Welcome To Last Year
I feel like I'm writing the same post 365 days later. Maybe I should just save time and do a cut-and-paste or something. Do a word search, replace "Ball State" with "Kent State", publish. It should have been the same game, but it was the same game. And that's wildly concerning.
I mean, here are the similarities:
- Ball State and Kent State were both bad MAC teams in the midst of a rebuild - Ball State in their second year, Kent State in their first.
- Last year we played 15 newcomers in the Ball State game and I went on and on about how we'd never see this again (12 freshmen, 2 redshirt freshmen, and a juco junior in that game). This year we played... 13 newcomers in the Kent State game (9 freshmen, 1 redshirt freshman, 2 juco sophomores, and a fifth-year senior QB).
- In both games, the winning touchdown was set up in the 4th quarter by a great punt return by Mikey Dudek.
- A bunch of players we thought would play were suspended and could not play. Way more this year than last year - five players (three starters) were announced as suspended before the game, with two more taking "academic redshirts" this season.
- We needed a defensive stop at the very end to keep Ball/Kent State from tying the game (Ball State had a field goal attempt that we blocked; Kent State had a fourth-and-goal that we stopped).
This was the same game. Losing to a bad (like, BAD) MAC team and the crowd is booing and then somehow we pull it out in the end. I mean, I'm glad we won, but WERF. This year is not supposed to look like last year.
I mean, the whole point of a last year is to avoid a this year. You play 22 freshmen because then the next year you look a little better. But we didn't look a little better. Offense, yes, but defense, not an ounce better. Significantly worse, actually.
There was good. I'm sure I'll do some bullet points below talking about the good, especially in the second half, but mercy, there was so much bad. I don't even know how to write about it. Things like:
- Giving up 453 yards against a team that only put up 275 yards per game last year.
- A kickoff returner catching the ball at the three and running out of bounds.
- Running a play with 1:20 on the clock and Kent State having only one timeout when we could have taken three knees and ended the game. (And running that play out of the shotgun.) (And watching the tailback flip in the air on a play where all we had to do was take a knee.)
- Getting the ball back, up 7, with a chance to ice the game away, against a dead-tired Kent State defense, and going three-and-out because the quarterback tried to bounce a sure first down outside to pick up more yardage.
- Grabbing an interception and then fumbling it (we recovered the fumble, thankfully).
- Having a kick return set up for a 35+ yard return but having it whistled dead because one of the up-men signaled for a fair catch.
I mean, I get that we're young, but do we have to make THAT many mistakes in one game? Those are the kinds of mistakes we made last year. And I mostly brushed them off with "look, we're the youngest team in college football the last 15 years - these things are going to happen this season". But now it's the next season and they're still happening.
When we lost to Purdue in 2016 and started playing all the freshmen, I said that we'd have 25 games where we'd learn nothing. And then, after that, things would (hopefully) improve rapidly. Well, there's now five "learn nothing" games left and then I'm supposed to see rapid improvement. And we look nowhere close to "rapid improvement". We look the same as we did last year. Maybe even a little worse.
+ OK, let's try to find some positives. No, really, there were positives. We beat Kent freaking State by 7 after trailing 17-7 at halftime but here I am counting positives. I have to. I can't go insane. Let's do a top three. No, four.
- Jake Hansen. Set at Illini record for tackles for loss today (six TFL's). If we didn't suck, he'd be Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week. There's no way a player with 15 tackles including six tackles for loss should not be the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week. But I'm sure some Penn State linebacker had 11 tackles and an interception so he'll get it. (Still, Hansen, man, what a game. Seems like he's the anchor of the defense for three seasons.)
- AJ Bush. After a very shaky first half (as I tweeted in the first quarter, he looked really shaky out there with happy feet - nothing like what we saw in camp). By the second half, he settled down. Final Stats: 13 for 23, 190 yards, plus 156 rushing yards on 21 carries. Now, that rushing yardage was under 100 yards before his 40-yard run and 20-yard run to ice the game (when Kent State was selling out trying to force a punt with nine guys in the box and he slipped free with one guy to beat), but still, 350 yards rushing and receiving is a great debut.
- Quan Martin. I asked freshman cornerback Jartavius Martin after the game if he preferred Jartavius or the name his family/coaches call him: "Quan". He said he prefers Quan. So henceforth it's Quan Martin. And get used to hearing that name, because my 2018 Asamoah Award Winner showed out in his first game - an interception, a PBU, and four tackles in his first ever-start. Long way to go, lots to learn, but I feel really good about cornerback with Hobbs, Adams, Watkins, and Martin. Just need to get Hobbs and Adams back.
- Reggie Corbin. Out of the doghouse and into the endzone. After finding Garrick McGee's doghouse and barely playing last year, Corbin burst onto the scene this game with 10 carries for 79 yards and two touchdowns including the play of the game - a tightrope-walking 39-yard TD down the west sideline. From my view I thought he stepped out, but on replay he didn't.
+ Let's dig into some of the stats I monitored last year. I remember that we matched Ball State in yards per play in the first game (both teams were 4.4 YPP, and that was a big signal for the season). Today: Illinois 6.4 YPP, Kent State 5.4. Better for the offense, worse for the defense. Which is encouraging (we might put up yards this year!) and frightening (we might not stop anyone this year!).
Time of possession we lost 32:03 to 27:57. With a defense this young (and this thin with suspensions), that's scary. Really hard to hold up for 60 minutes against any Big Ten opponent. Keep failing to win the TOP battle (and play like this) and yeah, we're not going to win a Big Ten game this year. Hey, that sounds familiar!
+ The whole game was more or less the Kent State fourth downs. They were 4 for 6 converting fourth downs. The four conversions led to two (maybe three?) touchdowns. The two stops, we A) drove the ball down and scored (in three plays, all Corbin runs) and B) picked off the game-tying touchdown pass in the final moments.
("We picked off the game-tying touchdown pass in the final moments". There's the whole game story right there.)
+ The suspensions and injuries - we need to talk about them. Suspended: B. Williams, N. Hobbs, C. Green, D. Pate, and L. Dorsey. Academic redshirts who will not play this season as they get their grades in order: Larry Boyd and Verdis Brown.
When you take this defense and you remove the best safety (Bennett Williams, suspended indefinitely), the best cornerback (Nate Hobbs, suspended indefinitely), your second or third-best corner (Tony Adams, injured hand), and your best defensive lineman (Jamal Milan, injured knee), then you're in big trouble heading into any game. Especially a sweltering game like this one where you needed a rotation of 30 guys on the defense.
When Milan went down, Lere Oladipo was starting in his spot at camp. Now Oladipo is hurt as well, so that defensive tackle rotation was down to four guys - Jamal Woods (moved in from DE), Tymir Oliver, Kenyon Jackson, and Calvin Avery.
And the secondary without Williams, Hobbs, and Adams is pretty much Stanley Green (JR), Cam Watkins (JR), and then ALL NEWCOMERS. I don't know what these guys did to get suspended, but they have to be feeling how much they hurt their team tonight.
+ But I saved this point for last. This was not why we barely beat Kent State today. This one can't be chalked up to youth and seven suspensions. This needed to be a step forward from last year and it wasn't. It just wasn't.
It was last year again.