Nov 7, 2021

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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:

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


IlliniJoe81 on November 7, 2021 @ 12:44 AM

I hated those two punts earlier in the year but I saw the conservative play style as working to our strength in this game. It was clear their offense was toast against our defense when we rushed the QB. I was actually mad when they weren’t conservative enough and snapped with 15 on the play clock near the end of the game.

It is clear Brandon Peters can’t be trusted to avoid killer mistakes. Taking the game out of his hands was wise. The play calling varied enough that the runs weren’t all telegraphed on 1st down.

I was furious at a couple dumb penalties (a holding, a PF, and a roughing the passer) but otherwise I really loved this effort. It’s different than the Purdue game where you knew hurry up passing would kill us at the end.

Conservative is not always worse than aggressive. Those two punts were really dumb because they actively hurt our chances to win which is not conservative.

BB knows this team now so I see better strategy as of late.

Nabor568 on November 7, 2021 @ 06:14 AM

On a related note, I kinda enjoy the run, run, run, run, run, run, run, TRICK PLAY! identify we seem to be developing. Didn’t accomplish much yesterday, but I still say…….run……with it…..

ATOillini on November 7, 2021 @ 07:22 AM

Hard to believe the Zooker has been gone for 10 years. Also, love bringing out names from the archives that I had long since forgotten. Justin DuVernois possibly the most unfootball like name in the history of the sport.

Yesterday’s FTS recording was yet another classic. Zero analysis. 100% emotion. Think I’m going to send a historical compendium of those to a clinical psychologist. Would make a great case study!

GilThorpe on November 7, 2021 @ 07:30 AM

It was actually a fun game to watch even though it was low scoring.

Despite losing Hansen and Hart , our defense has developed into one of the better ones in the conference. I am very much looking forward to see what we can do against the Squawks with an extra week to prepare.

San Joaquin on November 7, 2021 @ 09:16 AM

I know Hansen (many years) and Hart (single game) have each done well for the program, but the linebacker corps has only gotten better as the season has progressed. This defense a joy.

ktcesw on November 7, 2021 @ 07:35 AM

I have seen far more games lost, over the years by conservative play-calling than I have seen by attacking. Yes, the losses due to attacking stand out but, are totally outnumbered by playing not to lose. BB has lost a number of games for us, this year, with that mentality. We almost gave the game away yesterday because of it. How many would that be in this season alone. See what Ohio State did at the end of their game, yesterday, with a six point lead. I would not want to play for a coach that played afraid to lose!

cmi2phx on November 7, 2021 @ 09:02 AM

BB’s record at Wisconsin:


With 3 Big Ten Championships and 6 consecutive Bowl Games.

I’d say that his conservative play calling worked out pretty well for him there.

*Not that it’s my personal preferred way to play.

ktcesw on November 7, 2021 @ 03:20 PM

You are talking about a style of play from ten or more years ago. Basically all of the top 20 teams in the country no longer play that way for a reason. Bo and Woody played that way and both had to retire when the game left them behind.

MarchingIllini on November 8, 2021 @ 01:25 PM

Bo and Woody had to retire because they had coached for 40 years. Their style of football will still win 80% of your games

ktcesw on November 8, 2021 @ 01:37 PM

Your opinion.

Altgeld88 on November 10, 2021 @ 02:37 PM

Bo won the Big Ten title and went to the Rose Bowl three of his final four seasons of coaching in the late '80s. Woody's Buckeyes either tied for the BT title or won it outright for six of his seven final seasons. Then Earle Bruce took Woody's final team and, if not for USC's Charles White in the Rose Bowl, would have gone 12-0 in 1979 and won the National Championship.

I'd hardly say the game passed them by (no pun intended.)

PosterNB12 on November 7, 2021 @ 07:43 AM

This mistake prevention offense cost us two clear wins (Maryland, Purdue). And severally reduced our chances to win against Rutgers (4 passes in second half against D loading the box). So while it worked here, you have to consider the overall season and ask what our record would be if we played to win instead of played not to lose.

Robert on November 7, 2021 @ 10:08 AM

Projected margin in the Maryland game per SP+: -15.6

Projected margin in the Purdue game: -7.9

Meaning - if you just go by the stats (yards gained, first downs, converting scoring opportunities in the redzone, etc etc) - the Maryland game would have been 28-13 or so and Purdue would have been 17-9. Instead, we had the ball with a chance to win both games because Purdue and Maryland made all the mistakes.

I agree that both 4th down calls were bad. Said so at the time. But statistically, the reason we were even in both games was because of our poka-yoke ways. The likely statistical result of each game would have meant that neither fourth down would've even mattered.

PosterNB12 on November 7, 2021 @ 10:48 AM

Or the reason the projected margin was so high was because our offense is among the worst in the country, and the reason it’s so bad is because we play so conservatively.

iluvrt on November 7, 2021 @ 11:31 AM

But unlikely given the talent level on the team

ktcesw on November 7, 2021 @ 03:25 PM

Based upon the play when BB lets loose, it seems to be much higher than what you think. Most of that talent went to a bowl game two years ago. Not a Lovie fan but, it is obvious that there is talent on the team.

Joe Edge on November 8, 2021 @ 06:10 PM

Or the reason we didn't go for it - Using YOUR words, 'was because our offense is among the worst in the country'...

reykjavik2020 on November 7, 2021 @ 08:21 AM

Very educational and entertaining post, Robert. Your memory of past Illinois players, teams and games is encyclopedic. Amazing! - Signed, Georgi

neale stoner on November 7, 2021 @ 09:08 AM

I agree with Robert’s thesis. Bielema has frequently said this season that the way to start winning games is to stop losing them. I also agree with those who are frustrated with the conservatism. But the coaches know what they have this season—two quarterbacks who are slow to get rid of the football and take sacks or make inaccurate throws. I think they will be more daring when they have a good QB and better pass protection. It’s good coaching— to strengths and away from weaknesses.

San Joaquin on November 7, 2021 @ 09:18 AM

agree with all three of those...

IlliniJoe81 on November 7, 2021 @ 11:53 AM

I’m a big fan of staying aggressive but only in the context of what we do well on offense. Passing in obvious passing situations is not what we do well.

The Purdue and Maryland games could have been won with power runs or misdirection plays on 4th and short.

When we try to pass on 3rd and 15 the likely result is something good happening for the other team. I don’t trust our QBs at all. That needs to be fixed for future seasons but for now let’s play to our strengths.

Bear8287 on November 7, 2021 @ 07:56 PM

BB needs to find another Russell Wilson to transfer to the Illini.

BamaIllini on November 7, 2021 @ 12:08 PM

I have zero problem with the play calling being so conservative with one exception. With 14:07 left in the game, we had it 3rd and 17 from the Minnesota 39 yard line. We are up 14-0. Kick a field goal and we are up 3 scores with less than a quarter to play. A field goal on this drive all but guarantees the victory. I would have called a draw, a screen, or some safe pass that nets us 7-10 yards. It sets up our kicker for a less than 50 yard FG. Instead we run a very safe play for a 1 yard loss. Every other play defensible, but that play call was not.

seanf on November 7, 2021 @ 12:39 PM

We are close in games we expected to lose and we are winning games we expected to lose by a lot. This team is outperforming expectations. It's easy to look at one game in a vacuum and say things are bad, but their is inherent variability in sports. Over the whole season, we are doing better than was expected by non-biased experts (Vegas). Bret is turning this thing around.

BriCrozier on November 7, 2021 @ 04:21 PM

I think there needs to be a discussion about overall philosophy versus situational decision-making. I think Bielema's overall philosophy of conservative football, at least in regards to this year's team, is the correct philosophy to have. However, you can have that overall philosophy and still recognize that certain situations just beg for more aggression. BamaIllini mentioned the play call on 3rd and 17 early in the fourth quarter when Illinois was on the edge of field goal range. That situation begged for something more aggressive than the basic run play that was called since a made field goal there, for all intents and purposes, wins the game. The decision to punt at Purdue was not quite the same situation but close, as getting a first down there may not have absolutely won the game for Illinois but it would've pushed things much closer to the win column than the eventual decision to punt did.

NC_OrangeKrush on November 7, 2021 @ 05:00 PM

I love that you can take an engineering design term used in lean and six-sigma manufacturing... And bring it to our football team offensive strategy.

From the very beginning.. This staff's 1st objective before any football plays.. is eliminate your own mistakes...

Even if that is maddening to watch while they set up their culture with this team - while missing pieces that requires some risk to offset deficiencies short term. I guess respect to him establishing culture.. Again.. His year 1.. Our purgatory year 15....

IBFan on November 7, 2021 @ 07:31 PM

The Caleb griffin pass was idiotic on so many levels. Running Peters or giving him that option after being injured plays before...inexcusable. Running Jakari into the center...why? Leaving time on the clock, snapping 5,10,15 seconds early throughout the 4th quarter. Asking Daniel Barker, the worst blocking TE we have, to block for IW, luckily IW refused not to get in. Again Barker whiffs on 3rd down run for chase in 4th. So much more but anyways. Glad we won, like the comparison Robert on the past. However this wasn’t flawless and some of these errors could have cost us the game.

ATOillini on November 7, 2021 @ 09:45 PM

Hmmm…..After checking back in here many hours later, I had a thought. Has anyone, including myself earlier in the comment thread, simply congratulated the team and the coaches on an excellent Big 10 road win against a ranked team? The second such accomplishment in the last 3 games?

Eagle on November 7, 2021 @ 11:14 PM

If we want to be conservative and keep Peters from trying to go vertical, we should mix in more plays with IW or your man Spann at QB. Force the defense to chose between covering Chase headed left or the QB running right. It’s there a lot.

STLINI on November 8, 2021 @ 09:48 AM

I get the conservative approach, but there are instances that give you a chance to put a game away, and I'd love to see our staff get a little bit aggressive and take advantage of those instances. In the 3rd quarter I believe, we have a 3rd and 17 just outside of field goal range. I don't care about the first down there, but we are only 5-10 yards away from a field goal, and at that point a 3 score game probably seals it. We run a safe run to the short side of the field for no gain. We can't run a safe 5 yard pass play or draw play against a defense playing off the ball? Instances like that still piss me off. Maryland and Purdue still sting.

BarryZuckerkorn on November 8, 2021 @ 11:53 AM

Thanks, Robert, for reminding us this is the 10th anniversary of the "Ryan Lankford - punter" season. A wide receiver: 19 punts, 749 yards, 39.4 average. He also had 19 punt returns, 33 yards, 1.7 average.

1.7 yards per return.

1.7. yards. per. return.

BriCrozier on November 8, 2021 @ 04:49 PM

A successful punt return for Illinois is where our guy 1. Actually catches the ball and 2. Doesn't fumble before being tackled.

ktcesw on November 8, 2021 @ 01:48 PM

Bama, 6 rushing yards on Saturday. Yet, still they won!

ktcesw on November 8, 2021 @ 01:59 PM

Some here don't understand how playing scared impacts the mentality of those that are leaving it all out on the field.

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