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November 19th, 2011. We're playing Wisconsin at home. This would be Ron Zook's second to last game as head coach. We started the season 6-0 and were ranked as high as 16th, but then we lost four in a row to fall to 6-4. The fourth loss we just talked about a few weeks ago. It was the game at Penn State where we led most of the game, Penn State drove the length of the field to take a 10-7 lead with a minute to go, we still got into field goal range with a few seconds left, but Dimke hit the upright and Penn State won.
We then returned to Champaign to take on #17 Wisconsin (coached by some guy named Bret Bielema). And for the first half, we looked like the team from the first half of the season. Just like this game today, we took a 14-0 lead in the second quarter.
Actually, the parallels don't stop there. Tell me if this sounds familiar:
- The game was on ESPN2.
- Wisconsin had the lead in the Leaders Division (this was before East/West) and controlled their own destiny in hoping to reach the first-ever Big Ten Championship Game.
- The Illinois defense was (surprisingly) keeping the run game in check.
- Illinois jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the second quarter and the crowd was stunned.
Let me just take you through what happened after that:
November 19, 2011: A Wisconsin punt pinned Illinois at the 5. After a three-and-out, the Illini had to punt from the goal line and Justin DuVernois dropped the snap. He wasn't able to get a kick off and Wisconsin took over at the two. They punched it in for a two yard TD drive.
November 6, 2021: A Minnesota punt pinned Illinois at the 9. After a three-and-out, the Illini had to punt from the goal line and Blake Hayes boomed a punt to the Minnesota 38. They were unable to put a scoring drive together.
November 19, 2011: With Illinois leading 17-7 in the third quarter, Darius Millines fumbled at the Illini 30. Wisconsin took over and drove 30 yards for the touchdown, cutting the Illinois lead to 17-14.
November 6, 2021: With Illinois leading 14-0 in the third quarter, no receivers fumbled in their own territory. Almost all play calls on the Illinois end of the field were ultra-conservative to take the backbreaking turnovers off the table.
November 19, 2011: Wisconsin had to punt from their own 23. Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman is standing on his own 8 yard line. The coaches align punt returner Terry Hawthorne way too close to the 50 for a punt that's going to have some wind behind it and the punt sails well over Hawthorne's head. It bounces and bounces and bounces and ends up at the Illini 3. Punter standing on his own 8 - next drive starts at the other 3. Insanity. A blogger in the stands that day cannot understand why no one understands the wind in Memorial Stadium:
Hard to believe that in 7 years this coaching staff has never coached the wind. It should be a huge advantage for us - it's there every game— Robert Rosenthal (@ALionEye) November 19, 2011
November 6, 2021: Donny Navarro calmly calls for fair catches.
November 19, 2011: After this drive which started at the 3, Illinois went 3-and-out. After the dropped snap earlier in the game, Zook benched Justin DuVernois and asked wide receiver Ryan Lankford to be the punter. Lankford punts from his own endzone and Wisconsin takes over at the Illinois 44 late in the third quarter. Wisconsin goes 44 yards in four plays with Russell Wilson scoring on a one yard run. Wisconsin now leads 21-17.
November 6, 2021: Illinois put together a decent, time-chewing drive in the third quarter. A sack ended this drive, and Illinois had to punt. A great punt from Blake Hayes meant that Minnesota was pinned at their own 11. They assembled a decent drive after that - 15 plays for 60 yards - but because they were starting at their 11, they only made it to the 22 before an Owen Carney sack on fourth down ended the drive. No points, yet again.
November 19, 2011: Now the Illini trail for the first time. It's the fourth quarter, and the Illini are going to need a touchdown drive. But the Illini throw a dangerous pass in their own territory and it's picked off by Aaron Henry (you know, the current Illini cornerbacks coach). Wisconsin is once again is starting a drive in Illinois territory, this time at the 39. Monte Ball scores from 17 yards out at the end of this drive and now Wisconsin, once trailing 14-0 (and 17-7 at halftime), is leading 28-17. That would be the final score.
November 6, 2021: The Illini never trail. They never turn the ball over. They don't throw any dangerous passes in their own end. They grind clock, play field position, and pin Minnesota at the two with the final punt. A Minnesota desperation heave is picked off by Kerby Joseph and the Illini win 14-6 over a team that was just labeled the 20th-best team in the country by the CFP Committee on Tuesday.
If you were frustrated by all the conservative playcalling after the Illini grabbed a 14-0 lead, this is why. If you were yelling at your TV when Illinois went 3-and-out twice at the end of the second quarter with six ultra-conservative play calls, this is why. With the defense playing well (just like 2011) and the offense pushing the game out to a 14-0 lead (just like 2011), the game entered "the only way we lose is if we hand them the ball in our own territory" territory. Almost every decision in the final 40 minutes of this game was made with mistake prevention in mind.
If you've been wondering why this post was given the title "Poka-Yoke", this is why. That's a Japanese term that means "mistake prevention" or "mistake-proofing". I've heard it used before relating to manufacturing systems. The process of mistake-proofing some system is called "poka-yoke".
It's pronounced poke-uh YO-kay, by the way. At least I think it's pronounced poke-uh YO-kay. I should check in with our buddy Julien:
Yep, poke-uh YO-kay.
That's how I see this game. That's how I observe this coaching staff. That's the answer to your "why would they be so conservative here?" questions. I'ma call it Poka-Yoke.
Wisconsin won that 2011 game simply because we handed them opportunities. They had four touchdown drives: 2 yards, 30 yards, 39 yards, and 44 yards. We threw three interceptions, fumbled once, and lost 28-17 despite more yards and more first downs. We grabbed a 14 point lead and then handed it right back to Wisconsin by giving them four drives starting in our own territory.
Today was the exact opposite. No fumbles. No interceptions (Minnesota threw two). No muffed punts handing Minnesota the ball at the two yard line. When pinned deep, stay very, very safe to prevent those short fields. When pushing out towards the 50 and beyond, take more risks.
The way I see it, it's this: the staff believes it is very difficult to drive the length of the field on this defense. 40 yards, sure. 60 yards, maybe, but 70-80-90 yards, it's going to be hard to sustain a drive that long. This means that the goal immediately becomes "do not let them have short fields". Once you have the lead, the goal is "make sure the opponent has to drive 70-80-90 yards."
It's not that they're trying to punt, of course. They're trying to move the ball down the field and score on every drive. But when pinned deep (and we were pinned deep a lot), stay safe. Last thing we want is an interception or a strip-sack (or, God-forbid, a defensive touchdown). The goal is mistake prevention.
And it worked like a charm. Get the lead and then play keep-away. Poka-yoke keep away.
To me, that's the answer to every question today. Yes, Brandon Peters was playing well and many fans in my mentions wanted to see him get the chance to throw it some more. But once that 14-point lead was there, with the way this defense was playing, mistake-prevention was the play. I know that offends many of you and your "when you play not to lose, you lose" sensibilities, but as a counterpoint, please allow me to close with this retort:
Illinois 14, Minnesota 6