Jul 13, 2020

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Here I am, writing a 90 Illini post on a lovely Sunday evening, perfectly content, and now after watching a 39-second Twitter video I'm in one of my "no no no no NO" moods. I don't know if you kids really understand what getting old is like, but somewhere around your mid-40's you just flip to "no no no no NO" all the time.

Here's my issue. I watched the Twitter video below - a fun little mashup with that famous Yellowstone reporter meme:

My issue isn't with the video. It's fun. I don't even have an issue with the Jeremy quote at the end of the video (that this will be the best Illini offensive line since 2010) - it should be. My issue lies with that PFF stat (when averaging the PFF score for all returning Big Ten offensive linemen, the Illini returnees average a higher score than any other Big Ten team) and what it means for last season.

First, the PFF stat. As you know, I'm a big believer in what they do. Watch every player every play and rate each individual player on how they performed that play. It takes a massive network of analysts - just think of the time involved watching the entire Illini-Wisconsin game and just watching Palcho every pay, and then watching every offensive series and just watching Vederian Lowe, and then watching every series focused on Kendrick Green, and so on and so on and so on.

I'm no football expert, but I've done this for critical Illini drives in the past and let me tell you, you can learn so much. As in "oh wow, we put in the backup right guard for that series and he got beat on 3 of the 7 plays and was personally responsible for the drive-ending sack". Even the most casual fan could accurately rate a roster using this methodology - it would just take 30 hours to analyze the offense in the first half. It's pretty easy to rate when a wide receiver completely whiffs on a block or when a safety bites on play action.

All of that to say that I believe in PFF's numbers. I do think the Illini offensive linemen are underrated nationally. Individually, when you watch practice and just spot shadow them (the only way to watch practice), they stick out in a good way. Much better than the offensive linemen of the past 4-6 years. Watch tape of a 2013 practice and watch tape of a 2019 practice and you're going to like the 2019 OL a whole lot more.


This was a really bad offense last year. Especially in the run game. The numbers fell dramatically from 2018 to 2019 with the same tailbacks returning and four of the five offensive linemen returning. Let's go through some of the yardage statistics. From 2018 to 2019...

Total Offense - fell from 62nd nationally (408.7 ypg) to 115th (329.5 ypg)
Rushing Offense - fell from 12th nationally (243.0 ypg) to 87th (144.2 ypg)
Sacks Allowed - fell from 67th nationally (2.25 per game) to 117th (3.0 per game)

The offense falls to 115th (out of 130 teams) in yards and 12th to 87th in rushing yards. The OL falls to 117th in sacks allowed. Every indicator that points to OL performance fell off significantly. So then... PFF was wrong about their 2019 scores for each lineman? I don't think so. MY COLUMN:

First off, yes, there was one big change: as I recall, the highest-rated OL (PFF-wise) on the 2018 Illini offensive line was Nick Allegretti. As I recall, the lowest-rated OL (PFF-wise) on the 2019 Illini offensive line was Richie Petitbon. So you can see how the numbers will drop a bit. Allegretti was a big part of the 2018 offense.

As was AJ Bush. Having a running QB is obviously going to boost the rushing numbers. A lot of that 12th-to-87th stuff had to do with Bush being replaced by Peters. Passing numbers didn't improve all that much (from 165 ypg to 185 ypg), but the structure of how the offense went about its business is part of this.

But it's not all of it. And that's what has me bothered this evening. Again - and I want to re-emphasize this - I don't have a problem with the Twitter account for Illini football promoting a rating given by PFF. I'm fine with taking something positive and making a fun video from it. My issue is the glaring thing it's pointing to:

If you have great individual play and bad team results, look directly at the coaching.

Again, from watching these players myself, I can see how PFF's analysts can watch Illini games and give Doug Kramer and Kendrick Green very high scores. If the issue is "did this guy win his one-on-one battle that play?", yes, I can see these guys winning those battles. Petitbon struggled at times (always tough to be The New Guy on an established offensive line), but I can see how the four returnees graded highly. That's what they do when I spot-shadow them.

So if the players are doing their job and the offense ranks 115th in yards - if an unbaised analyst can say "hey, these players are pretty good" and yet you fall to 87th in rushing yards - then we've entered "Ron Zook had 7 future NFL draft picks and the defense ranked 111th" territory.

Because there was one other change from 2018 to 2019: Luke Butkus left and Bob McClain became the offensive line coach. Yes, the OL coach shares "teach these players how to run this offense" duties with the offensive coordinator, so Rod Smith is part of this, but really, for me, this whole thing boils down to this:

Offense is 12th nationally. Reggie Corbin rushes for more than 1,000 yards. Corbin returns, Dre Brown returns, 4 of 5 offensive linemen return, and the offense falls apart with the only real changes being a new QB and a new offensive line coach. The players still perform well - when graded on one-on-one battles, four of the five linemen grade highly - but the offense is a mess, finishing 115th out of 130 teams in total yards.

I want to emphasize it one more time so you can get a clear picture of what's bothering me. PFF grades the OL highly. We promote that in this little video. Yet when I see that video, all I can think is "does everyone understand what an indictment this is on the offensive coaching?". If you have Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown, and you have the release valve of Peters to Bhebhe, and you have a talented offensive line, and you finish 115th (92nd if you want to use SP+ offensive ratings), is it not one giant flashing arrow above the head of the OL coach (and possibly the OC)?

I need to take a break from writing this. I'm getting all fired up.

(I kid you not - I check Twitter during my break and Bob McClain has retweeted the video while hashtagging "OL pride" and "trenchwork". I'm trying to be as fair as I can here, but Bob McClain is paid $310,000 to put all the pieces together and him bragging about this really bothers me. If you really do have the highest rated linemen in the Big Ten and you coached those linemen to be 87th in rushing yards and 117th in sacks allowed, I would suggest staying quiet about how talented they are individually.)

Look, I expect this OL to put it all together this season. I'm not even disagreeing with PFF or the premise of the video. I'm sure I have some tweets out there saying "with Jeresaty, this 2020 OL could be really good". I'm all about seniors, and this OL has four seniors (while last year only had one). I'm 100% here for Bob McClain shoving this article in my face after the season.

But is it not weird that everyone is celebrating that video while no one remembers this?

Yards Per Play, Big Ten Teams, 2019 season:

Ohio State 7.0
Minnesota 6.8
Wisconsin 6.3
Michigan 6.0
Indiana 5.9
Nebraska 5.6
Penn State 5.5
Purdue 5.3
Iowa 5.2
Michigan State 4.8
Maryland 4.8
Illinois 4.6
Northwestern 3.9
Rutgers 3.6

Like, imagine a Twitter video like that on July 12th last summer touting the defense. The defense that had finished the 2018 season 115th in SP+. Wouldn't everyone have been a little "um...."? Did the bowl make us forget that the offense took a huge step back?

I guess that's the specific thing that bothers me. Using the eye test, the offense was solid. Peters was careful with the ball and had a solid TD to INT ratio, Bhebhe was a revelation, we're really glad Dre Brown stuck around after five knee surgeries. The pieces were there. Lord knows the Illini fanbase can get testy when the pieces aren't there, especially at quarterback.

But the numbers were bad. To me, we had a humpty dumpty scenario where nobody could put the pieces together. Yes, there were injuries, and by the Northwestern game, we had 9 injured wide receivers. But still, that should have meant we dropped from 6th to 8th in the Big Ten in yards per play. There was no reason, with those skill players and this offensive line, to be 12th.

I guess this doesn't really matter. I've been saying all offseason that if we have a season, it should be the easiest season in a decade to be a fan. The coach has been given five full years to tear it down and rebuild it and now the sign is in the yard and there's an open house on Saturday. Either the people love it and it sells or everyone hates it and the builder doesn't get to build a second home.

So in that sense, it's easy for Bob McClain (and Rod Smith). Do what the defense did last season. The defense jumped from 115th in SP+ in 2018 to 54th in 2019. That's why we went to a bowl game. So now the offense must do the same.

Because the pieces are there.


IBFan on July 12, 2020 @ 10:31 PM

What? You watched a hype video that promotes some meaningless stat and not only are you worried about it you want to attack the OL coach and the OC? What about the RB coach, players evidently forgot how to run. WR coach, they weren’t blocking, got hurt because weren’t properly put through drills. Dieticians, SC coach. Did we check the shoes? Illinois did not have the best line, regardless of stats. AJ Bush made a hell of a difference in the run game. Attacking these coaches is lame because this stat says that stat should be better because of that other stat on another team but Zook stats are better than Weber’s recruits. Trying to insinuate that the OL can’t or the OC forgot how to coach is a huge stretch. Thousands of variables to a team’s season. I like our Oline a lot, nice to see some dumb upbeat video, just a little fun. How many Illini fans got upset about the stats or video? 1 out of every 1000. Stat IBfan released today.

trotterisaac on July 12, 2020 @ 11:59 PM

I agree with a ton of stuff in here. But I think the offensive woes have a lot less to do with the offensive line and more to do with the personnel around them. Daniel Barker and Reggie Corbin have their strengths. But they’re both very poor pass-blockers. Justice Williams switched to TE and he wasn’t a great blocker either –– although he tried admirably. And Brandon Peters held onto the ball far too long and refused to throw it away when the pocket broke down. Peters was uncomfortable using his legs at times early in the season too. A lot of those sacks were not on the returning offensive linemen. Often, you'd see a play blocked absolutely perfectly, except a TE would miss the block and then Corbin/Brown are getting smashed for a small gain. Hence, why the OL's PFF numbers are high.

I’m not sold on Bob McClain either. I think Luke Butkus was the more experienced OL coach and the loss of Allegretti was monstrous. But I don’t think the OL should bear the blame for the offense’s regression. The home run carries by Bush and Corbin in 2018 made the rushing numbers look a little bit better than they probably should’ve been. And the numbers in 2019 would’ve been much more reasonable had Corbin busted off a few more of those home runs. Except he didn’t (a few got called back by dumb holding penalties). I’d expect the offense’s overall numbers to look much better in 2020. But if they don’t, then it’s absolutely time to question the coaching.

MinnIllini on July 13, 2020 @ 07:04 AM

This is why I subscribe. Maybe the best article you have ever written Robert! I’ve been preaching the same to Illini fans all offseason - much to their chagrin. And then ITrotts comes in with some great counter points! Now I’m not sure what to think. I’m gonna be thinking about this all day. Great job gentleman!

Brave Illini on July 13, 2020 @ 08:33 AM

I may be missing something, so please excuse me if I did. But isn't it plausible that the high grading of offensive linemen is because of the o-line coach? At least in part?

Robert on July 13, 2020 @ 03:30 PM

That's probably true. They're graded on how they do in certain situations - one-on-one pass rush, run blocking, etc - and if their technique is good, they'll grade highly. So yes, maybe the spotlight is a little less on Bob McClain and a little more on Rod Smith.

Bottom line - they need to do what the defensive staff did last season: take the horrific numbers from the season before and make them more than respectable.

thumpasaurus on July 13, 2020 @ 08:44 AM

I think a big part of the regression is simply how much of a running threat Bush was, because he could gain yards even when the defense accounted for him. I worried that the run game would regress a lot from a raw numbers standpoint, because Peters simply wouldn’t be able to provide the same threat that Bush did, taking defenders out of the play.

The pass blocking was never good, but we made up for that in 2018 by not passing unless absolutely necessary.

This was always my concern with Peters. Undeniably talented, but has a skill set that wasn’t fully compatible with the system he walked into.

Of course, coaching is also a factor, and you’d expect improvement in an area if coaching were a net positive. I was worried about losing Butkus, especially after he was replaced from within.

Nashvegas Illini on July 13, 2020 @ 10:04 AM

I love this article. The question is why was offense bad last season? Was it OL play? I agree with everyone here that they were above average group. Was the running backs horrible. No, but they (as in Corbin) was bad early. How about QB. People forget that right about now is when Brandon Peter signed with Illinois. I give Robert credit in he called the early struggles of the offense.

What about this year? NO EXCUSES. This is the type of team that I want to play 10 Big Ten games. Senior OL. Senior QB, big time skill talent.

Can this OC coach? We're about to find out? But I have high expectations of this group.

Chukwuwumba on July 13, 2020 @ 01:59 PM

Good article. Gets everyone thinking. Adding Ford will improve blocking from TE position. This will help a lot in run game, obviously. Can also play barker slot/split and he probably is better than a WR at that spot; plus another offseason. Reggie seemed to be a subpar blocker, but shouldn’t have been in that position. But, a lot does have to do with play calling and scheme. Excerpts from Joe Brady are really interesting. Don’t know the source article. RBs are there to be dynamic, not pass block.

I see it as having options. Short and long routes depending how defense reacts.

ballislife17 on July 13, 2020 @ 02:00 PM

This was a very entertaining read, and I felt super amped up reading it last night and wanted to fight the good fight alongside Robert. After sleeping on it however, I think it is kind of insane.

I mean it is totally fine to have criticisms regarding the offense, and I think all of them are valid.

HOWEVER, Robert seems genuinely annoyed at Bob McClain for RT'ing a tweet? (Bringing up his salary and calling it bragging) One that promotes and shows his players in a good light? The point is not lost on me that could mean he's a bad coach, but I don't think we need to overthink the RT more than it's a coach celebrating the success of his players like 99% of coaches would do in a similar situation. I think Rod Smith knows where his offense ranked last year but we don't need to get up in arms because of this RT. There's 100 reasons to RT other than bragging, for example it helps our recruiting sell to have that going around on Twitter. Think of how many HS coaches and parents will see it.

Robert on July 13, 2020 @ 02:24 PM

That's fair.

I'll just note that in terms of public statements, Twitter or otherwise, I am 100% team "speak apologetically whenever possible". If my offensive line was rated that highly yet we were 115th in total offense and 117th in sacks allowed, my only statement would be something like "we're not anywhere close to where we need to be. Until the rushing and pass protection statistics match these ratings, we will celebrate nothing. We aren't anywhere close to accomplishing our goals."

ballislife17 on July 13, 2020 @ 03:31 PM

Thanks for the response. I think that's fair. There's probably a middle ground of the coach taking ownership while still celebrating good things his players have done.

iluvrt on July 13, 2020 @ 02:23 PM

I did not know our offense ranked that low last season. Very informed am I. One thing that will be better is Peters legs. He hardly ran the first half of the season, but he looked good in the Iowa game and others in the second half. Also, it's great to rate guys individually and add the scores up, but what about how the line works as a unit? Shouldn't that fit into the score? I assume our line was a good unit last year, but I don't really know.

Robert on July 13, 2020 @ 02:26 PM

Here's the Bill Connelly chart. Pretty much the least-efficient offense in the Power Five.

enter image description here

IBFan on July 13, 2020 @ 04:01 PM

This is not “fact”. This is again stats on stats that someone created that describes a narrative to fit ideas and values they deem important.
Anybody could see the run game regressed last year just by watching the games. You can tell the defense played better. Special teams were better. Overall athleticism of the team improved. Wins matter. No matter what stats anyone uses the efficiency number (quack stat) is not relative to all of power 5. Offenses in the big12 and pac12 are not the same as SEC or Big10. Yes, Illinois missed Nick and AJ. Peters took a minute to get acclimated. Players were dinged up or out. By the end of the year our WRs were obliterated, Epstein out, and Kramer out. Fully healthy across the board do we score 60 on NW? How much better are our average “stats” then? Too many variables. Team had a good year, they can get better. No need to attack players or any coaches because some geek wants be the next Money Ball Guy. Btw-Saw the replay of the Nebraska game. What a travesty the officiating was that game.
Btw2-Was happy to see Mike and the guys do well in the cash tourney. I don’t know if it’s something you might touch on.

ppbob on July 16, 2020 @ 07:24 PM

Spot on, Robert. In addition to recruiting, you judge a coached by how much of a units potential is achieved by them. In the OL I've found the best way to evaluate is those second level blocks and short yardage situations. When you've got a first down at the 5 and don't get it in for a TD, you're just not that good. Please note that working together effectively is perhaps more important for an OL than just about any other position. A modestly talented OL that makes few mistakes and and is extremely sound in technique will typically outperform sloppy and confused future NFLers. I hope Jeresaty, who fits into the latter category, can bring some of that to the OL next year.

Don't give too much credit to the coaches for the 2018 rushing success. A lot of the yardage gained was from AJ Bush taking advantage of broken plays where he knew he couldn't execute the pass so he took off in the chaos and made a big gain. "Planned QB runs" didn't seem to work that well.

BTW, I was VERY disappointed Lovie couldn't recruit former Illini and Bear Coach Harry Hiestand. IMHO, he was the best OL coach we had in the last few decades.

I'm just curious, Robert. Who do you and the other posters consider the best Illini OL Coach in modern times?

It would be interesting to have a article debating the point of best position coaches and coordinators on this board and comparing them with what Lovie has hired...

orangem on July 16, 2020 @ 11:09 PM

Wr and Corbin injuries made a huge difference. Corbin was not even close to the same player last year as 2018. I am hopeful we do have the talent around this OL this year, not convinced we really had it in 2019.

qwetz29 on October 21, 2020 @ 01:18 AM

Obviously I am very late to the party here, I'm going through the stuff from the summer. One thing I take issue with: I don't think the offensive line should be blamed very much for the terrible sack rate. That may sound crazy, but research shows that sacks are mostly a QB stat. Obviously protection plays a role, but a QB's ability to move around in the pocket, escape when necessary, and get the ball out in time is far more important. I haven't actually read anything specific to college football about this, but essentially, when NFL teams change quarterbacks, their sack rates also change. But when quarterbacks change teams, the sack rates are pretty stable. All this to say that I think much of the blame falls on Peters (along with Rod Smith). And I think this lines up with the eye test too; Brandon Peters pocket presence was uh, not great last year.

Here's an article on it:

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