On The Mend
After vomiting all over my laptop Saturday night (I mean, did you READ that post?), I'm better now. I'm no longer texting multiple friends "I. Hate. Everything." and I've been able to sleep through the night. I mean, everything still feels like a disaster, but I'm no longer sick to my stomach. Let's call it "on the mend".
I have a lot to say, so I think I'll start with the bad and then try to get to some good. OK, not good, but hopefulness. OK, not hopefulness, but "words with a distinct lack of despair". Maybe.
Let's start with my journey this season. I'll try put it in one paragraph.
Camp is best summed up as "well that was much better than last season", which it clearly was. And AJ Bush was a huge surprise, completing big pass after big pass. Still, I was scared of the defense, specifically the defensive line (go see the 2,000 words on the DL in the preview). I thought the D would be better than last year, especially in the back seven, but the DL was a concern. Season starts and it's worse than anticipated (goal line stand to beat Kent State, yards-were-even game against WIU where we needed turnovers to win), and that's depressing. South Florida looked good on the scoreboard, and Penn State looked good for three quarters, but the stats were screaming "this team is way worse than you think" and that's all I could write about over the bye week. Then, after a Rutgers win, the one-two punch of Purdue and Wisconsin where we were barely competitive. The bottom dropped out of the season and I vomited all over the blog on Saturday night. This stunning thought that ruined all my hope: the reason AJ Bush looked so good at camp? He was playing against the worst Illini defense we've ever seen.
Because yes, so far, I'm pretty sure this is the worst Illini defense I've seen. We have 13 interceptions - tied for 2nd nationally - and it doesn't mean anything because, so far, through seven games, this is the worst Illini defense of the modern era. Someone in the universe hates me.
Some data on that. If we go NERDstat, the defense is currently 113th in the S&P+ (I cannot tell you how stunning that number is). The bad defenses you remember:
That "bad" defense in 2009? 55th. The defense in 2012 that made everyone angry because Koenning was gone and this Banks guys must suck? 88th. Even the one we consider the worst defense of our lifetime - 2005 with its Michigan State 61-14 and Penn State up 56-3 at halftime? 109th. This defense, statistically, so far, is WORSE. The 2005 defense gave up 469 yards per game - so far in 2018 we're giving up 510 yards per game. Five hundred and ten yards per game.
Now, I need to be fair here. Season ain't over yet. The majority of that damage was done by Wisconsin (the #3 offense in the S&P+), Purdue (#10), Penn State (#18), and South Florida (#28). The remaining offenses on our schedule, using the S&P+ offensive ratings:
So we obviously won't finish the season as the #113 defense.
I mean, we won't finish the season at #113.
We won't, right?
That makes me realize that we shouldn't make any of these "worst ever" declarations yet. I'd be breaking my own "wait for all the data, then evaluate" rules. Nebraska is the only offense we face that can even be considered "decent", so there's room to see significant improvement here.
In fact, when I go back to read what I wrote over the spring/summer (which I often do when I reach a point like Saturday night), I'm reminded that this was the target I set. From my State Of The Program post in April:
It would be until after the Purdue game in 2018 that we'd start to see results. Starting with the 2018 Wisconsin game, those final six games of the season, we'd (hopefully) begin to see the corner being turned. Not the easiest stretch by any means (Wisconsin, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Northwestern), but it's time to see how we stack up with the rest of the Big Ten West. I still hold to that. Second half of 2018, time to see progress. Then, improvement in 2019. And then, in 2020, hopefully, a real push towards relevance (like, 8-9 win relevance).
That target looks a million miles away right now. We hired a defensive coach and his third defense is, right now, the worst Illini defense of my lifetime. But these things are always best accomplished blind. It's not going to look like it until it looks like it, so I stop looking for it and just blindly hope.
Here's what I mean. The 2013 defense mentioned above? The one that was 103rd nationally and ruined that solid Scheelhaase-to-Hull offense? Well, we really didn't change anything - we just ushered those sophomores and freshmen to their senior and junior years in 2015 - and that defense climbed to 83rd in 2014 and then 15th in 2015. Monheim-Smoot-Bentley-Fej? Bad as sophomores/freshmen, great as seniors/juniors. Yes, we added jucos like Jihad Ward (hint hint, Lovie), and that certainly helped, but for the most part, same players, bad when young, good when old.
Does it always work like that? No. But for the most part, that's college football to me. Juniors and seniors win football games. See: Purdue's eight senior starters on their #10 offense.
All of that helps me put Saturday night to rest and think forward to these last five games. Four of the five teams are ranked in the 60's in the overall S&P+, so you really couldn't have a better end-of-year-three test. Here are four teams nearly exactly in the middle of the college football road. About half the teams in the country are better than them, about half the teams are worse. Want to know where you stand at the end of year three? Play four teams right in the middle.
Lose all of them? Man, don't make me answer that. It means all of our fears are probably true. It means that my desperation on Saturday night might actually be true and we might NEVER have a winning program to cheer for. I mean, I'll still cling to October 12, 2019 (and I'm never letting go), but I won't even be able to see a win when I squint.
Win one of them? That's the season I expected. I thought it would be a loss at Rutgers (we always lose our first road game) and then two of these last five, but 4-8 is a passing grade. C-, but passing.
Win two of them? Now we're talking. It would suggest we're ready to take a step forward next season. If MJ Rivers starts the rest of the year, we're down to "replace Nick Allegretti, DelShawn Phillips, and Chase McLaughlin next season". Everyone else returns.
Win three of them and bowl? I know, I know, but stay with me. Win three of them? Then we can recruit from that. We can really start to build some momentum.
What are the odds here? S&P+ has that covered as well.
3-9 - 27% chance
4-8 - 41% chance
5-7 - 24% chance
6-6 - 7% chance
7-5 - 1% chance
8-4 - 0% chance
Sounds about right to me. Four is the expectation, slightly better chance we don't win again than we win two more. 8% chance we win three (or four LOL) and go to a bowl.
All in all, a very important five games. It's very similar to the middle of Beckman's third year in 2014 (3-4, need to win three of the final five Big Ten games to bowl, not a person on earth thought we'd do that with #25 Minnesota coming to town). Will the outcome be the same?
Absolutely not. Did you not hear that this is the worst Illini defense of the modern era?