Let's say there's, like, a college football game show where you have to know how to read a box score. And it's one of those 80's game shows with Wink Martindale as the host or whatever. Wink turns to Team Robert and asks us if we want to play or pass. "Play" I tell him without even consulting my teammates.
"OK, team Robert. Here's your question. Illinois lost to Penn State in September of 2023 when they turned the ball over five times. Describe how Illinois lost the game without mentioning the turnovers."
I wouldn't even consult with my teammates before starting into my answer because I already know what I would say.
"You simply look at length of the scoring drives. The issue with a turnover is the short field given to the opponent. So if you compare the average length of the Penn State scoring drives to the average length of the Illinois scoring drives, you'll see how Penn State won the game."
I would feel so proud at that moment, knowing I'd nailed the answer. And then I'd wonder why the crowd was quiet as Wink would slowly say "I'm so sorry, Robert, but you said the word "turnover" as part of your answer..." And then the crowd would groan and that one guy Brad on my team would shoot me a dirty look for not even consulting with the team and I'd probably be up all night wondering how I got the Illinois answer wrong.
But it's still the right answer. That's why turnovers are football. Yes, they stop your drives, but punts also stop your drives. The issue with the turnover is where the drive stops. And that can be noted, as Robert very correctly stated on the game show, by looking at the average length of scoring drives:
Penn State - 39.8 yards
Illinois - 63.0 yards
That'll do it. It's a number influenced a little by the three Penn State field goal drives (FG drives are shorter than TD drives because, well, you know why), but still, Penn State's final TD drive was 30 yards. We had 46 and 71-yard drives end in no points and Penn State had a 30-yard TD drive and a negative-six yard FG drive.
That's where turnovers absolutely destroy you. That's why being -5 puts your chances of losing north of 99% regardless of what happens in the rest of the game. Yes, it's "we can't score now", but there's also a whole lot of "it's going to be very easy for them to score now."
I mean, looking at the box score, this game was shockingly even. Penn State did have a rough first road game as we were hoping and we did bounce back from the Kansas game. Here's all the stats that are right down the middle:
First Downs - Penn State 20, Illinois 20
Total Yards - Penn State 383, Illinois 354
Yards Per Play - Penn State 5.0, Illinois 4.8
3rd Down Conversion % - Penn State 38.9%, Illinois 40%
Time Of Possession: Penn State 31:52, Illinois 28:08
Turnovers: Penn State 0, Illinois 5
Average Length Of Scoring Drive: Penn State 39.8, Illinois 63
Score: Penn State 30, Illinois 13
The game we all wanted to see. Played 'em straight up and held our ground. And then handed them five individual gifts.
Turnovers are football.
+ I only published my From The Stands on Slack this week. Just didn't feel good about putting it in the podcast feed. I've started doing the sponsorship thing with some of the podcasts (not From The Stands, though), and since those recordings go up in the podcast feed, I feel like they need to hold to a certain standard. This one didn't.
+ One part that I talked about on the FTS that I'll mention here, though: I enjoyed the hell out of the final two drives. The Illini second string vs. the Penn State second string. You're going to see a box score and see that Kenari Wilcher had 3 catches for 51 yards and you're going to say "wait, Wilcher played?" Yes, Wilcher played, and it was the exact "wait until you see Kenari Wilcher" performance that I was talking about in August.
(I don't really have a problem with people leaving early. I can understand it. Sometimes it's just too much. I choose to stay mostly because there's always a chance that a "did you see what Kenari Wilcher showed in his first action on the field?" moment will happen.)
In fact, I predicted the Malik Elzy touchdown. Saw the single coverage, said to my son "throw him the jump ball and see if he can come down with it." They threw him the jump ball. He (used his body to shield the DB at exactly the right time and) came down with it.
+ If you ever want to torture me, bring My Guy Matt Bailey back from injury, give him 5 tackles in maybe one quarter of football where he's flying all over the field cleaning up messes, and then give him another injury where he has to sit for the remainder of the game. I don't know what the injury was, but him coming out of the injury tent and taking off his headband in disgust (likely having just been told that he cannot return to the game) is the purest form of torture for me.
Football is about playmakers. Our best playmaker in the secondary was finally back on the field. And then he got injured again. He didn't head to the locker room so hopefully it's nothing serious but still... I hate absolutely everything. Injuries are so unfair.
+ It was great to see Johnny Newton dominate like an All American while playing a top-10 opponent. 6 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 passes batted down, 2 quarterback hurries, and a blocked field goal.
And speaking of blocks, Ryan Meed was credited with partially blocking that punt. The partially blocked punt is always so hard to take. You can't even say "he was inches from changing the game right there" because an inch is probably too much. Just a tiny bit more of his hand on that football and it goes the other way, possibly for a scoop and score (and at the very least a drive starting in the red zone). So, so close.
+ I'm sure this stat has been written everywhere but I think we need to talk about it because it's the whole season:
Tommy DeVito interceptions in 2022: 4
Luke Altmyer interceptions in 2023: 7
Four in 13 games and now seven in three games. Combine that with the fact that we're no longer intercepting passes at a "at least two every game" pace (like last season) and turnovers are the story of the season so far. Really, three games in, I think we know the narrative for the entire season.
If we just look at the individual drives, everything appears to be fine. The defense took a step back, but we knew that it would. Today, against a top-10 opponent, the defense more than held its own. And the offense held its own against Toledo and Kansas. We're getting yards when we need yards and, at least today, we're forcing punts when we need to force punts. So why are we 1-2? If the yards are fine, why are the total points this season 92-66 through three games?
Turnovers and penalties. That's really it. Just turnovers and penalties.
Come on, Big Ten West. Show us how awful you really are.