OK, I can talk about football again. That was a rough 72 hours. The only way to get out of my funk: plug my ears, cover my eyes, pretend like everything is still fine, and book a flight to the Michigan State game in November. I've never been to East Lansing. Could be fun, right?
(It won't be fun.)
Since I didn't really talk about the football game in my post after the game, I should talk about some football stuff. And there's really only one thing that sticks out to me: our player rotations are very, very, very, very thin. All of the sudden, kind of out of nowhere, we're playing the tightest rotations I can remember.
I noticed on Saturday that it was mostly the starters on the field with very few rotations from the backups. Specifically, when Donny Navarro caught that pass in the third quarter, I thought "is that the first time we've put a fifth receiver on the field?" I'm pretty sure that every snap up until that point had been Smalling, Sidney, Imatorbhebhe, or Stampley. I'm used to seeing WR rotations go six-seven-eight receivers deep.
And then I started thinking about the defense. Besides the regular rotations on the defensive line, just how many players were we using? It seems like it's all starters all the time. That's not what we've been doing the last few years.
So I checked out the postgame statistics. YUP. We're not rotating very much at all. Let's just start by comparing Illinois with Eastern Michigan:
Eastern Michigan: 63
Wide Receivers Catching At Least One Pass
Eastern Michigan: 6
Players Recording A Defensive Statistic
Eastern Michigan: 23
16 players recording a defensive statistic? That includes Devon Witherspoon, and I'm pretty sure his tackles were only on special teams, so 15 players recorded a defensive statistic? Is that the tightest defensive rotation in Champaign since maybe Ron Turner was the coach?
I don't remember this being a Lovie thing, though. Lovie rotated tons of players his first few years. Even last year it seemed like the entire two-deep would rotate in. So I looked up a few non-conference game books from last season:
South Florida game: 20 players recorded a defensive statistic, 6 receivers caught passes, 55 players participated.
Purdue game: 23 players recorded a defensive statistic, 6 receivers caught passes, 59 players participated.
Northwestern game: 20 players recorded a defensive statistic, 5 receivers caught passes, 53 players participated.
Now, there are some factors there. Blowouts like Purdue will likely see more players on the field ("put in the second string - this game is over"). Road games generally see less players participate than home games. And injuries play in here, too. Yes, Calvin Avery filled in for Jamal Woods and Delano Ware filled in for Tony Adams, so the numbers stay the same, but that just means the coaches are more reluctant to go to the third string guy (whereas had Adams and Woods played, Avery and Ware might have been in there as well).
But that still doesn't account for all of it. 16 players recording a defensive statistic on Saturday vs. 20+ in every game I looked at last year - that's a significant change.
Just look at receivers on the participation chart. Last year, against our MAC opponent (Kent State), we rotated eight receivers (Dudek, Smalling, Mays, Davis, Reams, Sandy, Stampley, Williams). And that wasn't because the game was a blowout and we put in the third string - we needed an interception in the endzone with three minutes left to prevent Kent State from tying the game.
On Saturday, we rotated five receivers (Smalling, Sidney, Imatorbhebhe, Stampley, and Navarro). Also, in that Kent State game, we rotated 21 players on defense. On Saturday, we rotated 16. See where I'm going here?
I have two thoughts on this.
1. I believe this is intentional in 2019 (and Lovie-driven).
Please note that I'm saying "I believe", not "I've heard that..." or anything of the sort. I'm hypothesizing. But I believe this is intentional.
Last year was bad. Baaad. Way worse than the coaching staff expected. We knew that changes were coming. And I after three games, I think we can say that "tighten up the rotations" was one of the changes.
To me, it appears they did this: they weren't happy with their passing game (besides Smalling). So after the season they secured transfer commitments from Jeff Thomas, AD Miller, and Dijon Brissett. When Thomas went back to Miami and Miller stayed at Oklahoma and Brissett flipped to Virginia, they moved on to Trevon Sidney and Josh Imatorbhebhe. They supplemented the OL with Richie Petitbon, supplemented the DL with Wole Betiku, supplemented the linebacking corps with Milo Eifler.
And then, of course, they went after a QB. I believe they checked every day to see if Khalil Tate put his name in the transfer portal. When that didn't happen, it was Tommy Stevens (MSU), Brandon Peters (Michigan), or Matt Fink (USC). Peters was the eventual transfer.
With that, I think they were happy with their starting 22. 16 returnees and 6 transfers. Along with that comfort came "let's keep these players on the field as much as possible". This was no longer an on-field audition, playing eight receivers and seeing who steps up. It's four receivers plus a series or two from the fifth guy. It's the five starting offensive linemen playing every snap. It's the back-seven of the defense playing nearly every starter every single snap (I think only the safeties rotated - pretty sure the starting corners and linebackers played every healthy snap except for Shammond Cooper for one play when Jake Hansen's helmet popped off).
Why wouldn't every team do this (play the best players as many plays as possible)? Because football is hard. Especially when it's 84 degrees and sunny. And when you only play your starters most of the game...
2. That's a big reason we laid down on EMU's final drive.
The defense came out strong in the second half. Made some adjustments, played much better. But on the drive after we cut it to 31-24, they looked gassed. I really don't know how EMU didn't get into field goal range. I remember them getting into Illinois territory quickly before stalling out (with Betiku forcing an early/bad throw on third down). They punt, we drive 93 yards (their defense was gassed too), tie game.
But then we just had nothing on their drive. No pressure, step slow in the secondary, suddenly they're at the four setting up for the winning field goal. Knife through butter.
My reaction 72 hours later: that's why you play more than 15 guys on defense. I mean, look, it's a trade-off. Every coach has a decision. If fatigue weren't a concern, he would play all 11 starters every single play. If he wants the freshest defense possible for the fourth quarter, he'd play all 40 defensive players the entire game. But when you play the backups, they're not as good, and you'll get burned. Of course, if you keep all 11 starters on the field, they'll get exhausted and wear down. So you have to find the perfect balance. Play the guys you can trust; keep the starters as fresh as possible.
The move this year has been to play the starters more. And I think we've seen some defensive improvement because of it (that and other things). But it's not the best for close games. Had that game gone to overtime, it would have probably been a two point conversion battle. I'm not sure either defense would have stopped an offense a single time.
Which, I should mention, is why they changed the overtime rules this year. There's this universal truth in football that defenses wear down before offenses, and recognizing that at a certain point, each offense is going to score a TD every single overtime period (the defenses have nothing left), the new rules state that after four overtimes, they'll eliminate the "each offense gets a drive from the 25 yard line" and just give both teams two point conversions.
I think that's what would have happened on Saturday had the EMU kicker biffed the field goal. 84 degrees, defenses dead, it would have come down to two point conversions (either go for two after the other team kicks and extra point in the first two overtimes or someone fails to convert in the third and fourth overtime or college football's first ever two-point conversion overtime battle under the new rule).
I guess I probably have to state a disclaimer here. This is not an excuse for why Illinois lost. Merely giving up 34 points (or scoring only 31) against Eastern Michigan is a mortal sin. I'm saying that our lay-down on the final drive was a function of the tighter player rotations.
Which is the trade-off, right? The good teams are talented AND deep. When the second string comes in, there's not much dropoff. Which means the coaches are more comfortable resting the starters. Which means the starters are rested and ready when it's tied 31-31 with 1:44 remaining.
It's more important on defense than offense, I think, but it's still helpful at the sprinting positions (WR, TE) to be deep. And we appear to have tightened things up considerably at all positions this season. That's good (better play) and bad (tired starters in close games).
I don't really have an answer here. I'm not really taking a side. I think I agree with the tighter player rotations (this is a coach that needs to win immediately and that's a way to get there, even if it limits snaps for underclassmen/future starters), but I fear for our close games this year. Just feels like we're going to be dead every fourth quarter.
And when that happens, you have to rely on your old friend "turnovers". And when the turnovers don't happen, well, you get what we saw on Saturday.
Great. Now I'm depressed again.