Postscript, UTSA


Nathan
Sep 6, 2021
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9 Comments

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I'm going to let you in on a little secret.

I don't watch virtually any baseball.

For most, that barely qualifies as a secret, and it's certainly not a terribly intriguing one. For a guy who has a side hustle writing about baseball, though, specifically fantasy baseball, it's perhaps a small bit more noteworthy.

Personally, I just don't have as much time as I used to. With two small boys and a wife who hates sports, it's not often I have a chance to sit down and watch a baseball game. My limited free time is just better spent on other things.

More pragmatically, the prevalence of information available in 2021 makes it easier to do my job without having to actually watch the action. Sure, I might be marginally better at the job if I laid eyes on a hitter's swing or how a pitcher is controlling his pitches, but between sites like Baseball Savant, Fangraphs, and where I write, Baseball Prospectus - among others - anything I need to know about a player's performance is pretty well quantified already.

Sometimes it does lead me to draw the wrong conclusions on a player. Carlos Martinez can go six scoreless and look great in the box score, but in the start he could have been effectively wild and have had no idea where it was going. Numbers can still lie.

If anyone had looked at the box score from the UTSA game, they might surmise that Artur Sitkowski had a decent game. Sure, 22-for-43 is pretty pedestrian, but three touchdowns to no interceptions while throwing for 266 yards looks pretty good.

The box score doesn't tell the whole story, though. For those who watched, they saw that Sitkowski was rarely accurate and often overthrowing or underthrowing his targets. Some of the catches that were made, like the Casey Washington catch along the sideline late in the fourth quarter, required impressive feats of athleticism. Even the wide-open touchdown throws to Deuce Spann and Daniel Barker weren't easy catches - Spann had to slow down to make the grab, and Barker had to dance to keep a foot in bounds.

Even going back to the Nebraska game, in which Sitkowski was 12-for-15 for 124 yards and two touchdowns, the sophomore wasn't terribly accurate. Winning cures all, though, so an athletic touchdown grab by Luke Ford is a highlight and not a warning sign.

If Saturday's game did one thing, it cleared up the question of whether or not Sitkowski was better suited to lead a Bret Bielema offense than Brandon Peters. It was at least a valid question after the Nebraska win, and if Sitkowski had turned in another "Wisconsin game manager" performance against UTSA it would probably be a debate in and around Champaign this week.

Now, it's clear Sitkowski is a capable backup, if only for this year at least, and that he shouldn't be expected to deliver much more than "pressed into action in a winnable game and plays serviceably" moving forward. Hopefully, Peters is back for Virginia and we can see this offense more closely resemble the one that Bielema and Tony Petersen expected to have on the field this year.

-It's hard to keep perspective after a loss like that, but it is worth remembering the Illini were without Peters, starting tailback Chase Brown, starting inside linebacker Calvin Hart Jr., likely starting receiver Brian Hightower and then lost starting defensive end Keith Randolph early in Saturday's game. That's a lot of absent "starting" to overcome, even against a Conference USA opponent.

-The most frustrating part of Saturday, at least for this Illini fan, was the inability or unwillingness to adjust to what UTSA was doing on both sides of the ball. UTSA head coach Jeff Traylor clearly watched the Illini game against Nebraska, came up with a gameplan to negate the things that worked for Illinois and put that into effect.

And Illinois had no answers. After getting to Adrian Martinez for five sacks in the opener, Illinois sacked Frank Harris just once. UTSA got the ball out quickly and in a variety of creative ways, and the Illini defense continued to allow completions and chunks of yardage.

On offense, the running game that gained 167 yards against Nebraska struggled to get any traction, and faced with stacked boxes the gameplan didn't adjust. Through two games, the team is averaging 148 yards per game on the ground; last year, they averaged 196.1 yards per game.

Maybe that was a function of being without Peters and Brown - without a quarterback you can trust, you have to turn more to the running game regardless of how the opponent is lining up, and without your best running back that strategy may be doomed to fail - but it didn't inspire a lot of confidence in the coaches' ability to make in-game adjustments, a perpetual frustration with the last regime as well.

-Isaiah Williams' transformation into a go-to playmaker on offense has been swift and impressive. I'll have more of the number One combo, please.

-Piggybacking off the previous point about the defense giving up easy gains, this was the first time, in my memory at least, that a team has so pointedly and brazenly gone after Devon Witherspoon. And, even more surprisingly, it worked more often than it didn't.

That's almost certainly a credit to Zakhari Franklin, who is probably on the short list of the best receivers the Illini will face this year, but it was shocking after Witherspoon has emerged as a bonafide, no-doubt starter at cornerback. To his credit, Witherspoon got better as the game wore on and I still have few concerns about his ability on the outside, but by that point the Roadrunners had already achieved their goal.

-I was actually disappointed, and I think Robert tweeted something about this as well, when UTSA got so vanilla with their playcalling on their final drive. After keeping the Illini off balance all evening - and in the wake of a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in which they imposed their will on the Illini defense with nine runs and just one pass - they got conservative and allowed Illinois to get the ball back and eventually have a shot at tying the game. If it would have cost them, Traylor likely would have never forgiven himself for going conservative when the game was on the line.

-I'm not sure if I'm alone in this, but I actually didn't hate the two first-down runs as the Illini were trying to mount a comeback. It's the last thing the defense is expecting in that scenario, and done well they could have yielded big gains. The result was suboptimal, but I understood and appreciated the process.

-Now, it's on to Virginia. If Illinois had taken care of UTSA, this game would feel like one we could and maybe should win. That would probably be folly - the team's first road game of the season, against a Power 5 school, and one that was 56th in SP+ coming into the season, no less - but that's likely what the feeling would have been, at least in some corners of Illini fandom.

After UTSA, I think the hope is just to see improvement, and a good dose of competence. If we can do that, there might still be six wins to be found on the schedule if you squint. If it's more of the same, there might be less squinting and more eye-covering in store for fans this fall.

Comments

Brave Illini on September 6, 2021 @ 08:56 AM

How much do you think the programs's adjusting to an almost entirely new coaching staff (and them learning to work with each other) and the defensive backs adjusting to playing man coverage rather than the zone defenses of previous years factor into our performance early in the season?

SuburbanIllini on September 6, 2021 @ 10:32 AM

Here’s a different lense to look at the game:

If we don’t give UTSA the ball inside our 35, and we get out of the way of the punt, all things being the same, we win by 4 because they don’t score.

It’s a horrible mistake that is preventable (remember that).

Now look at Sitkowski’s stats. Just like in the Nebraska game, he did enough to win. Nothing pretty just didn’t lose the game (think Kyle Orrin Bears fans).

Now add that we have 2 emerging playmakers at wide receiver and 1-3 string running backs we need to get healthy and there is plenty of coolaid left for us to drink.

@robert as long as it takes, baby!

SuburbanIllini on September 6, 2021 @ 10:32 AM

Here’s a different lense to look at the game:

If we don’t give UTSA the ball inside our 35, and we get out of the way of the punt, all things being the same, we win by 4 because they don’t score.

It’s a horrible mistake that is preventable (remember that).

Now look at Sitkowski’s stats. Just like in the Nebraska game, he did enough to win. Nothing pretty just didn’t lose the game (think Kyle Orrin Bears fans).

Now add that we have 2 emerging playmakers at wide receiver and 1-3 string running backs we need to get healthy and there is plenty of coolaid left for us to drink.

@robert as long as it takes, baby!

tgb on September 6, 2021 @ 11:11 AM

A play action pass on first down to keep their defense honest might have helped. We constantly put ourselves in 2nd and long. quick outs and slants by UTSA negated any pass rush by us, and we should do the same against stronger defenses. It seems like a simple hand off takes us about 5 seconds before the back actually gets the ball.

neale stoner on September 6, 2021 @ 01:40 PM

We took too long to adapt to throwing the ball in the flat, likely because Sitkowski is not good at it. Matt Robinson is. I don’t understand clinging to one QB. No other position is treated that way, and Spurrier did not do it with QB’s. Pick the guy who can do what the team needs. Try to win the damn game.

BriCrozier on September 6, 2021 @ 03:56 PM

I simply have to disagree concerning the first-down run call with 1:00 left, with Illinois not having any timeouts I thought it was one of the worst decisions I have ever seen in a two-minute drill situation. That play-call completely ruined the momentum that had been built on the two previous plays (Illinois gained 25 and 14 plays through the air on those plays, getting the ball from their own 35 to the UTSA 26) and the Illini actually lost yardage afterward thanks to being put behind the 8-ball due to the loss of time and momentum directly caused by that horrific decision. If the intent of that play call was to catch the UTSA defense off-guard, a much better play call would have been some kind of screen pass where a RB or WR could potentially get the ball in space. If they had some room in front of them, they could move up the field and gain the yardage and if they didn't then they could move toward the sideline and get out of bounds to stop the clock. In a worst-case scenario, if the play is completely covered then Sitkowski could make a "bad" pass away from everybody (And with how he had been throwing the ball, the officials would've been none the wiser) and then both the clock is stopped and the offense has a moment to catch its breath.

Chief4ever on September 7, 2021 @ 12:58 AM

Lots of good stuff, except that Peters still hasn't shown that he's any better. Please, please let Peters he better this year!!!
And no talk of how our veteran o-line was dominated? Maybe the biggest disappointment?

Norcal Illini on September 7, 2021 @ 12:46 PM

Good point about the OL. Peterson hinted in his press conference that they could change up the OL. He doesn't seem happy with the guard play and Jarsaty's and Badovinac's lack of size.

AngeredSnowmen on September 8, 2021 @ 10:30 PM

I thought Witherspoon looked much better than Adams, who UTSA successfully attacked on their first 2 touchdown drives.

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