I've watched both the Wisconsin and Purdue games again, and it sticks out more and more each time I watch: after rotating 45-50 players into the rotation his first three years, Lovie is now playing maybe 30 guys.
In my "from the stands" post last year after the Penn State game, I made the comment that Lovie "still wasn't trying to win". I phrased that poorly, and I took some heat from that, but what I meant was that Lovie was still playing 22-25 guys on defense, even when only trailing Penn State by 4 going into the fourth quarter. I looked out there for one of the first drives of the fourth quarter in that game and we were playing our 3rd and 5th safeties (and then the next drive, the 1st and 2nd-string safeties were back in). Three years in, a game you're totally in against a ranked team, and it still felt like on-the-field auditions.
That has completely changed this season. I don't have any "snaps played" numbers in front of me, but after watching these games, I think I can easily say that these are the tightest player rotations we've seen in a long time. Defensive line is the only position on the field with a deep rotation anymore. To wit:
- I'm fairly certain that safety was just Stanley Green and Sydney Brown for every single play. Part of that is because Tony Adams moved back to corner and guys like Delano Ware are injured. But there are third and fourth string safeties on the roster, and they're simply not playing.
- Corner was a rotation of three guys - Nate Hobbs, Tony Adams, and Devon Witherspoon. I don't believe Quan Martin played at all.
- I know that Khalan Tolson and Tarique Barnes played, but I'm pretty sure it was only on special teams. I believe it was just Jake Hansen, Dele Harding, and Milo Eifler at linebacker for every snap. Even on the final drive when we were up 24-6 with a minute to go. Again, In the first three years of Lovie, four, five, sometimes six linebackers would be part of the rotation.
- Defensive line, as I mentioned above, is still a deep rotation. It basically has to be, in all phases of football, because of the physical exertion required to rush the quarterback. Everyone needs some snaps off.
- Offensive line has been the same five guys nearly every snap (not a surprise - that's fairly typical for college football).
- Wide receiver appeared to be just Josh Imatorbhebhe, Caleb Reams, Trenard Davis, Donny Navarro, and Casey Washington. Ricky Smalling and Trevon Sidney are injured, but Dominic Stampley didn't play at all (for the first time this season).
- Tight end is maybe the only position with a deeper rotation right now. Because of all the twin TE looks against Purdue (run the ball in the rain), there were four tight ends rotating in (Barker, Williams, Palmer, Walker).
- Running back and quarterback remain the same, but those are more "hot hand" positions - the number of players who play is directly related to how the starter is performing. Dre Brown was playing well, so he got 18 carries and Corbin got 12.
The obvious question here: if the starters perform better than the backups, why ever play the backups? Why not just play 22 guys every game (plus a kicker, a punter, and a longsnapper) and leave the other 75 guys on the sideline? Two reasons:
- You need your team to remain fresh in the fourth quarter. As mentioned above, defensive line is the hardest position to play for 60 minutes. We've seen it in every football game at every level for decades. Mid fourth quarter, the DL has nothing left, the offense that couldn't do anything all game suddenly gets yard after yard. So you play the backups to keep the freshest team possible for the all-important fourth quarter. That same thing is somewhat true at every other position. Only offensive linemen and quarterbacks typically play every single snap.
- You need to prepare for next season and the season after that. On-the-field experience is important. You can't just sit Calvin Avery on the bench for two years and then, once Jamal Milan and Tymir Oliver graduate, toss Avery out there with zero experience. Those 10-15 snaps per game are important. Those offseason film review sessions where the coaches can show Avery what he did right/wrong are vital for his development. Every season, a head coach has to be thinking about the next season. And the season after that. Win these games, yes, but be thinking about how your going to win next year's games.
Those two things have me a tiny bit concerned about these super tight rotations. I wrote on Saturday how the seniors have really stepped up this year and have led this team to these last two wins. But that makes me think about next year and the players who aren't getting on the field right now. Before the season I don't think you would have heard me say "man, Stanley Green is irreplaceable", but now, well, let's just make another list:
- Stanley Green and Sydney Brown have been great at safety these last few games. But who replaces Green next year, especially with Tony Adams back at corner?
- Dele Harding has been so good in his first full year as a starter at middle linebacker. But his backup is a true freshman (Tarique Barnes). Is Barnes ready to start next season? If it's him, he's going to have to do it with zero on-the-field experience.
- Jamal Milan is probably the most irreplaceable player on the defense right now, right? There are options (Avery, Woods, Oladipo if he returns), but with both Milan and Tymir Oliver graduating, who plugs the middle?
- Who replaces Richie Petitbon at right guard? Someone with zero snaps to their name, that's who.
- Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown are the 1-2 punch at tailback right now. Mike Epstein returns, and if healthy, he'll be the guy the next two seasons. But can we find a combination like Corbin and Brown? Ra'Von Bonner? Chase Brown?
I hear you. Let's find two more wins before worrying about any of this. Every college team forever has to replace graduating seniors. I get it.
But most of those college teams have been developing the younger guys. Right now, after 3+ years of doing that, we've suddenly stopped doing that. It's helping us win games, but it still makes me a tiny bit worried about the long term.
I'll stop. Go Illini. Beat Rutgers. Win 8 of the next 11. (Because we're totally winning 8 of our next 11 games.)