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I have so much more to share. It's been a few days and I'm still buzzing. Honestly, because I couldn't watch the basketball game Sunday night and fell asleep early in the second half, it's almost like it didn't happen? Maybe I'll just go the whole season without acknowledging a road loss at Arizona?
It's a very 17 thing to do. I used to be that guy in November talking about the recent Iowa game and everyone else was all "did that happen? I've moved on to basketball". Well maybe I'll flip the script.
Anyway, here's a bunch of things from Saturday that I need to write about.
I'm starting a new trend in blogging. You know how you used to have to wait until the newspaper came out the next day to read about the game? Or to hear any of the coach/player quotes unless you happened to catch a radio postgame show? I'm bringing that back. Postgame audio not posted immediately after the interview on all social platforms - postgame audio posted 72 hours later in a blog post.
Here's Dre Brown, then Nate Hobbs, then Josh Imatorbhebhe.
"Get to six and we can recruit from that", we've said. Get to eight? That would be significant. Eight is a magical land of "we are absolutely headed in the right direction".
You recruit the first offseason offering playing time. That fades year after year until you win. It's hard to offer "we're rebuilding and you'll get a shot early" after several years of the same. So you have to start winning. We've started winning.
Six is good. It leaves the risk of 6-7 if you lose the bowl game and your rival recruiters telling kids "they didn't even have a winning season last year", but "bowl game" is the big hurdle. It opens doors. 7-6 is even better, whether it's 6-6 and win the bowl or 7-5 and lose the bowl. 7 tells a good story.
Eight? Eight probably gets us ranked preseason next year (or high up in the "others receiving votes" column) with 16 returning starters. Eight opens a lot of recruiting doors. And 2021 will be an important class, numbers-wise. With so few seniors the last few years, 2019 was a class of 16 and 2020 will be a class of 14-15. But then 29 scholarship seniors graduate after the 2020 season, so the 2021 class will be somewhere around 28-30 (with many players backdated to the 2020 class). More than a third of our available scholarships will be handed to one recruiting class.
How do we get to eight wins? Beat Northwestern, win the bowl game (bowl game!). You can also get there by beating Iowa and beating Northwestern, but for now I'm sticking to "beat Northwestern, win the bowl game, finish 8-5, open the doors". (Wait, if we beat both Northwestern and Iowa we could get to... nine?)
Yards? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Yards
There was a tweet yesterday from IlliniStats showing all of the statistics from this four-game winning streak. And two stats really, REALLY stick out. Keep in mind, Illinois is 4-0 in these games.
Total yards: Illinois 1312, Opponents 1488
Time of possession: Illinois 24:55, Opponents 35:05
I mean, that's basically impossible. Outgained by your opponents, defense on the field for 35 minutes, 24:55 TOP means you can't sustain drives... the only way you could defeat all of that is if you were, like, +9 in turnovers or something.
Interceptions thrown: Illinois 1, Opponents 6
Fumbles lost: Illinois 2, Opponents 6
But you'd also need something else. You'd need great field special teams forcing the opponent into bad field position (i.e., make them gain more yards). For that, we go to the FEI ratings for special teams and their Punt Efficiency and Kickoff Efficiency statistics. A quick description of that stat: "average values generated per punt or kickoff based on the field position of the punt/kickoff team and the field position at the conclusion of the play".
Punt Efficiency: 9th nationally
Kickoff Efficiency: 27th nationally
Special Teams overall rank 14th nationally in those SFEI Ratings, so we're solid across the board. Which means we should go back to our question. How did we win four games, two of them on the road, one against Michigan State and one against Wisconsin? We:
- Made big plays on offense (explosive plays, the Rod Smith focus).
- Won the field position battle.
- Won the turnover battle.
Do that, and you can be outgained all day and still win. You're forcing the other team into a situation where they'll need to get 100, 150, maybe 200 more yards than you in order to win.
Short answer: turnovers are football.
OK, stop reading now if you just want to float on warm fuzzies. I'm floating too, but I'm still grounded (that doesn't make any sense). This was the first of several steps to get Illinois Football back to where it should be.
If you read the preview, you know I spent the first 3,000 words on "it's so easy". I studied every coach hired from 2006 to 2015 (like, every single coach, even the disastrous flameouts) and I found that 89 of the 97 coaches got to six wins at some point. Even the dozens who were eventually fired. Come in, install a system, by year three or year four you're bowling. Everyone can crest at six wins. Derek Dooley, Dan Hawkins, Randy Edsall, Frank Spaziani, Mike London (I could go on and on) - all of them got to bowl games.
The key, of course, is doing something after that. We've seen a coach build up to 10 wins and then right back down to 1 two years later (Ron Turner) and we've seen a coach build to 9 wins and then right back down to 3 two years later (Ron Zook). We know how to take the reservation, we just don't know how to hold the reservation.
So this is just one step of several. We've done the minimum (bowling by year four, which is acceptable after Not Ideal). But now there are a few more steps. Broadly, I'd like to see this:
- Win one more this year. Just so my 7-5 prediction comes true. But also because of what I wrote about - winning eight (with a bowl win) would be great for offseason momentum.
- Improve on that next year. And not just so my "win 18 of 31" prediction comes true. More than 30 seniors (when including the walkons), one of the most experienced teams in the country (I'm guessing #1 or #2 on Phil Steele's experience chart), a schedule that starts Illinois State, UConn, Bowling Green, Rutgers, Nebraska, Purdue - it's all there for a bigger leap.
- A fall-back year in 2021 is acceptable. Happens to nearly everyone. Their first great team graduates a bunch of seniors and phase II of the rebuild begins. Barry Alvarez had that 4-win season in there before the second push began.
- And then 2022 gives us our final answer. Turner and Zook had five-win fallback years (2002 and 2008) which were acceptable, but then Turner won 1 game and Zook won 3. Unacceptable, means they only built one team. Lovie will need to do much better than that.
And a lot of that starts with this upcoming 2021 class. He'll need some second-year impact guys for the 2022 season (sophomores or redshirt freshmen that year), and then that class is the foundation for the push beyond that. The 2020 class is important as well, of course, but as of today, there's only five more rides to give out in that small class. The following year will be 25+. We'll need a really, really good class.
We should probably win nine games this year just to be safe.