Upset In Urbana Mailbag II

Oct 22, 2019

WHERE WERE YOU during the Upset In Urbana? Were you watching on TV? Listening on the radio? Perhaps you were there in Urba... uh, Champaign, in Memorial Stadium, which is totally located in Champaign and not Urbana? That's where I was.

No, I'm not going to stop. Fox Sports says it's the Upset In Urbana, and I am not one to question them.

We've had some big turnovers to keep us in the game the last few weeks, which may be a matter of some luck, as you've mentioned. What do you think is this defense's ceiling is under Lovie? Can this defense achieve consistent success without visits from the Turnover fairy?

-- Sam (@samgocubsgo) October 21, 2019

My first thought here is that we're doing this without much interception luck. So... maybe we'll keep it up? I'll try to explain.

Our luck this year - and it's crazy - is fumble recoveries. Forcing fumbles - nearly all skill. Recovering fumbles - if it's anything over 50%, you're getting lucky. And after starting the season by grabbing 16 of the 24 fumbles on the turf, we grabbed 3 of 4 in this game (both Wisconsin fumbles, one of our own), meaning we're now at 19 of 28 fumbles. Should be 14, could be 10, is 19.

And I should note - when I started complaining about the Turnover Fairy back in 2011 and 2012, it's because we were wildly unlucky. And everyone was all BUT ROBERT THAT'S JUST BECAUSE WE SUCK and my argument then is my argument now: recovering 8 of 23 fumbles is not "the coaches don't teach it well". It's luck. And we were unlucky. And it wasn't because we sucked. (Although we did suck.)

Man, every time I write about this I know the emails and tweets are coming so I feel like I have to swat them away. I'll get to your question, I promise, but ONCE MORE FOR THOSE IN THE BACK.

We've forced 15 fumbles this year. That's 1st nationally. That's not luck - that's skill. It's taught from the first day of spring practice and it's paying off. We've even seen at least four missed tackles this season simply because the guy was going for the ball and not the tackle. It's the theme of this defense. And we're good at it. Not luck.

We've recovered 12 of those 15 forced fumbles. That also leads the nation. It's also complete luck. An oblong ball hits the turf and bounces around. The key fumble on Saturday - Jonathan Taylor's in the fourth quarter - came about an inch from hitting a Wisconsin guy in the foot (and if it would have, he would have fallen on it, and we lose). Instead, it bounced five yards away and Isaiah Gay grabbed it. Total, complete, oblong-ball-with-points-hits-the-ground luck.

Had we forced 4 fumbles this year and grabbed three, then yes, that's still lucky, but it doesn't help much. We've forced 15, which means we should have 7 or 8 recoveries. That helps a ton. For every two you force, one is likely going to be yours. Force 15, that's huge.

But we've also fumbled 13 times. That's top 15 nationally (as in, bad). Why do we not view this team as a fumbling group of fumblers who can't hang onto the ball? Because we've recovered the majority of those as well. Lucky lucky lucky.

(I've finally reached your question.)

With that being unsustainable (I'm that guy who sees five consecutive reds on the roulette wheel and expects five consecutive blacks), are we in trouble once the fumbles dry up? Perhaps. But we really haven't had much interception luck yet. Tipped passes keep falling harmlessly incomplete. Given the equal emphasis on INT's, and the number of great breaks on the ball I saw at training camp (think Tony Adams on Saturday), perhaps the fumbles dry up but the interceptions surge?

That's just me hoping. We're probably in trouble. It's going to have to come from third down stops, not turnovers, and I'm still not sure we can do that.

What clicked on Saturday? How did we win this one? #UpsetInUrbana

-- Stu Almeleh (@SAlmeleh) October 21, 2019

I've watched the full game several times now (and the condensed version a few times as well). My main takeaways from watching it while not freaking out inside.

  1. Wisconsin's two fourth quarter turnovers were the entire game. Fumble turns into a touchdown, interception turns into a field goal. Without those two turnovers Wisconsin wins 37-14.
  2. Wisconsin really shot themselves in the foot a few times. Very Illinois-like. They have us stopped at our own 22 and we have to punt. WAIT, nope, Wisconsin jumped offsides so we get another crack at third down. Peters hits Barker, first down, three plays later, Corbin to the house. Illinois back in the game. And I'm not even mentioning them throwing on third down with 2:30 left.
  3. We consistently forced them into uncomfortable situations. Their offense was in rhythm for six consecutive games, and once we got them out of that, they struggled to sustain drives. Jamal Milan, Tymir Oliver, and Jamal Woods were a huge part of that.

That last one is where I'm hanging a lot of my hope. They expected 7 yards per carry, we only gave them 3.6 yards per carry, they weren't exactly sure what to do at that point. The whole fourth quarter their offense behaved as if it were really, really annoyed. And we pounced.

Also, it should be noted that we're probably not having this conversation without Tony Adams' interception. I've watched it so many times. Just an incredible play. He's on the edge with no wideouts, he drops into coverage, the tailback heads for the flat (to draw Tony with him, opening the lane for the first down throw to the tight end), but Tony doesn't bite. He's staring at Coan, and Coan is locked in on Ferguson, and he lets the tailback go and backpedals. INT, Illinois ball, Illinois wins.

We saw a lot of position shuffling in the last game. What players do you want to see shuffle into a different roster position? Either for this year or next.

-- Matt (@illini_matt) October 21, 2019

This is a great question. I've spent a lot of time thinking about it. And every position I think through, especially for next year, what sticks out is not "who could we move there", it's "oh yeah, we add that guy to the mix next year". Like, literally every position I thought through.

Let's look at cornerback. Moving Tony Adams to corner (and slot corner) seemed to really help. Anyone else we could move there? Well, none of the names I suggest would be any more useful than Marquez Beason returning next season.

Man, we're really thin at tight end. Barker is the only receiving option, and then we're getting a few good snaps from Justice Williams and Griffin Palmer. Any big receivers we could move in to tight end? Wait, Luke Ford is eligible next year. Nevermind.

Could really use another linebacker. Perhaps Delano Ware moves back to linebacker next year? Wait, Derrick Smith will be eligible. He's probably that guy.

Wide receiver needs help - any corners or safeties? Well, none who would be better than Jadon Thompson. Tailback rotation has gotten thin. Mike Epstein. Any other defensive tackles who could give us help at strongside end? Yes, Lere Oladipo if he returns from suspension.

So any ideas I could come up with on position shuffles (Deon Pate to DE maybe? I'm reaching) would come to a screeching halt once I look at next year's roster. All of the main help is injured/ineligible. This will be the team for the next five games, with very few changes, and then next year it's all about players rejoining the rotation.

Which, I'll be honest, has me a little excited after this win. Beat a legitimate opponent like this and then when I look at the schedule next year (and think about those players joining), my 2020 excitement comes back. First seven games:

Illinois State
Bowling Green
at Rutgers
at Nebraska

I mean, how do you not start 6-1? I'll stop.

But will I?


thumpasaurus on October 23 @ 08:59 AM CDT

So, we both agree that the numbers show that no matter who you are, you can expect to recover 50% of fumbles. Therefore, over the course of a season, you can expect 50% of fumbles to be recovered. On the other hand...if we define all fumbles as equal, with a 50% chance of recovery, Illinois can be expected to recover 50% of fumbles that occur for the remainder of the season.

Also, I don't want to take anything away from Illinois or call this a fluke or anything, but Wisconsin's gameplan was baffling and they never adjusted it. The lack of playaction passing was puzzling, and I think it comes down to Wisconsin's coaches assuming the dam would eventually break and they could just run over the Illini without opening up the playbook too much.

That's not to say we only won because Wisconsin wasn't trying or didn't take this seriously, but we all know they're the better team. On Saturday, Illinois was better prepared, better motivated, and better coached.

Illinimac68 on October 23 @ 04:39 PM CDT

I'm reminded of the coach's statement to the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team -- you just have to be the better team for 60 minutes.

Barbbas on October 23 @ 10:20 AM CDT

The %s aren't exactly 50/50---it depends on where the fumble occurs. a QB sack has 5 offensive linemen and probably a running back in the back field, while the defense probably has only 4 or 5 men in the backfield and at least one of them is holding onto the quaterback---Offense should recover more than 50% of these. OTOH, a fumble on a pass has mostly defensive men in the area. Here's the most thurough analysis I could find /

Robert on October 23 @ 10:29 AM CDT

Correct. I quoted that exact article on Twitter last week when talking about this. Here's what I tweeted:

For some background, the study I've followed on this since 2012 says this:

Fumbles that go out of bounds and stay with offense - 6.7%

Recovered by fumbler (QB falls on bad snap, mostly) - 19.1%

Recovered by another offensive player - 24.1%

Recovered by the defense - 50.1%

If a fumble happens past the line of scrimmage, the defense recovers 67.6% of the time (more guys around the ball). But of all fumbles in all games, teams should be right at 50/50. Anything above or below is lucky/unlucky.

16 of 24 is really lucky.

IlliNYC on October 23 @ 11:48 AM CDT

Interesting! Those numbers seem to argue that fumbles "forced" by the defense are much more likely to be recovered by the defense. (If you pull out bad snaps? Or, e.g., a QB dropping the ball and falling on it). I could be wrong, but I don't remember any bad snap fumbles from our opponents this year?

Also, it seems less fluky since the Illini's recovery rate is very close to the 67.6% rate for fumbles after the line of scrimmage.

IBFan on October 24 @ 04:17 PM CDT

Luck=? Again, it doesn’t exist. There are reasons Illinois players cause more fumbles than the average team, there are reasons Illinois players recover a higher percentage of said fumbles.
Being unlucky is an excuse. Luck, or lack of, is a fabrication of the ill prepared, those that shirk accountability, and for people that fail to seize on opportunities.

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