What It's Supposed To Look Like

Nov 22, 2020

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I'm writing a biweekly newsletter for Orange Tier and Seventeen Club subscribers now. And three weeks ago, that was the title of the newsletter: What It's Supposed To Look Like. I compared what we've seen from Indiana and (gross) Northwestern so far to what we've seen in Champaign. Those were the top three teams in the Big Ten in returning production. Northwestern took a leap. Indiana took a leap. Illinois took a massive step back.

As I do with those newsletters, I took a deep dive through the statistics to talk about the hows and whys of "it's not working". All of the categories that were supposed to be "wow - we took a big leap forward" were "wow, we took a big step back". A team that brings this much back should not lose at home to Minnesota by 27.

A team that brings this much back should beat Nebraska on the road by 18. And they should do it by winning all three phases - dominate yards and time-of-possession on offense, dominate the turnover battle on defense, and win the field position battle with your special teams.

Oh hey, look at that.

Let's just go line by line, because it's important.

  • More total yards
  • More passing yards
  • More rushing yards
  • Fewer penalties
  • Even on first downs
  • Better third down conversion percentage
  • Better fourth down conversion percentage
  • More yards per play
  • More yards per completion
  • More yards per rush
  • More sack-adjusted rushing yards
  • More scores in the redzone
  • Won the time-of-possession battle by 13 minutes (!!)
  • Won the turnover battle by five
  • Two fewer fumbles lost
  • More sacks
  • More TFL's.

The only statistic that Nebraska "won" was sack-adjusted rushing yards average per carry. But that's because our sacks took away so many "rushing" yards. Total and complete domination.

I can keep going. Here's another page from the stat feed in the pressbox:

Trying to find a place where Nebraska was the better team. I think it's only punt returns? We either let it bounce or fair-caught the punts. Nebraska did have 29 punt return yards. And because we let that one punt bounce, Nebraska's punter out-booted Blake Hayes 49 yards to 46 yards (average). But that might be it. Throw a dart at the chart and I'm pretty sure Illinois will be ahead. Average third down distance to go... total yards from sacks.... Illinois won every single category.

And that's what this season should look like. That's what I was hoping to see. That's what I was referencing in my big long "why is this not happening?" newsletter. We knew what it should look like, but it didn't look like anything.

Finally, something.

+ Let's just get to The Debate. I can already sense it playing out on Twitter and message boards right now.

In this corner, We Lost To Purdue And Minnesota Because We Had Eight Players Missing Due To Covid.

In the other corner, We Gave Up 997 Yards To Purdue And Minnesota - We Didn't Lose Because Of Covid.

For the first group, the main point being hammered I'm sure: 4th-string QB in both games. Well, 3rd string QB for a series, and then he got injured, and so it was the 4th string QB for the rest of the Purdue game and the entire Minnesota game. That's a very valid point - we were 15 yards away from 31-31 against Purdue with two minutes left when the drive stalled in the redzone. You have to think having Peters (or Williams) makes a difference in that game.

For the second group, I'm guessing the list of players out with Covid is the basic talking point. I shouldn't say "out with Covid" - it was two players out with Covid (Peters and Moore) and then the rest were contact tracing (McCourt, Kramer, Randolph, Cooper, Slaughter, Williams). There's only two defensive players there (Randolph and Cooper), and neither is a starter. So those 997 yards by Purdue and Minnesota had nothing to do with Covid. This is a Year Five defense, and a Year Five defense shouldn't give up 1,000 yards in two games.

Where do I stand? I need to think about it. My gut reaction here is the second group. The stats (and the NERDstats) have been so bad across the board that you can't just chalk it up to eight players out for Covid. There was an expectation for this season and those games fell well short.

But I did a radio thing before the game with an Omaha radio station, and before I went on, the host was taking a few shots at Wisconsin (at least that's how I heard them) when he said that Illinois could have canceled the Purdue game (like Wisconsin did with Nebraska) and no one would have batted an eye. Wisconsin had positive tests and they canceled two games. Maryland had positive tests and they canceled two games. No one would have thought twice had Illinois said "we have positives - shutting down for 10 days to get this under control". His point to his listeners: think of this as a 1-1 Illinois team you don't know much about. They could be good, they could be bad - you don't really know.

His warning proved correct. Most Nebraska fans expected to roll in this one and they, uh, didn't. And the point he made (had Illinois canceled those games to save face, you'd view them differently) has stuck with me all day. Not sure where I'll land with more thought, but... it's interesting to ponder.

+ Yeah, I think that was the right call at quarterback.

This was Brandon Peters' best game in college (Michigan or Illinois). 18-25, 205 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT. Plus 7 carries for 44 yards (and one sack for -8). In control, finding his targets, throwing it away when he had to, running to keep them honest.

And the targets thing is important. In the season preview I laid out the passing game as "Peters throwing to Bhebhe, Navarro, and Barker". Well, finally, this game was just that. 4/71 for Bhebhe, 5/58 for Navarro, 3/42 for Barker. That's what the passing game was/is supposed to look like.

Now, part of the reason it looked like that was a head-scratching Nebraska defense. This was a very talkative pressbox (let's be honest - I'm sitting with 40 Nebraska fans), and after the Bhebhe touchdown the discussion was "does Dicaprio Bootle even know the pass was thrown to his guy?". Nebraska's D would talk trash and then give up a big play and then talk trash and I was wondering if the Nebraska coaches were ever going to do something about it. Apparently not, since they were still trash-talking down 38-14. To Illinois.

So yes, Nebraska has a massive defensive problem on their hands. And that helps. But still - Peters was really solid in everything he did. Maybe you're like me and in the third quarter you had this "what's this feeling - supreme confidence in the QB?" reaction. Been a while since I said something like "not worried - Peters has this" about an Illini QB.


+ On repeat in my brain all night:

It happened directly below my pressbox view so that's why I immediately tweeted "SOMEONE GRAB A GIF OF THAT". From this angle it was one of those black ice wrecks where the tractor trailer crests the hill, hits the ice, and then just starts plowing through everything in its path. So fun to watch.

(Kendrick Green, not black ice pile-ups.)

+ I think I'll end with an "in my ears right now" moment.

In my ears right now: Pine Of The Appian Way. It's the fourth movement of Respighi's Pines Of Rome. The soldiers are returning to Rome after beating Macedonia 55-6 (and it wasn't even that close). The pines are swaying in the breeze and you hear this "thump - thump - thump - thump" of the legion as they approach, marching in unison.

I recommend watching the whole thing, but if you only watch part of it, start at 3:25. One minute after that, when Georges Pretre grabs his baton with both hands and starts rowing - in my personal opinion a conducting move which registers on the badass scale somewhere near "Zeppelin at Knebworth" - hang on and ride that wave all the way in.

The soldiers are coming home, having vanquished their foe, and it's time stand and cheer.


phytynlini on November 21, 2020 @ 06:58 PM

Your Phantom Regiment fetish is strong.

Robert on November 25, 2020 @ 07:20 AM

I don't know - Pine Of Rome makes me think of 1991 Star Of Indiana more than it makes me think of 1998 Regiment.

Efremwinters84 on November 21, 2020 @ 07:41 PM

Who would have ever believed how fruitful (and rewarding) these two long road trips would have been for you Robert. As a result, and in advance of the home game next Saturday against OSU, my mind is now meandering back to where it was prior to the Wisconsin opener........where I expected and predicted a tight game and a chance to actually win.

Tolkien73 on November 21, 2020 @ 07:44 PM

Would love to see more "What I'm listening to" from Robert. I like classical, but have no idea what is good and what is garbage.

Also, this year might not be a complete loss! Yay!

PowerGranger on November 21, 2020 @ 11:45 PM

Advice from someone who has been listening to classical music for 50 years: what you like= good.

Eagle on November 22, 2020 @ 11:13 PM

In the off-season when it’s slow, how about a classical for dummies feature?

illinisludge on November 21, 2020 @ 09:55 PM

Offense has found its identity. Must continue to run read option with Peters.

skibdaddy on November 21, 2020 @ 09:58 PM

The thing that stood out to me was the energy. Even on the opening kickoff we got a good tackle and we were jumping around and excited. That's the kind of start we haven't seen in a loooong time, and having that energy sustained throughout the game was the key.

MuckFichigan92 on November 22, 2020 @ 12:48 AM

What happens in the short and long terms after the team finishes 3-5? In the short term, i.e. 2020, I think OSU curb-stomps us next week after failing to cover vs. IU, which will cause them to lose ground to ND in the national standings. After that, the road team has benefited from this wuflu season. Iowa is a great example and sadly comes to town after OSU. BUT, with NW having locked up the B1G West prior to our season finale, I see us the victorious road dog in that contest. Long term? 2023 would be two years away. To avoid another Not Ideal contract, Smith's contract should either be extended or ended. Did no fannies in the seats chill any hot seat for Lovie? I figure once the wuflu is contained or dissipates, the HC market will be bonkers in 2022 after a CFB-wide Hold policy this season. Will we be shooting for, gag, an IU flare in year six, or going for a B-C guy (think Phil Jackson after Doug Collins with the Chicago Bulls) after Lovie's A-B?

ktcesw on November 22, 2020 @ 04:45 AM

Good article, Robert! Glad to see our OC mixing up his play calling, Saturday. The play itself doesn't always have to be successful. The fear of the play being called is what keeps a defense off balance. If one only shows it on third and long or, late in a game, it is easy to game plan around.

NC_OrangeKrush on November 22, 2020 @ 08:58 AM

neale stoner on November 22, 2020 @ 09:10 AM

Does the defense take the field believing they can win when the 4th string QB is starting? I think not. That’s where the “has Lovie lost this team” vibe started. He clearly has not. With Peters we beat Purdue. We could have ducked. But isn’t it really about giving the kids chances to play?

W.I.N.T. on November 23, 2020 @ 03:59 PM

This was so much fun to watch. Probably the most enjoyable Illini football game from start to end in years. Although to be honest, I don't think one great performance changes anything long term. This team is still likely going to finish 2-6. If this was truly a turning point I'll be thrilled to be wrong, but you still need to make a coaching change if you finish 2-6 in year 5.

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