Suffocation Protocol

Oct 31, 2022

Take the Iowa game and toss it from your head. Different kind of animal. Now think of the other games we've played recently. Nebraska. Minnesota. Wisconsin. Even Chattanooga and Virginia. When looking at those five photographs, what's the one thing they all had in common?

Yes, we won with Chase Brown + the defense. But look further. There's something in those five pictures that's nearly identical. Have it yet?

The fourth quarter.

In five of the last six games, we've had the most incredibly boring fourth quarters. I'm ready to call them the five most boring quarters I've watched in my 40 years watching Illini football (I was 10 during the 1983 Rose Bowl season which was when I fell in love). Absolutely nothing has happened in those fourth quarters.

Against Iowa, yes, the fourth quarter was not boring. We are one Art Sitkowski elbow on replay from not being ranked. Anthony Thomas' fumble not being called in 2000 died so that Illinois 9, Iowa 6 could live.

But the Iowa game was still Suffocation Protocol. During this six-game winning streak, here are the fourth quarters:

4th quarter score: 0-0
Outcome of Virginia drives: interception, interception, turnover-on-downs
Outcome of Illinois drives: 6 plays and punt, 3 plays and punt, kneel-down

4th quarter score: 0-0
Outcome of Chattanooga drives: punt, punt, end of game.
Outcome of Illinois drives: 3 plays and punt, 11 plays and turnover-on-downs

4th quarter score: 3-0 Illinois
Outcome of Wisconsin drives: punt, turnover-on-downs, turnover-on-downs
Outcome of Illinois drives: 9 plays and field goal, 3 plays and punt, 5 plays and turnover-on-downs, kneel-down.

4th quarter score: 3-0 Illinois
Outcome of Iowa drives: Punt, Interception, half ran out.
Outcome of Illinois drives: 9 plays and interception, 9 plays and field goal, 3 plays and punt.

4th quarter score: 6-0 Illinois
Outcome of Minnesota drives: punt, interception, interception
Outcome of Illinois drives: 15 plays and field goal, 14 plays and field goal, 4 plays and punt, kneel-down

4th quarter score: 3-0 Illinois
Outcome of Nebraska drives: Fumble, punt, punt
Outcome of Illinois drives: 4 plays and field goal, 10 plays and punt, kneel-down

Six game winning streak. Combined scores of those six games: 150-42. Fourth quarter scores in those six games: 15-0.

Yes, the zero is amazing. But I want to talk about the 15. It's the part that I don't think everyone the national media have grasped about this team.

In five of the last six games, we've stopped trying to score with about 20 minutes left. The goals for the final third of each game:

1. Run clock. Snap the ball with less than 10 seconds on the play clock. We care more about the clock than the down-and-distance marker.
2. Prevent turnovers. No passes downfield. Short passes only (and only when a first down is needed). The passing offense must run at 20% capacity.
3. Nothing cute whatsoever. Only base offensive plays. Football's version of the four-corners offense. No shots until 3 seconds left on the shot clock.
4. If you can meet all of these then go ahead and try to score. But only score as long as 1, 2, and 3, are met. If it happens, it happens. If not, punts are fine.

Last year, during the Minnesota game, when this was implemented, my Twitter mentions were alive with Tony Petersen hate. We were up 14-0 and attempting nothing. Seemingly content to three-and-out and then punt. Fast forward one year and I think everyone is starting to understand. Bret Bielema football is get the lead and then go into Suffocation Protocol.

And a big part of Suffocation Protocol is #2 above: avoid turnovers at all costs. It's why that Isaiah Williams fumble on Saturday was so un-Bielema-like. The only way Nebraska was coming back in that game would have been to give them a short field. I'm sure Bret Bielema died inside when he saw that fumble happen. The game is over as long as we don't do one thing, and we did that one thing. (And then the defense cleaned that up as well.)

I'm guessing the thought process is something like this:

"This defense does not give up 70-yard drives. So once we have the lead, the goal is to keep placing the ball beyond the 30. When we are handed the ball, the goal is to take as long as possible to place the ball somewhere between the 30 and the goal line. If that means three extremely safe plays that only gain eight yards, no problem. The ideal scenario is a 15 play drive, but if we punt, we punt. The ONLY THING WE CANNOT DO is turn the ball over. Run only the plays with a 5% turnover chance or less."

Does this make us easy to defend in the second half? Of course! But I don't think anyone on the coaching staff cares. Does this mean our offense will statistically be the 80th-best offense in the country? Of course! But I don't think anyone on the coaching staff cares. They care about being 7-1. Why try to be the 40th-best offense if it might bring turnovers into play? We're not trying to put up big numbers. We're trying to go 10-2.

So as this "yeah, but does Illinois have the offense to hang with Purdue, or Michigan, or Ohio State?" narrative takes shape, this is what I'm thinking about. Our offensive numbers are quite deceiving. When we did need to move the ball in the fourth quarter (against Iowa), we put together two nine-play drives in the fourth quarter (with Sitkowski at quarterback). In the other five games of this six-game winning streak, actually putting together a drive was seemingly tertiary.

Run the clock, don't turn the ball over, and as long as those two are met, sure, try to put together a long drive.

But only as long as the first two are met.


WHWizard on October 31, 2022 @ 11:59 AM

......... :03, ,:02, :01, :00 WE WIN! I will NOT complain about this, especially after dealing with the last 15 years of misery!

Next up, Michigan State! That's the only thing that should matter right now! Just ask our coach!

Reykjavik4 on October 31, 2022 @ 12:05 PM

This was exactly what I was thinking in the fourth quarter of the Nebby game..."we have a big enough lead that we're not trying hard on offense if it would put the ball at risk, and BB is just going to let his defense carry us to the finish line." Yeah, makes for boring finishes but I love the trade-off results - WINS!!

Nick-Chainsaw-Smith on October 31, 2022 @ 12:08 PM

The old Bret Bielema dutch oven game plan. Beat em up with big burly linemen and cover em in a farty blanket (Defense) until submission.

raleighIllini25 on October 31, 2022 @ 12:53 PM

One would wonder if this will actually play to our advantage against Michigan. Not to say we will be favored or even have a great chance of a Winn, but if we can hang close at the end there is precious little film of us “trying to score” and trying to score quickly. Maybe we get a punchers chance????

Dan Allen on October 31, 2022 @ 01:11 PM

Better to be 10-2 and not flashy than 6-6 and have a bunch of close losses!

GilThorpe on October 31, 2022 @ 02:14 PM

I absolutely LOVE our style of football now . I could not be any happier, given where we were just 23 months ago , really .

Just win , baby .

Nall23 on October 31, 2022 @ 02:27 PM

Good article. I have been pondering how the stat-nerd sites take this into account when evaluating us? I don't think they can (or do) and that likely penalizes where the models rank us. Our offense has had it struggles (particularly in the red zone), but we improved there on Saturday and if we can continue to move past those RZ issues, then I think our offense is significantly better than either the regular or advanced stats think.

PowerGranger on November 2, 2022 @ 07:50 AM

Did anyone else think Ron Zook when they saw RZ?

ktcesw on October 31, 2022 @ 02:38 PM

I have to go the other way on this. BB has not won every game that he has tried to do this. We lost to Indiana trying to do this! I hate when coaches play this way. The games mentioned above were B1G West games of just pounding the ball against a great D. Good teams will beat you trying to do that! Especially when you have the ball around the other team's 10 or 20-yard line. Play to win!!

Robert on October 31, 2022 @ 05:59 PM

I don't think that's the case at all. Yes, we had the lead at Indiana (a tenuous one-point lead) but in that game we were pushing to get the knockout score. We even threw an interception at the five (on a deep pass we'd never throw with a 10+ point lead).

You're going to have to give me some specifics to your "we lost to Indiana trying to do this."

IlliniJedi on November 1, 2022 @ 09:15 PM

We scored more points than Indiana and if the replay official or league office had any damn sense, we'd be 8-0. on October 31, 2022 @ 03:01 PM

Just run all the numbers for the first 3 quarters of the game, shouldn't be too hard.

pwillits on October 31, 2022 @ 03:15 PM

Suffocation Protocol is a great name for a death metal band.

Robert on October 31, 2022 @ 05:52 PM


iluvrt on October 31, 2022 @ 03:49 PM

This style is one of the reasons IL ran the play clock for almost 38 minutes at Nebraska

rml on October 31, 2022 @ 04:10 PM

I can imagine us down 2 to Michigan, late. Harbaugh, with his run-up-score-as-much-as-possible mindset to impress the voters, calls for a long ball. We pick it and go in for the winning score.
Let it be so.

danny on October 31, 2022 @ 04:28 PM

Robert - what was the possessions in the Indiana game? Not looking be a downer, just curious on what it was n how it’s been different since.

Robert on October 31, 2022 @ 06:01 PM

We didn't have an insurmountable lead so we didn't go into Suffocation Protocol. So it's the same as Iowa - we were pressing on offense, not running clock.

danny on October 31, 2022 @ 07:24 PM

Thanks. Got it, not an accurate comparison.

Duce20 on October 31, 2022 @ 04:28 PM

We are 5th in the nation in yardage differential.

  1. UGA
  2. Ohio St.
  3. Michigan
  4. Alabama
  6. Tennessee...

This isn't a fluke.

IlliNYC on October 31, 2022 @ 10:57 PM

I LOVE how offenses just kind of give up (or seem to kinda give up) In the fourth quarter against this defense. It’s like the defense is a boa constrictor that just squeezes the life out of the opposing offenses.

gman on November 1, 2022 @ 07:16 AM

Robert , you write "we are trying to go 10-2." I think this teams attitude is we are trying to go 11-1. I think our OC has plays he hasnt used all year saved just for this game.

BarryZuckerkorn on November 1, 2022 @ 11:53 AM

I'm ready to call them the five most boring quarters I've watched in my 40 years watching Illini football...Absolutely nothing has happened in those fourth quarters.

In terms of scores put up in the quarter, totally agree. However, I feel this undersells how thrilling it is to watch our defense dominate in the 4th. Every snap now comes with the anticipation of a sack or an interception. Watching through the lens of our defense, boring couldn't be a less accurate description.

IlliniJoe81 on November 1, 2022 @ 05:38 PM

The other key part of this is don’t get injured. Shortening the game is the best way to avoid injuries. That’s why we’re so healthy and healthy teams win in November.

Injuries are such a crap shoot in football and the only way to win is to not have as many plays.

So dumb to see people injured on plays that aren’t going to change the outcome of the game. BB gets it.


Orangeandblue4eva on November 2, 2022 @ 11:05 AM

Totally agree with this. We also aren’t playing high fly offenses here so that helps. Interested to see how we approach this against Purdue.

on July 3, 2023 @ 03:59 PM


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