I wrote about it back in 2016, have probably referred to it twenty five times over the past two years, and now it's here. "We won't really learn anything for the next 25 games, until the Purdue game in 2018". Well, welcome to the Purdue game in 2018.
Let's begin with the exact quote from back in 2016. The first time I mentioned the "25 games" was in the comments under a post after the Purdue loss, but later on I wrote about it in a full post. Here's what I was thinking back then:
Year two is typically the "making strides" season, but for Lovie it's kind of a "starting over" season. He did get a jump on things by starting several freshmen in front of those seniors as the season wore on, but it's possible he brings in a full class this February and then starts those kids over some of those freshmen from last year.
This is why I mentioned that this rebuild looks the most like Colorado. A program that has been down for a long time and a second year that's almost like starting over. While other rebuilding programs might begin to advance next season, we might do some more retreating.
Which is why I started that "25 games" clock after the Purdue loss this year. I sat back, looked at the whole thing, saw that this was a full-on rebuild, not this "one year where the seniors lead us to a bowl" season I had been fantasizing about, so I looked at the schedule and said that I would next care about wins and losses in 25 games (the Purdue game in 2018). Midway through his third season, we should begin to see the program Lovie envisions.
And then in year four, hopefully a big leap. Kick-started by the game on October 12, 2019 when Michigan comes to town, under the lights, in a sold-out Memorial Stadium, with GameDay in town for 5-0 Illinois vs. 5-0 Michigan.........
"I would next care about wins and losses in 25 games (the Purdue game in 2018)."
"We should begin to see the program Lovie envisions."
Let's just spend a whole bunch of time with those two. In reverse order.
"We should begin to see the program Lovie envisions."
At this point, I think we're seeing that, right? We were promised an offense that runs the ball and a defense that creates turnovers. It took a while, but we're starting to see that.
Problem is, we've only really seen it this season against horrific opponents. Yes, we were able to run the ball on Penn State, and yes, South Florida kept putting up 65 yard drives with no points, but for the most part, we've seen three games (against #119 in the S&P+ rankings, #121, and an FCS team) where we looked like the team Lovie envisioned and two games (against #27 and #7) where the opponents put up 626 and 591 yards. The defense Lovie envisions does not give up 600+ yards per game.
This Purdue game offers an opportunity to see where we stand against a non top-25, non bottom-10 team. They beat Boston College and Nebraska but they lost to Northwestern, Eastern Michigan, and Missouri. Right now, in the S&P+ rankings, they're #48. The #23 offense nationally, the #81 defense.
Perhaps more importantly, They're on the second year of a rebuild, we're on a third. Yes, I took a lot of time in the 2017 football preview discussing how Brohm was inheriting juniors who would fit his system and that 2019 would be the test of his rebuild, while for Lovie, the rebuild began at the start of my over-mentioned "25 games" in 2016. I still believe that. The matchup to watch this week is obviously "can the Illini defense slow the Purdue offense?", and the Purdue offense has 8 seniors while the Illini defense has 1 senior, so I think we have our answer before the ball is even kicked. But Purdue also lost to Eastern Michigan just this year. At home. If Eastern Michigan can slow the Purdue offense, third year Lovie Smith Illinois, with the 25 games complete, should be able to slow the Purdue offense.
This would be a great game to see "the program Lovie envisions" do those Lovie things against an opponent like Purdue. We're out-experienced in this one, but we're not out-talented. Can we run the ball again? Purdue's rushing defense has been worse than Rutgers' rushing defense so far, so the answer should be yes. Can we force turnovers on D and give up field goals instead of touchdowns? Purdue's offense is one of the best we'll face, but it's time to show that we can do that. At home, on homecoming, against a 2-3 opponent.
"I'll next care about wins and losses in 25 games (the Purdue game in 2018)"
I think that this has held true. I mean, how many times have people yelled at me - on Twitter, in the comments here - when I wouldn't hold Lovie's feet to the fire over the past 25 games? How many times have I referenced that very point ("these 25 games we'll learn nothing - we're way too young") in response? How many posts have I written about The Plan and The Youngest Team In College Football? How much research have I done on just how young Lovie made this rebuild?
The payoff points I continued to mention were two: Purdue game 2018 we'll begin to see what the program is supposed to look like, and then the Michigan game on 10/12/19 (which has been in my Twitter bio for 30 months now) will be our launch point. The 18 games AFTER that Michigan game? Especially the 2020 season? I expect a top-25 team. And then the real test of whether we just built one great team or if we've built a program.
Speaking of that, let's go back to the Colorado comp mentioned above. They built to that great season (10-2 in 2016) but then everyone graduated and they stumbled to 5-7 last year (much like 2002 for Illinois). The test is then the following year. You get one dropoff year when everyone graduates, but are you then headed to 1-11 (like we were in 2003) or was it a one-year dropoff? A quick check of the rankings and... Colorado is 5-0 and ranked #19. Maybe I should make that our goal for 2023 after a step-back year in 2022.
I'm getting ahead of myself. The point here is that while 3-2 is encouraging, we've beaten 1-5 Kent State, 2-3 Western Illinois (FCS), and 1-5 Rutgers. Had we played Purdue's schedule, we're probably 0-5 at this point.
But that's OK. That's why we played the kids. If we were 0-5 with Purdue's schedule and people were jumping off cliffs, I'd still be talking about the 25 games and how we won't start to learn anything until the last seven games of this season. The reason you take your lumps and play so many kids is that after a certain number of games, you improve rapidly. It starts to click. And then after about a dozen games of that (let's call it October 13, 2018 to October 12, 2019), it CLICK clicks and you're significantly improved, competing with everyone on your schedule.
Which is why the focus is now on five of these remaining seven games. We're not going to beat Wisconsin and we're not going to beat Iowa. But these other five games - Purdue, at Maryland, Minnesota, at Nebraska, at Northwestern - can start to tell us something.
The goal, for me, is to win two of them. Three Big Ten wins would be a significant step forward this year (I mean, we've only done it once since the 4-4 Big Ten finish in 2010), so winning two of those five would be huge. Yes, I said 4-8 before the season, and 4-8 is still fine, but man, I want 5-7. 5-7 with Still The Youngest Team In The Country would set my 2019 (and 2020) hopes on fire.
Can we win two of them? It seems doubtful at this point. The S&P+ NERDstats do a "win probability" based on the opponent and the game location, and here's what the NERDstats say for our next seven games:
Purdue - 29% chance of winning
at Wisconsin - 8% chance
at Maryland - 31%
Minnesota - 34%
at Nebraska - 32%
Iowa - 19%
at Northwestern - 25%
Hmmm.... maybe I shouldn't say "we're going to lose to Wisconsin and Iowa" if the NERDstats give us a 19% of beating Iowa and a 25% chance of winning at Northwestern. With a team like Iowa (not a high-powered offense), maybe we stand a chance at home. Wisconsin, though, looks like a loss (duh).
And if you're wondering why the NERDstats hate us so much, it's all on the defense. 119th out of 129 teams in defensive efficiency. 112th in sack rate. 75.8% of our opponents' first downs come on first or second down (!!!!!). If we don't fix that, we probably won't win another game this season.
The good news, though, is that we're Footballing. Remember all of my complaints about how Ron Zook could turn a 38-24 win into a 35-27 loss simply because of field position and turnovers? Well, we've pretty much just the opposite this year. According to this NERDstat, we're 10th in starting field position this year. How? Blake Hayes + turnovers. Keep that up, and we can do what we did against South Florida. Lose the yards battle by 200+ yards yet still be right in the game because of field position and turnovers.
So yes, here we are, staring at the game at the end of the "25 games where we won't learn much". Youth has been served, and not it's time to see progress. I don't think it's too high of a bar to say "let's try to win two of these seven". As mentioned above, 5-7 with Still The Youngest Team In The Country would mean so many big things for 2019 and 2020. Let's scratch and claw our way to two wins.
Hopefully starting Saturday.