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As I recall, the first time I ever used this phrase on IlliniBoard, I said "pour over some statistics" and a commenter corrected me saying that the correct phrase was "pore over". I never hate it when people correct me like that. Prevents future embarrassment. For all intensive purposes, I'm a non-writer trying to write, so I need all the help I can get.
(Don't worry - that one was a joke.)
Anyway, let's pore over some statistics here. We're five games in, so we should have some stats we can trust. Our opponents have all played 4 or 5 games at this point, so the stats won't just be "of course they're really good at stopping the pass - they faced the Illinois offense".
Let's start with SP+. I looked at SP+ in depth last week, so I don't want to spend too much time on this, but here's the Big Ten right now. Team plus overall SP+ national ranking.
Big Ten East
Ohio State (3)
Penn State (5)
Michigan St. (30)
Big Ten West
Fifth-best team in the Big Ten East: currently 30th. Fifth-best team in the Big Ten West: currently 60th. West is worst.
And if you're wondering why Nebraska is #47 on the list, ahead of Minnesota, Purdue, and Northwestern, remember that SP+ doesn't have much to do with "wins". It's forward-looking, trying to assume how you might perform in future games, so it deals in "postgame win expectancy". Take all the stats from the Illinois-Nebraska game. Play that same game 100 times. When you do that, Nebraska wins 74% of the time and Illinois wins 26% of the time.
This is Nebraska's season, by the way:
Nebraska's postgame win expectancies so far:— Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) September 26, 2021
* vs. Illinois: 74% (L by 8)
* vs. Fordham: 99% (W by 39)
* vs. Buffalo: 99% (W by 25)
* vs. Oklahoma: 13% (L by 7)
* vs. Mich St: 70% (L by 3)
Second-order Ws: 3.6
Actual Ws: 2
74% chance to beat Illinois, 70% chance to beat Michigan State, 0-2. And no, that's not always "luck". It's also often "shooting self in foot". BUT, overall, Nebraska can move the ball and stop the ball and that should lead to wins. So they're 47th while Purdue is 60th and Northwestern is 82nd.
Before we move on from SP+, let's take a quick peek at the defenses we've faced so far (and the defenses we will face the rest of the season). Here's the SP+ defensive rating for each team on our schedule:
Penn State (6)
(If you were curious why Iowa was #28 in the SP+ when they're 5th in both polls, it's because their defense is 3rd and their offense is... 91st. It's like reverse Iowa basketball, and they will pay for it soon.)
This is the week to get healthy on offense, obviously. Charlotte is #122 (out of 130) on defense. If it doesn't click this week, it's not going to click this season.
OK, I wasn't going to talk much about SP+ and I still haven't moved on yet. Let's talk schedule so far. Let's go with the other losses by our opponents so far:
- Nebraska lost to Oklahoma 23-16
- Nebraska lost to Michigan State 23-20 (OT)
- (UTSA is 4-0)
- Virginia lost to North Carolina 59-39
- Virginia lost to Wake Forest 37-17
- (Maryland is 4-0)
- Purdue lost to Notre Dame 27-13
If we weren't blown out by Virginia, I think I'd feel pretty good about this? UTSA won at Memphis (the most difficult remaining game on their schedule), so that might be an 11-1 team we lost to (of course). Maryland is 4-0, although they now have Iowa and then Ohio State on their schedule. And Purdue's only loss is Notre Dame (a game that was closer than Notre Dame-Wisconsin). So big picture, schedule-wise, this is not a horrific 1-4 start. Charlotte could make it so, though.
Let's look at some of the old school stats. How about... scoring offense? For context, I'll add some teams ahead of and some teams behind Illinois:
101. Kent State 23.2 ppg
T102. Florida State 23.0
T102 Miami (OH) 23.0
104. South Carolina 22.2
105. Clemson 21.8
106. USF 21.2
107. New Mexico State 20.4
T108. Colorado State 20.0
T108. Illinois 20.0
T110. Kansas 19.8
T110. North Texas 19.8
T112. Akron 19.0
T112. UNLV 19.0
T112. Wisconsin 19.0
Yes, Wisconsin is behind Illinois in ppg. But they've played three games - Eastern Michigan, #4 Penn State, and #9 Notre Dame. That's a tiny bit more difficult than UTSA and Purdue.
In scoring offense we're 108th nationally (not good). Scoring offense is always hard to read when it comes to the Big Ten, though. Out of the 130 FBS teams, here's the Big Ten teams in the bottom half of scoring offense:
Only six Big Ten teams in the top half. And this is before the Big Ten teams all play each other and finish the game 17-14.
In the weight room.
In the community.
Scoring defense doesn't look much better for Illinois. 84th nationally (26.8 ppg), only ahead of Indiana (93rd) in the Big Ten. On that list, 11 of the 14 Big Ten teams are in the top half. The only three in the bottom half: Illinois, Indiana, and some team called Ohio State (67th at 23.25 points allowed per game).
Again, it's still very early for these stat categories. Many teams have played three cupcakes plus one conference game, so there will be a massive shift coming in the next few weeks. Purdue is not going to finish 8th in scoring defense. Ohio State is not going to finish 67th.
Maybe the next place to look is our old friend 3rd down conversion percentage. Here's where we are on both sides of the ball:
Offense: 64th (.407 conversion percentage)
Defense: 90th (.415 conversion percentage allowed)
Not great, Bob. It's not Missouri's .545 conversion percentage allowed (holy crap, guy who replaced Ryan Walters), which ranks 127th out of 130, but it's not great. Still an issue.
Turnover margin? Still going strong. Tied for 20th nationally (+5 through five games, so 1.00). That's actually probably bad news? When you're +5 on the season and 1-4 on the season, hooo boy what does that inevitable -3 game look like?
(Fun with the turnover margin statistic. Subtitle: "it always balances out." Indiana interceptions in eight games in 2020? 17. That's 2.125 per game. Indiana interceptions through four games in 2021? 1.)
The best statistic I can find? I'll call it "don't give up touchdowns when your opponent is in the redzone". Others call it "redzone TD percentage", but that's boring. I want to call it "don't give up touchdowns when your opponent is in the redzone".
It's a messy stat because it groups stops (turnovers, missed FG's, turnover-on-downs) with giving up three points (a made FG), but I'm looking for "bend but don't break" here. Once the opponent gets to the redzone, can you either stop them or hold them to a FG attempt?
Here's the Big Ten:
Wisconsin - 7 opponent redzone attempts (ORZA), 2 opponent redzone touchdowns (ORSTD) - 28.6% Redzone TD%
Maryland - 14 ORZA, 4 ORZDT - 28.6%
Penn State - 13 ORZA, 4 ORZTD - 30.8%
Purdue - 8 ORZA, 3 ORZTD - 37.5%
Michigan - 7 ORZA, 3 ORZTD - 42.9%
Illinois - 24 ORZA, 12 ORZTD - 50%
Rutgers - 10 ORZA, 5 ORZDT - 50%
Iowa - 8 ORZA, 4 ORZTD - 50%
Nebraska - 11 ORZA, 6 ORZTD - 54.5%
Northwestern - 12 ORZA, 7 - 58.3%
Minnesota - 5 ORZA, 3 ORZTD - 60%
Michigan State - 13 ORZA, 8 ORZTD - 61.5%
Indiana - 14 ORZA, 10 ORZTD - 71.4%
Ohio State - 15 ORZA, 11 ORZTD - 73.3%
The issue here, obviously - 24 red zone trips for opponents in five games. Illinois has played five games while Wisconsin has played three, but still, 4.8 redzone trips allowed per game for Illinois vs. 2.3 redzone trips allowed for Wisconsin is a big difference.
Looking at last year, though, 38 trips for opponents into the redzone. TWENTY SEVEN TOUCHDOWNS. That's 71.1%. Go back up to that list above and see where 71.1% sits on that list. Which is why 8 field goals forced and 4 redzone stops feels like a big improvement this season.
Overall, during the Lovie era, there were 257 redzone trips for opponents. And they ended in 167 touchdowns. 64.9% redzone TD percentage across five seasons. There's no way to weight that against other five-year periods, but we can say this. 71.1% last season was 110th nationally. 64.9% would have been 80th. This year's 50% - if it holds (a massive "if") - would have been 12th nationally last year.
So that's the best stat I can find. The defense, so far, is forcing redzone field goals. Most every other stat? Bad to really bad. It's year one, so there's not much to read into that "bad" beyond "not much is working right now", but there's mostly bad news across all of these statistics. Boil it down to the very simple "yards per play" and Illinois is giving up 6.19 YPP and gaining 4.82 YPP. That alone screams "3-9 or 2-10 season".
Can we still get to my 4-8? I think so, but it's going to take a big leap from the passing game. Right now, the #1 stat that sticks out on every single list I pored over is this: Yards Per Passing Attempt. We're 116th nationally at 5.8 YPA. Josh McCray and the return of Chase Brown can boost the running game. But at 5.8 YPA in the passing game, not much else will matter. We'd have to try to win games 12-9.
And we saw how that went.