fan I feel as if I suffer from somewhat of a psychological disease that's been perpetrated by decades of frustration. To wit:

1) A nice stop on Nebraska's first possession which should have resulted in a punt from the Nebraska 12 is negated by a targeting call. Ultimate result....Nebraska touchdown.

2) The ensuing Illini drive eventually gets to first and goal from the 3, but somehow ends with fourth and goal from the 7. Result....3 points instead of 7.

3) After Nebraska scored to make it 21-3, I stepped out of my living room for a moment. When I returned I looked at the tv screen and thought to myself "Why in the world are they replaying that previous fumbled kickoff?" Of course, I unfortunately soon had to accept the fact it was not a replay. Rather it was a virtual identical reoccurrence of the previous kickoff (you just can't make this stuff up).

4) At 21-3 another drive stalls after a first and goal at the 10. That drive included Crouch's best pass of the night to Malik Turner. He bobbles a catch he makes probably 7 or 8 out of 10 times. How many of us realized this was yet another huge psychological victory for the Huskers even though we scored 3 points?

5) With 7 minutes still left in the third quarter and the score 21-6 we recover a huge fumble on the Nebraska 32 (a fumble that had some possibility of a scoop and score). Result? 3 plays totaling -14 yards and a punt. Any surprise that Nebraska then proceeds to march 93 yards for a touchdown?

Each of the above as a stand alone play or series is nothing crazy. But string them all together and people like me just have that Groundhog Day feeling of the whole thing being so Illinois-ish. It becomes mind numbingly expected.

And no, I'm not making the case we should have won the game. The better team won. Bigger, faster, stronger and more skilled. I can only hope your anticipated maturation of our young players becomes a reality. My admitted skepticism looking forward comes from not seeing anyone of the caliber that Zook brought in (no Vontae Davis, no Regus Benn, no Rashard Mendenhall, no Juice Wiliams, etc.). I totally get your repeated mantra of "build a program". It is the only chance we have for any long term success. I sincerely hope we can somehow accomplish that.

Sweetchuck13 on September 30 @ 02:59 PM CDT

I'm with you on the long haul back. It's definitely going to take a while to get there. My only frustration so far is that I was hoping to see more "flashes" of great play - while completely expecting inconsistency and errors from all the freshmen. And that would hopefully lead to us hanging around in games longer. It sucks watching yet another B1G game that isn't even in doubt at the end of the 3Q. But i think that'll come. I predicted 4-8 with maybe a surprise win in November, and it's still entirely possible. Want to see more competitiveness though soon.

Rough game for the defense last night. Letting Tanner Lee go 17-24 and 3 TDs is pretty bad - we're really going to get carved up by the better QBs in conference if we don't clean up some of those mistakes in coverage and we have to get more pressure somehow. The rushes that worked against Western Kentucky weren't cutting it against the Nebraska OL.

And my Crouch concern is less about his throwing ability. I'm starting to question his decision-making in the read-option game. It seems like he often makes a bad read, but maybe that's just my uneducated football brain half-watching the game. I'd like to hear what you think about his decisions in the run game. He can obviously scramble off of broken plays and draws, but it would be great to keep the defense off-balance with actual read-option plays given some of the talent at RB.

And finally, Dudek had what - 2 touches last night? Overall I think McGee is fine, but that's inexcusable. We have to find a way to get him the ball - he should be getting at least 5 touches a game - preferably 10. However we have to do it.

Bear8287 on September 30 @ 04:54 PM CDT

More of the same in terms of comments from me too. Maybe that's what happens after decades of being an Illini fan. I view this as being 1 and 1/3 seasons through a 5 season rebuild.

What seems to be a shame though is that the Illini have 2 top B1G WRs in Dudek and Turner, but when the starting QB is 9 for 15 it's hard to see how that talent is ever going to be utilized. Dudek had 2 receptions and Turner had 3. I'd like to see 15 receptions a game between the 2 of them.

199 yards of total offense. For many offenses that'd be a really bad passing day let alone total yardage. Longest pass play was 19 yards. Clearly the way to prep defensively for the Illini is to sell out and stop the run at all costs and make Crouch beat you with his arm. If the worst that's going to happen to you is a small handful of plays of about 20 yards then you're golden. Seems like the pendulum has swung all the way from a quarterback who can pass but can't run to a quarterback who can run but can't pass. Don't really see how either fits into a "dual-threat" QB offense.

I'll second Chuck's request for an analysis on decision making. Of course Crouch does deserve some slack in that he's got a very inexperienced OL in front of him. It will be interesting to see where this goes the rest of the season.

So after Nebraska's 4th TD and the Illini getting the ball back with 13:34 left in the 4th quarter, why didn't JGjr come into the game? Was that just Lovie and staff throwing in the towel at that point? I'm not any type of football genius by any stretch of the imagination, but needing 3 TDs to get back into the game, it seems like that's probably not going to happen with a running QB so why not give the passing QB a shot? Just more experience for the starter and hope that the offense can eat some time off the clock and that the final score doesn't look any worse? Not sure I get that move (and please feel free to explain it to me :-D).

Biggest question mark for me for 2019 who is the QB? Looks like 5 years to me. Hopefully 2019 is a bowl year, but 2020 is looking more likely for a big season... or do people see another starter at QB next season to build for 2019?

In the meantime, continuing to patiently wait towards 2020.

Go Illini!

HiggsBoson on September 30 @ 09:24 PM CDT

If he's stuck with Crouch and this lame offense for the rest of his Illini career, it wouldn't surprise me if Dudek went the grad transfer route when the time comes.

Bear8287 on October 01 @ 11:06 AM CDT

This is an interesting hypothesis Higgs.

This is Dudek's 4th season with the Illini so presumably he'll graduate after this academic year (or earlier?). Would he be eligible to transfer and play immediately next season for another team and possibly have two years of eligibility left (one redshirt and one medical)?

Bear8287 on October 02 @ 02:12 PM CDT

or do people see another starter at QB next season to build for 2019?

Forget next season... next season is now. May be a fair chance that we'll start a freshman quarterback before this season is over too.

thumpasaurus on September 30 @ 06:10 PM CDT

Sure would be easier to buy if the team didn't get worse over the bye week, especially on offense.

I want so badly to buy this narrative.

ktcesw on September 30 @ 06:58 PM CDT

I don't have a real problem with Crouch or the type of offense we are running. I agree that we are very young on both sides of the ball. I do think that Lovie is playing his best players. My problem is that with only 1 minute left in the 1st half, we had only thrown the ball 4 times! Very few qbs are going to look good when they are only throwing it when everyone knows they are going to throw it. He still completed a nice % of his passes. Not defending him but, a lot has to do with our play calling. Especially on 1st down at the start of each series.

Hoppy on October 01 @ 02:22 AM CDT

Robert, I'd be interested to know if you consider this year year 1 or 2 of the actual rebuild. I know you wrote 1.5 in the post, but if you had to choose, is it 1 or 2? And do you think we will hold true to that year's average win total?

I consider this year 1 since in those other examples, those coaches were able to go out and put together a recruiting class and have those recruits practice in their system all before coaching 1 game at the school. Lovie completed one full season before any of his guys had a chance to show up on campus. So logically, this is year 1 and 2019 will be year 3.

neale stoner on October 01 @ 08:37 AM CDT

While we’re being patient, a rebuild analysis by recruiting classes would be very interesting. Butch Jones has piled them up at Tennessee, and they are in year 5, but not on the upswing. Meanwhile, I keep feeling (dangerous I know) that we’re a good quarterback from being competitive.

DaleHouston on October 01 @ 10:45 AM CDT

Two things stand out for me as a long time small college football official. The coaches that manage to eventually have successful programs when they were given very little to work with in terms of athletic ability and physicality is taking calculated risks for example when you are faced with 4th down and one or two yards to go, you take the risk to go for it. This will result in some first downs and keep your defense off the field. When you do not match up, you have to take some risks in a game. I even had a coach with a very weak team his first year to punt on 3rd down when it was the right situation. He became a very successful small college coach. This has not happened with Lovie has me very concerned. 2nd is when you do not match up on physically with the other team, you have to spread your offense to offset the disadvantage at the line and leverage your strength with excellent speedy receivers...we have not done that. I have no confidence in the OC.

Bear8287 on October 01 @ 04:21 PM CDT

People generally find it easier to believe things that they want to believe so maybe this is just my orange colored glasses view of the situation.

Some coaches will adapt to their players and change schemes to fit the players that they currently have, while others will coach to a scheme and just expect the players to learn that scheme and won't change it. Putting on my orange colored glasses, I'm going with the assumption that the OC is trying to establish an "identity" and teach the players to play to a scheme.

Looking at the current pieces; an inexperienced OL, a QB that appears to be a run threat but not a pass threat and only the second (with a very short first) season to work with the team, it looks like they've chosen to take their lumps now and rely on having an experienced OL and players that understand the system a couple of seasons down the road when a true dual-threat QB can be inserted and hopefully then it all clicks.

I actually agree about the "taking calculated risks" part. In my reply to the "Youth Gone Wild" post, I presented an argument for some of the calls that Lovie made early on that upset many fans. (BTW Robert, I love the fact that you reference back to previous posts. ;-D.) I would also like to see more risk taking. If doing "conventional" things means that you have virtually no chance of winning then what's to lose with throwing some more "randomness" into the mix and doing the unexpected? It can be a great motivator.

Everyone expects Lovie to be pretty conservative and I wonder how much the fan reaction to some of the earlier risk taking may have dissuaded him from doing more of it? Leaving Crouch in for the last 13:34 of the game with the Illini down 28-6 seems like doing exactly the opposite to taking some calculated risks. Really, if George came in and did throw an interception and the Illini lost 35-6 instead, does it really matter at the point? The possibility of Turner or Dudek catching a long pass for a TD would seem to outweigh that possible outcome, wouldn't it?

I'll admit, it was a lot more fun to see what Mike White did with the Illini when taking over after Moeller. Watching Dave Wilson run for his life and still throw for 621 yards against Ohio State was incredibly fun and exciting to watch even if the Illini didn't win that game. It could be "a while" before we see the Illini offense score 42 points and have over 600 yards of total offense again.

In the meantime, I'll remain patient.

Go Illini!

bkenny on October 01 @ 08:56 PM CDT

I'm ok with the loss Friday. I buy into the rebuild, the youth, all of it. But one thing I fail to buy into is the narrative of "Crouch will have a terrible month and then just snap out of it." I want to, but my eyes tell me a different story. Where are the signs? He's been dreadful throwing the all, and not all that great running it. As someone already pointed out above, his read option decisions are poor. Besides hope, I don't know what tangible things we can point to and say "he's improving." Crouch is 122/126 in passer rating among players with 14 or more passes per game. There's no way to spin that.

The two pass interference calls on deep balls? Both underthrown ducks. Two screens thrown over guys' heads. A college quarterback sailing simple screen passes? That's really bad. In weeks prior, we've watched him force it into double and triple teams.

I don't see where he has improved. To simplify this, his offense put up 6 points last night (and they've proven they aren't exactly the feared Black Shirts of yesteryear). Look, JGJ may be no better, but at this point you have to try it. Crouch was yanked in the USF game, but Lovie keeps him in this game because he thought we were in it until the end? Seriously?

We all know a QB change this year may not accomplish a ton, but it could mean another win. That's something. More importantly, it could help unlock our two best offensive skill players. As it stands, they are more or less useless out there. Game planning for our offense is incredibly easy.

There was an argument that could have been/was made to start JGJ Friday. The fact that he never even made it into the game when we sat on 6 points...where's the bar? Do we have to get into the 4th with zero points at Iowa for there to be a change?

I'll gladly walk all this back if he is competent in October, but I just can't figure out why we should believe it will happen. Four games is a large sample size in college football.

Bear8287 on October 02 @ 02:14 PM CDT

Look, JGJ may be no better, but at this point you have to try it.

Apparently the Illini coaching staff agrees.

bkenny on October 02 @ 08:51 PM CDT

Well, there we go.

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