Sep 22, 2018

A bye week is a great time for a reset. The players will get several days off here where they can just not think about football for the first time since late July. I did the same thing last night - stopped writing, watched TV. And I woke up with a refreshed mind. I hit the reset button on my emotions, I think.

Through four games, my main emotion this year has been "um, it's the third year - why isn't the defense better? Did it somehow get... worse?" I've looked up the statistics and pored over nerdstats and watched the games again and I haven't been feeling good. We'll get into some of those concerns in a bit, but for now, I want to reset back to the preseason. It's when my brain is clear of all fan emotions. Emotions cloud everything. Let's reset.

To do that, I go back and read emotionless words. I check myself against the things I wrote in the preview. I didn't have any "WHY CAN'T WE FORCE SECOND AND NINE??" emotions at the time; I was sequestered in a coffeeshop making an honest evaluation.

So if we just take the defensive line - clearly the biggest concern on the team right now, given the one sack last week as South Florida threw for 411 and the lack of push this week as Penn State ran for 387 - what was I thinking before the season? Some snippets from the 24,000 word preview in August:

Mike Phair to the Colts, Austin Clark to the Illini. A 15-year coaching veteran goes out the door and a 0-year coaching newbie comes in. That's… an interesting choice.

The last time I said that, when tight ends coach Greg Nord left in 2010 and was replaced by a graduate assistant from Arkansas named Chip Long, I was critical of the move. Why not go for more coaching experience? Why hire the kid? Well, seven years later, Chip Long is an offensive wunderkind, having moved from Arizona State to Memphis to now Notre Dame offensive coordinator (where Notre Dame had to fight off Alabama to keep him this offseason). So sometimes these GA hires can work out.

I guess my worry is that the most important developmental coach on this team right now is the defensive line coach. This is a young, youthful, and young defensive line. They need to make strides from game to game and get better in a hurry. And it feels a little risky to hand that development to someone in his first coaching job.

OK, so I think we're seeing my biggest concern play out in these first four games. This young defensive line isn't doing much. It's costing us games. There appear to be no answers. Players sometimes look confused. So yes, August me, I think you nailed it: a coaching newbie is struggling to get much out of his guys right now.

Junior - junior - junior, sophomore - sophomore - sophomore - sophomore - sophomore - sophomore, redshirt-freshman - redshirt freshman, freshman - freshman - freshman - freshman. That's the defensive line. Perhaps that's better listed like this:

Fifth-year players: none

Fourth-year players: Jamal Milan

Third-year players: Tymir Oliver, Kenyon Jackson, Ayo Shogbonyo

Second-year players: Bobby Roundtree, Isaiah Gay, Jamal Woods, Owen Carney, Marc Mondesir, Lere Oladipo, Deon Pate

First-year players: Calvin Avery, Verdis Brown, Ezekiel Holmes, Julian Pearl

So not only is it "three juniors," it's "one single player entering his fourth or fifth season." Every Iowa and Wisconsin defensive line the last 15 years has relied on fourth- and fifth-year players who have developed and developed and developed and then were unleashed on the Big Ten. This year, at Illinois, one player qualifies for that (Jamal Milan), and as of right now, he's out with a knee injury.

If you're someone who draws the line at the third year - every lineman needs two years of development before they're ready, so count your redshirt sophomores and up as the ones who are probably ready - there's just four players who qualify: Milan, Oliver, Jackson, and linebacker-turned-defensive end Shogbonyo.

In two years, when Roundtree, Gay, Woods, Carney, Mondesir, Oladipo, and Pate are all fourth-year players and Avery, Brown, Holmes, and Pearl are all third-year players, man, watch out. I'm already preparing my "Illinois - best defensive line in the Big Ten West?" articles. Two years prior to that moment? I'm nervous.

Feels a little insane, August me, to suggest that this could be the best DL in the Big Ten West in two years. I think you had a little August Syndrome there. But as for your youthful concerns, nail meet head. Milan is still out, meaning there's not a single fourth or fifth-year player out there in these first four games. And it absolutely shows.

The good news is that only two players left from last year (when most of these guys were playing as true freshmen). James Crawford (who was a very important piece to that defense and was voted defensive MVP) and Tito Odenigbo (whose flag-tossing incident where he tossed a flag back at an official who threw it was his last moment in an Illini uniform before transferring to Miami) have departed, and honestly, both were big losses. There's a reason Odenigbo landed at the best transfer spot of any of the 15 players who transferred out, and there's a reason Crawford is currently in camp with the Packers.

So at the start of the year, with those two gone, I think there's a slight step back for this defensive line. Yes, everyone is a year older, but with the new coach, players in new positions, and unknown status of the anchor of the defensive line (Milan), I think the line is in for a rough September. November 2020, "is this the best line in the Big Ten West?" September 2018, "uh, why are they struggling with the Western Illinois offensive line?"

I'm pretty happy with you right now, August Robert. You kind of nailed it. This line DID have a very rough September. And it was predictable back in August. Crawford did make the Packers 53-man roster, and Odenigbo is the third defensive tackle at Miami, and we miss both. Milan is still out, and his presence is missed. This is basically a bunch of second year players trying to hang with an experienced and talented Penn State offensive line (a Penn State offensive line that was a bit of a mess 2/3 years ago because they were so young, I might add). These are the things I believe about football. Defensive lines are about fifth-year guys who come out of nowhere (like Crawford), not second-year guys who are still trying to learn.

Iowa's defensive line right now? 4th-year player, 4th-year player, 5th-year player, 5th-year player. Yes, a borderline 3-star/2-star 5th-year senior (Parker Hesse) is playing in front of their 5-star true sophomore (AJ Epenesa). Illinois defensive line right now? 2nd-year player, 3rd-year player, 2nd-year player, 2nd-year player.

So when I press the reset button, I calm down. Last night's "what has happened to the defensive line?" emotions are calmed by August's sober analysis. The point of this season was to go 4-8 and look for progress. I think we're going to win four games. I think we're seeing progress.

Let's get into that.

+ Honestly, I think the most encouraging thing for me last night was observing the sideline. And that's twofold:

  1. That was a fired-up sideline. How many times over the past 10 seasons have I written about how dead our sideline was during a game? How the opponent was emotionally invested but our sideline, even in a close game, seemed quiet and reserved. Last night, especially in the third quarter, those players were fired up. In the postgame interview room, every player was talking about it. Nick Allegretti. Doug Kramer. MJ Rivers. The result wasn't there but the players all talk about how things are changing.
  2. There's a lot of young talent on that sideline. It doesn't mean much until they show it on the field, but when you see Kerby Joseph on special teams or you see Kievan Myers in uniform (massive, MASSIVE dude with giant hands and long arms, perfect for a Big Ten OL), you realize that this year is a little different than last year. Last year every talented freshman was on the field. This year, some of them are on the sideline, likely redshirting. Again, it doesn't mean much until proven, but it reminded me of some of my thoughts back at camp. You see Verdis Brown and Reuben Unije and Dylan Wyatt and Khalan Tolson in uniform and they absolutely look the part.

The second part is what I was thinking about when I woke up today. Did we look improved? Yes. Did was hang with Penn State for three quarters? We absolutely did. Did Penn State's depth and experience lead to us tapping-out in the fourth? Absolutely. Did the same thing happen with South Florida? Yes.

So I go looking for future depth and experience on our sideline. And I think I see it. This offensive line loses Nick Allegretti in the offseason. It might just be a battle between the two massive dudes to replace him (Larry Boyd and Kievan Myers). I feel pretty good about that battle. The line was really good last night, and I can see it getting better in 2019 and even better in 2020.

Defensive secondary? I said we needed a third safety we could count on, and so far that's absolutely Delano Ware. Combine that with four corners you can rely on - Hobbs, Watkins, Adams, and Martin, none of them seniors - and next year is probably a massive leap for the secondary (similar to the leap we're seeing from the offensive line this year).

When I take a step back and evaluate what we've seen... this is what we wanted to see. Is the depth coming along? Are there early-impact guys in the 2018 class? Can we hang with most of the teams on our schedule? Is there hope on the scout team? I think it's a "yes" to most all of those questions. Which is why I woke up encouraged.

+ What could sink it? Well, we saw it last night. If a bend-but-don't-break, keep-it-in-front-of-you, no-big-plays defense gives up those big plays, it's over. The whole reason for bending is to NEVER break, and we broke about four times in the fourth quarter. If that's going to happen, and if we're not going to get turnovers while bending, what's the point?

I think the most concerning thing so far in the Lovie Smith era is the defensive scheme issues. I don't know what they are, specifically (I believe it's silly for anyone who doesn't at least coach high school football to say things like "we should totally be giving them a single-high look here"), but I know that a guy like Tom Allen has really improved the IU defensive scheme while Lovie Smith and Hardy Nickerson, so far, have not.

Yes, a lot of that is completely turning the defensive roster over. There's one senior on the defense and it's a Lovie juco. There are only two Beckman players (Watkins and Milan) on the entire defense. It's almost all sophomores and freshmen. You have to expect mistake after mistake with that.

But we're still seeing checkers, not chess, I think. Can you remember a really great "man, we made a great adjustment there" moment the last two years? I get that Lovie is stubborn in his defensive beliefs, and next season, when we're stopping the run and pressuring the passer and getting the turnovers, he'd read this paragraph and laugh. He knows more about defense than I could ever pretend to know.

Still, as a fan, I want to "feel" something. A confidence in the schemes/playcalling. I don't feel it yet.

+ On the other side of the spectrum, man do I feel it on offense right now. Do you realize that we're doing this with three seniors (Allegretti, Mays, and Roberts), two juniors (Davis and Corbin), and then about 18 sophomores and freshmen? Including a true freshman QB the last 11 quarters?

Here's a stat for you:

2017 Rushing Yards Per Game: 105.6
2018 Rushing Yards Per Game: 243.5

And again - we're doing that with a freshman QB who is more of a passer (if Bush was in there, boost the rushing yardage maybe 40 more yards these last three games). And this is all with an offensive line that goes sophomore-senior-sophomore-freshman-sophomore.

As concerned I am about the defense, I'm equally excited about the offense. Yes, it's easier to get better quicker on offense. Freshmen skill players can contribute on offense quicker than they contribute on defense. Offensive linemen are "ready" maybe a year before defensive linemen. But even accounting for that, this offense is well ahead of where I thought it would be.

Last year's leading rusher was Mike Epstein (in his five games) with 346 yards. This year it feels like... five players might eclipse 346 yards? Both Epstein (324 so far) and Corbin (327) will get there in the next game. And Bonner (109 yards so far) likely gets there, as will Bush (142) once he comes back. And if he splits time with Rivers, perhaps Rivers gets there as well?

I was concerned that the WR injuries would cost us our running game as well (stacked boxes). That clearly hasn't been the case, even against a legit defense like Penn State. I'm really excited to see the offense the rest of this season.

+ A few more quick hitters:

  • Who had Carmoni Green as the most important player to return from suspension? Bennett Williams got injured, Lou Dorsey wasn't a factor, and Nate Hobbs didn't do much. But Green had four catches for 49 yards (plus he drew a big PI penalty that led to another TD). And he could have had an even bigger night had the bomb not skipped off his fingertips. With Dudek, Meadors, and Carter out for the season, we really need Green to step up. He did last night.
  • It was almost funny how quickly it got out of hand. I tweeted about our wind advantage in the fourth quarter (we were still in the game! no, really! the score was only 28-24 Penn State!), and then things just fell apart. Penn State scored on a 3rd and 12 to open the quarter, and then we're driving again trying to cut the lead to 4 once more. We get to the Penn State 34 and then that MJ Rivers self-fumble (Palcho recovered at midfield, but it put us at 3rd and 26) was the end. Penn State ball, 62 yard touchdown. Illinois possession... bobbled pass in our own redzone is an interception, Penn State scores in one play. Even with two minutes left and the backups playing, Robinson throws an interception that's returned to the 10. It's hard to remember a game getting out of hand that quickly.
  • Hey Lovie: go for it on fourth down between the 30 and 40 every once in a while. You don't have to give Chase McLaughlin ALL the 50+ yard FG attempts.

+ That's all for now. I woke up encouraged, and I think that's where I'll stay during the bye week. Pulling out to the 1,000 foot view, this is what we wanted September to look like. 2-2 with a much better performance against South Florida and a surprising three quarters against Penn State.

Now October needs to see a few Big Ten wins.


ATOillini on September 22 @ 12:44 PM CDT

I've been checking every few minutes for about 2 hours now to see what you you were going to write given what you said late last night in the From the Stands podcast (ouch on that one!).

I'm sitting here now watching MI vs Neb which is currently 39-0 in the first half. We hung well for 3 quarters with PSU, while this game was over before the first 15 minutes expired. So we've got that going us.

But......I keep reflecting on your "A Machine" post from January after the Illini had just put up a good fight vs. MSU in hoops. From that article:

"We'll have to get better athletes - good Lord were we overmatched tonight - and we'll have to do something about this layup-line defense (it eventually comes around, right?), but the mental stuff that seemed to be lacking recently is coming around."

Sound familiar? I personally am at a similar mindset regarding football after last night. Absolutely, positively some great improvement on offense. But on defense, every time they ran that read option it felt like the aforementioned layup-line. We are simply overmatched physically. And in football you don't have the luxury of a shorter game with a great equalizer like the 3 point line. It's a long game of attrition. Teams that stockpile 4 star recruits year after year with the occasional 5 star thrown in are simply going to be hard to beat....for now. As an example, in the first half there was a run up the gut where Sanders basically turned a 2 yard gain into a 10 yard gain by carrying 3 or 4 of our defensive guys along with him. That's talent, not scheme.

Still very encouraged by significant progress in some areas. I think we're headed in the right direction.

jdapisa on September 22 @ 12:47 PM CDT

Great review.

neale stoner on September 22 @ 12:48 PM CDT

Glad to see you have pulled out of your depression. I think your analysis is mostly right on with one exception. I doubt we really have defensive scheme issues. The kids are stronger than last year, but they are not yet strong enough. They have one year of strength and conditioning and experience, but, as you point out, the opposing lineman have three or more.

I’d love to see post mortems from Craig. His scouting reports are excellent; an after action report on defensive scheme would be great. Were we silly playing 6 man boxes against read option? It sure didn’t work. But to me it seemed a strength and defensive end technique issue. Craig’s analysis would really be interesting.

Thanks and to all Illini Board writers, keep up the good work.

ktal on September 22 @ 03:27 PM CDT

Great read. And grateful for the return of an optimistic tone. [Literally the rest of the internet is negative, so finding optimism here is important for my mental health.]

Re: defensive scheme. I think we're still in checkers mode b/c our full rotation is still missing assignments, making bad reads and/or getting out of position. Once everybody has their reads perfected and communicated, we can explore some upper-level scheming. Also, I think every part of the D will look better when we get the anchor back. Getting Jamal Milan's push up front should, (if I'm correctly interpreting Craig's scouting reports), have a huge impact on the RPOs. And as you've stated, it will allow Woods to play DE, which will help seal one edge against the run. I feel like everything will look smoother once we get Milan back in the middle.

Lastly, you tossed this out like its isn't a HUGE deal: "The [offensive] line was really good last night..." If you have time during the bye, would you revisit this? In your pre-season dissertation you wrote, "There are five starters who are honestly very promising. They have the chance to end the season as the best Illini offensive line in maybe five years. But beyond that, I can't recall more unknowns in 10 years of covering training camps." How do you and Martin think we're doing against that yardstick? [Based on last night's radio broadcast, Martin seems really enthused on Lowe.] And any further insight regarding depth?

Thanks! P.S. Also, wouldn't FEJ love to get a call from you? Sharing his story could be a boost to our recruiting efforts, too.

deadguy on September 22 @ 04:49 PM CDT

I'm encouraged by what I'm seeing on the offensive side of the ball. It would be hard for an offense to get worse than what we saw last year but I'm definitely seeing improvement from the QBs and OL.

Great job by MJ stepping up and playing with poise and confidence as a True Freshman. The buzz was all about Robinson in August but Rivers came out of nowhere to emerge as a viable backup.

I can't remember another Illinois true Freshman playing this well at QB. Certainly not Juice or Kittner who struggled quite a bit as True Freshmen. Rivers shows a lot of poise, makes good decisions and has played relatively error free up to this point. I just wish he was a better runner, which may be the only thing that holds him back in this offense. We lack quality WRs due to injuries and the OL is clearly superior at run blocking than pass blocking. Having a more mobile QB is really what we need, but great job by Rivers and the starting 5 OL in the first four games.

Arizona was third in the country in rushing last year and ideally you'd like to see a QB who can compliment what Epstein and Corbin give us on the ground.

The What a disaster. I'm not sure what I can really say that's positive about this group. We appear to have taken a major step back which is alarming since this defense wasn't great last year.

I can say that I'm happy with the amount of TOs that they force. This is something that Illinois defenses have not been doing for as long as I can remember.

The amount of yards they give up is alarming to say the least. I really expected more out of this Defensive Line. Maybe it's youth, Clark....whatever. However, if they continue to be as ineffective as they have been so far this year then we're going to have to win a couple of shootouts. Penn State wasn't doing anything all that complex last night and they were gaining chunks of yards whenever they wanted it. Roundtree played hard for the entire time he was out there and played about as well as can be expected. Gay had a stupid penalty and was largely ineffective and I hope Woods is okay. Having Milan come back would be a big deal.

The Secondary has also taken a step back from what I can see. Is this an adjustment to Byrd after losing Abraham and P. Williams? I know we totally revamped the pass defense under Byrd and it's gotten worse from what I can see, and it's not just because we're playing almost all underclassmen.

Is it the lack of QB pressure from the defensive line?

One thing I don't remember from last year is getting beaten over the top time and time again like we have in the last three games. I don't remember this happening much in 2016 or 2017 and now I'm seeing us give up monster pass plays. Not sure if this is because there is a walk-on out there at Safety or if Green is playing our of position? Whatever the problem is, they have to fix it.

Rutgers got absolutely hammered by Kansas last week and a MAC team last week. Here I am now worried that Rescigno will carve us up while everyone is probably penciling in that game as a win. Maybe I need to take an emotional break before I start wringing my hands about that game but THEY BETTER BEAT RUTGERS! If Sitkowski starts and plays most of that game, I think we match up well with them. However, Rescigno has had no issues carving up our defenses when he came into the game in 2016 and started last year. I am so sick and tired of watching dual threat QBs convert Third and long plays with their legs. Please someone step up and stop them.

There are kids who are 22 months old who have never seen an Illinois B1G victory for crying out loud. End this on October 6th.

MuckFichigan92 on September 22 @ 04:55 PM CDT

As you cited, the selection of Clark to succeed Phair was... interesting. I felt the stakes were too high to have someone as green as Clark learn on the job, more so because I feel DL has the most talent with which to work.

For me, Smith's offense has surprised me while Nickerson's defense has let me down. Is there anything to learn from two meteor storms ripping the defense in consecutive weeks? Some B1G West offenses just might stop that bleeding.

HiggsBoson on September 23 @ 09:38 AM CDT

Bottom line may be that Nickerson can play defense, but not coach it. Things might improve a lot if Lovie made a DC change equivalent to trading McGee for Smith,

Bear8287 on September 22 @ 05:48 PM CDT

Nice article Robert. I keep going back to, if the only thing you knew about a Div 1 football team was that they were the youngest team in Div 1, how would you expect them to do over the course of the season?

I feel like we're seeing signs of improvement. Your comments about replacing a veteran assistant with a GA though do cause a bit of concern. We'll probably all have a better read on that by the end of the season though.

He knows more about defense than I could ever pretend to know.

:-D and that's how I feel about your football knowledge and mine Robert. Part of why I enjoy reading your football posts.

All those seasons opening the B1G with a game against Nebraska and this year we get PSU...

Some time back I think I had posted that Vegas had 3 wins as the o/u line for the Illini this season and thought that was about right. So far I've been stuck on 3, but after the first 3 quarters against PSU and some of the truly atrocious play by other teams in the B1G West so far this season, I just might be able to be talked up to 4.

Keep up the good work. We all can use a "reset" every once in a while.

1970 John on September 23 @ 04:30 AM CDT

I'm of two minds about the defense. One, of course, is that our guys got creamed, but as everyone noted, we held into the third quarter.We kept a top ten in the country team to three touchdowns well into the third quarter. That's well over a half hour of football. And with that monster Sanders and company able to push the pile, and my wife saying, "that looks like rugby." There was at least one point where it looked like they were going to push the pile 50 yards.

I'll go to my wife again for a second point, our guys looked gassed in the fourth quarter, and then broken as things fell apart and nothing about that oblong ball was going their way. And those are X's-and-O's observations, but they're valid for what they are, and perhaps overlooked when you get caught up in the who missed what analysis.

But the second point is that the difference wasn't as big as it looked. We had one of their drive stopped when that out-of-bounds catch turned a punting situation into a first down. And then that phantom hand-in-the-face penalty--another third down and long play that turned into a Sanders-can-fall-that-far distance to the goal. Those 14, or maybe 10, extra points take those away and its 49 or 52 points on PSU's side of the scoreboard. Still unacceptable, but you know, the optics of a score in the 40's look less bad than a score in the 60's. Add in those spirit-breaking red zone turnovers, yeah, no wonder the score is so high.

But getting back to where we got to in the third quarter: We took the lead in the third quarter. We came from behind to take the lead away from the number eight team and we did it in the third quarter. It was the offense that put up 24 points against PSU, but it was the defense that held them, again, three touchdowns.

I'll step away from the Koolaid in a moment, but those two missed-by-just-a-bit field goals, all other things being equal, would have given us 30 points. And yes, those are field goal points that we get only because we have Chase McLaughlin, but PSU got a lot of yards only because they had Sanders. So a score that starts with a four against a score that starts with a three, that looks a lot better.

OK, the Orange Koolaid is back in the fridge and I've developed my talking points for the pre-church discussion with the Penn State partisan in a few hours.

Defense notwithstanding, we roll against Rutgers.

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