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
Penn State 5.5
Michigan State 4.8
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.