0-3 Mailbag I

Nov 9, 2020

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This will be the last post I write outside this year. It has to be. The record high for November 9th is 75. It's supposed to be 79 today. I'm gonna have to mow the lawn because I'm pretty sure the grass started growing again. There's an owl in that tree over there - cool. Oh, and our football team sucks. Let's talk about it.

Could not embed tweet.

I've heard this a lot in the last 36 hours: "You shouldn't be surprised by this". A few thoughts.

I'll start with some of the stuff I wrote Saturday night: I intentionally err on the side of hope. Part of that is personality, part of that is by choice. I'll try to explain that by dancing around politics.

I'm sure you all have friends who, in the last three months, quote-tweeted one of the two presidential candidates. Trump or Biden would tweet something, your friend disagreed with that something, and so your friend would put a "you, sir, have not earned the right to speak about..." statement above the tweet and blast it out.

As long as I live I will never understand someone doing something like that. Even media types. I cannot ever imagine myself being so certain in the information I've learned about a particular topic that I would feel comfortable "telling" a presidential candidate they're wrong. I mean, I have my opinions, and you have your opinions, but none of us really know if we're "right". That's just, like, your opinion, man.

It's the same with sports. There's so much certainty and I just don't understand. I like to share my opinions, obviously - "I wish we would have spied the QB there because it just felt like they were setting up a delayed QB draw" and such - but I'm surprised at the certainty these days. We've made the switch from "why isn't the backup QB playing?" to "a single-high safety against this RPO look is high treason" and I don't understand. If handed the telestrator pen in the Illinois coaches film session and asked to explain how we would have attacked Minnesota's offense differently, all of us would get laughed out of the room due to our lack of basic schematic knowledge - laughed out of the room by what looks to be the worst coaching staff in the Big Ten. (And if you wouldn't get laughed out of the room and think you could hang in a college football film session, why are you at the job you're at? Bob McClain makes $380,000 per year). So I always push myself way, way, WAY over there in the direction of "here's what I think but I'm just some guy on his couch with no real schematic knowledge or understanding".

Because of that, I am fully aware that my cries for Deuce Spann on Saturday were, for the most part, the rantings of a fool who does not understand football to 1/10th the level that Rod Smith does. I've questioned Bob McClain's employment for two years now but if asked to debate Bob McClain for a football roundtable, he would send me under the podium crying. I don't ever want to lose sight of the fact that armchair anything is bound to be heavy on emotion and very light on actual knowledge and understanding of the sport.

So when you ask "how are you so shook by us sucking?", that's mostly why, I think. I work under the assumption that I know very little about the topic I'm covering (because I don't). I generally keep my opinions to which players I think should play and where recruits land on a scale of 0.5 to 5.0. For almost everything else, as you know, I just work on comps. I study the subject, look for what worked in the past for others and what didn't, and share the results.

And 4-5 in the Big Ten one year + third in the conference in returning production + a returning QB, his receivers, his offensive line = an equal or better conference record the next year (meep moop morp) 81% of the time.

That's why I'm shook. If we go 0-9 (and we honestly might go 0-9), I'm guessing that "4-5 one year, return most everyone including QB, 0-9 the next year" has never happened. It's, like, a 1-in-200 chance. The coaching and roster development of that team would have to be so historically bad.

First off, I'll just cover my personal rule: I won't shortlist while the current guy has his job. I find it untoward. I have all of these weird personal rules (I'll never put a political sign in my yard, I won't use my cell phone if the sign says "please no cell phone use in our waiting room" even though everyone else is on their phone), so it's not you, it's me.

So my answer to "when will you..." is "after this coach is fired or retires". If and when that happens, I'll let Detlef publish his shortlist (God help us) and start the research myself.

As to the second question, as covered above, I don't have many thoughts on that besides high level "this isn't how I thought we'd be trying to attack Minnesota". I rely on Craig for that stuff (he understands it, I don't), and I thought he said it pretty well here. He put my pressbox feelings into football words in those two tweets. Minnesota showed a lot of defensive weaknesses the first two games, especially on the edges, and in the first quarter, it didn't seem like we were attacking those edges. Maybe we were and we just couldn't get to them, and I'm sure the quarterback going 6 for 17 has a lot to do with it (why would they even respect the pass?), but I had an idea of what the offense would look like (mostly from Craig's scout) and... that wasn't it.

Everyone knows my answer here. There is no defensive scheme that "doesn't work".

I'll talk about it in offensive terms because I think that's easier for people to understand when looking across the college football landscape. Army is over here running the flexbone triple option. Mississippi State just flipped to the Air Raid and had -22 yards rushing in a win on Saturday. Purdue runs this and Wisconsin runs that. There's a hundred different ways to move the ball. Some of them work, and some of them don't, and the success/failure is a little on the scheme itself and a lot on the implementation.

It's the same on defense, albeit more standardized. 4-3 here and 3-4 there. Some teams do crazy experiments like Iowa State's 3-3-5. Some drop the weakside defensive end into pass coverage so they can send a rusher from elsewhere. Some schemes have two "middle" linebackers and then only linemen and DB's on the field; other schemes have four linebackers on the field at all times.

All of them "work". I know that "Lovie's scheme is old and boring and it doesn't work" is the most popular way to contextualize everything right now, but I don't buy it. It might very well be true that given the offenses we face on a regular basis, going back to three linebackers and abandoning the nickel was a very bad decision. But the "this isn't working" part, for me, still comes down to implementation (which includes gameplanning). It's not that the scheme "doesn't work" - it's that through three games, they haven't been able to make it work. It's a combination of talent plus technique plus playcalling plus execution.

An example: Vic Koenning's scheme worked here really well. In his final year here (2011) the defense was 13th nationally (SP+). He then went to North Carolina. In his final year there (2014), the defense was 108th nationally (SP+) and he was fired. I'm sure there were tons of North Carolina fans saying "why do we insist on staying with a defensive scheme that obviously doesn't work". Scheme was fine (because most all schemes are "fine"). Implementation was bad so he lost his job.

So with the right combination of talent + coaching + gameplanning, I believe this defensive scheme would work. I think it's flexible enough to adjust to modern offenses and throw different looks at different opponents. It's simply not working, and there's no issues with youth and inexperience anymore, so you have to look squarely at the talent, coaching, and playcalling/gameplanning. This same talent was pretty good last year (they didn't light the world on fire, but #54 in SP+ defense), so really, with all this experience coming back, all of the focus this season (for me) is on the coaching and playcalling, not the scheme.

That's not 100% - there's still talent issues and yes, the scheme is intentionally soft at times - but if we're ranking the issues with the 2020 defense through three games, I'm going with this:

  1. Playcalling/gameplanning (getting ready for what you know Minnesota is going to do)
  2. Coaching (technique + building a second nature read-and-react machine)
  3. Talent (recruiting, mostly)
  4. Scheme (because I'm an "every scheme can work" guy)

There are several ways to look at all of that, and yes, if you have Ohio State's talent it makes the other categories mostly pointless, but for this defense, this year, with this level of experience and last year's statistics, that's how I'd rank it. 19 out of 20 coaches could figure something out with last year's defensive numbers + the number of 2020 returning starters (several of them 4-year starters).

Could not embed tweet.

There's no question here. I just wanted you all to see Tom's joke.

I mean, you really don't want my answer to this.

How? Well, patience.

Indiana was Kansas-level bad in 2011, Kevin Wilson's first season. 1-11 (0-8). After four years under Wilson, still no bowl, and in year four they had stepped back from 5-7 in year three to 4-8 (1-7) in year four. Wilson kept his job for a fifth year chance at bowling and barely got over the line, finishing 6-6 with four soft non-con wins plus 2-6 in the Big Ten. BUT, Indiana was bowling for the first time since 2007.

Wilson came back for a sixth year in 2016 and got back to 6-6 again, this time with a 4-5 Big Ten record. And that 4-5 record was mostly due to a defensive resurgence under first year defensive coordinator Tom Allen. After that season, with the Indiana AD still dealing with complaints about Wilson's player treatment, he (very smartly, it turns out) pivoted to Allen as the head coach and fired Wilson for the off-the-field issues. All of the structure that was being built remained, and the schemes were kept the same, and almost all of the coaches remained, but they pivoted to a different guy in charge. The idea was to take what Wilson had built - it wasn't much (he was 26-47 at Indiana), but it wasn't Kansas anymore - and then keep going with the same staff plus a different man in charge. That would keep the recruiting class together, it would prevent transfers - just keep swimming just keep swimming.

The first two years of Allen didn't go well. In fact, he didn't beat anyone of significance. Three non-conference wins each year and then 2-7 in the Big Ten. Those Big Ten wins: Illinois and Rutgers in 2017 and then Rutgers and Maryland in 2018. If Wilson built it from 1 to 4 and Allen was supposed to take over at 4 and get it to 7, it wasn't happening.

But then in his third year, a breakout moment. After five rather meaningless wins (Ball State, Eastern Illinois, UConn, Rutgers, Maryland), Indiana won at Nebraska to get bowl eligible in October. They also beat Northwestern and Purdue to get to eight wins. And the NERDstats followed, showing Indiana as a fringe top-25 team. This year, 11th in Returning Production coming off a bowl season, 3-0 start, top-10 ranking.

Now, that ranking is probably a bit inflated. Here's the eight teams Indiana beat last year:

5-7 Ball State
1-11 Eastern Illinois
2-10 UConn
2-10 Rutgers
3-9 Maryland
5-7 Nebraska
3-9 Northwestern
4-8 Purdue

This year they won a 5% Postgame Win Expectancy game over Penn State (total yards were 488-211 in favor of Penn State) and then knocked off Rutgers and Michigan to move into the top-10. But if we look at everyone's records (Michigan 1-2, Rutgers 1-2, Penn State 0-3), uh, they kinda still haven't beaten a team with a winning record (that will almost certainly change soon).

OK, now I need to see how far this goes. Going by conference games, in 2018 they only beat Rutgers and Maryland and neither had a winning record. In 2017 they beat us (we were 2-10) and Rutgers. So I know Allen has never beaten a Big Ten team that went to a bowl (crazy, right?). Their non-con opponents... OK, I found the last team with a winning record they beat: Indiana 20, Virginia 16 in 2018. Wonder if there are any Indiana bloggers all over this with "uh, guys, we still haven't beaten a 'good' team yet".

Anyway, that's not the point. The point is that Indiana was {motions hands} way over there and now they're here. They might be a bit of a fraud as a top-10 team but they've gone from there to here while we haven't. We're still {motions hands further} there.

How did they do that? Basically a ten year plan. Didn't fire Wilson after four losing seasons and gave him a shot in his fifth year. Wilson had back-to-back six win seasons and then, with investigations swirling, they pivoted to a coordinator who had produced big improvements on the defensive side in his one season. They then endured a 4-14 start in the Big Ten from Allen with eyes on what he could do once he had everything tweaked the way he wanted it.

That pivot was probably the best move of them all. They could have fired Wilson and his staff and hired a new coach, but they wanted to keep things together. I went and looked up some of the details and found the following paragraph from this article on the IU blog Crimson Quarry the day Allen was promoted to head coach:

That's what this hire was about -- building on what the program is today, keeping guys on board, and making sure that Indiana football never returns to a level where losing is perpetual and the Big Ten basement feels like home again. And it's hard to imagine that a guy as talented and as infectious as Tom Allen won't get that done.

So there you go. 2011: 1-11. 2020: ranked #10. How? A really freaking long process.


detlef on November 9, 2020 @ 09:06 PM

You always have a short list not just to replace a fired coach but if coach leaves, dies, gets into trouble off field....that was a Guenther rule that makes sense.

whsieh1966@yahoo.com on November 9, 2020 @ 09:19 PM

So I get we haven't played well overall, but if you said before the season that we'd be playing our 4th string quarterback, how many games would you think we'd have won? I'd have bet zero....who wins games with their fourth strinq quarterback other than the big boys?

The Olaf Rules on November 9, 2020 @ 09:42 PM

The fourth string quarterback is probably the fourth or fifth problem down the list right now.

Duce20 on November 10, 2020 @ 01:32 PM

The 2nd and 3rd stringers aren’t any better. It’s year 5 and the coach hasn’t recruited 1 competent D1 QB.

IlliniOrphan on November 10, 2020 @ 03:39 AM

Robert, I think it is only fair that I tell you the truth. It's my fault. When Peters hit Barker in the back of the end zone, I jumped up and put 2 fists through the ceiling tiles of my basement. To memorialize this "turning point", the tile has not been replaced yet Illinois hasnt won since. Perhaps it is the tile that's the problem. I need a consortium of the Seventeen to weigh in.

twilson77@comcast.net on November 10, 2020 @ 01:56 PM

***You already know the answer: PLEASE change your tiles!***strong text

SactownIllini on November 10, 2020 @ 06:41 PM

Might as well leave the holes. At least they can remind you of that awesome moment in time. It may be a long while before we feel that again (in football). Hopefully basketball wins a Natty and you can put more holes in your ceiling tiles.

Douglascountyillinifan on November 10, 2020 @ 09:17 PM

I did this very thing in the locker room lounge on West Springfield when Nick Anderson hit the shot against IU. :-) Home on leave from the Navy and watching the game with my pa. How i wish I couldn't watch one more game with him, even if we stink. Thanks for the memory, Orphan.

CapitalCityOutlaw50 on November 11, 2020 @ 05:24 PM

I still have a hole in my wall from the two criminal PI calls that gave JoePa the coaching record. What was that 2011? I don't ever want to forget how criminal the B1G officiating clown show was, is, and always will be.

DiscoStu on November 10, 2020 @ 08:46 PM

That's just, like, your opinion, man.

That is from The Big Lebowski.

tgb on November 10, 2020 @ 09:10 PM

My kids are starting to question my sanity after many years of season tickets, and asking them and my grandkids to accompany me to at least one game each year. My oldest son missed a short putt for a birdie the other day, and blamed it on the football team. I probably don't have enough time t for a long rebuild, and would like to know if you were the AD, what would your next step be?

CapitalCityOutlaw50 on November 11, 2020 @ 05:20 PM

There is, however, a defensive scheme that doesnt work "without Brian Urlacher and Derrick Brooks..."

mrmill on November 14, 2020 @ 05:39 AM

Agree with everything but the point about not second guessing coaches. They aren’t the smartest guys in the room. Good for Bob McLain that he makes $380k, but he’s never made that before and he’ll never make it again.

And Lovie has never figured out clock management or TOs in 30 years of coaching.

Sure - they might know schemes a bit better than the common fan - but these guys have not earned any sort of benefit of the doubt.

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