What Did We Learn?

Sep 6, 2023

You always learn so little during fall camp and learn so much during the first game. I realize that for many of you, August is all about sorting through "every new starter is 100% ready to dominate" social media posts until you can get to that first game and see if they were actually "ready."

We don't know everything after only one game, but we did learn a lot. What did we learn?

1. We showed a "shoot ourselves in the foot" quality that wasn't there last year.

I probably don't need to say more than "9 penalties for 90 yards in the first half alone" here, but you might have noticed that Saturday's game was a bit sloppier than most games last season. We kept Toledo drives alive by roughing the passer. We wiped out big plays of our own with holding penalties. Every team does some of that, but we had three games-worth in just the first game.

It's fine. It doesn't mean anything, I don't think. It's the natural outcome of so much turnover at certain positions. Every team replacing a bunch of players has to deal with mistakes until the mistakes go away. We simply did way too much foot-shooting on Saturday night. To wit:

  • Our first punt was the result of a holding penalty (took a 15-yard gain off the board and turned 1st and 10 at the 40 into 1st and 20 at the 15). And to further kill the drive we had a false start two plays later.
  • Tarique Barnes got an unsportsmanlike penalty (after an incompletion on 3rd and 7) which kept their punt team on the sideline. Their drive ended in a FG, so that's 3 points from one penalty.
  • On Toledo's drive at the end of the 2nd quarter (when they took the lead with four seconds left in the half), we helped them get there with Pass Interference on 3rd and 7 (there's that Toledo punt team, still over on the sideline) as well as a combo "free play - might as well throw it" (declined) + PI call (15 yards) on the same play a few plays later.
  • And then perhaps the worst penalty: a roughing-the-passer call on a 3rd and 14 incompletion which set them up with 1st and goal from the 10 (they'd eventually score to take a 28-27 lead) instead of 4th and 14 from the 20.

There are other penalties, but those were just the "shot ourselves in the foot" ones. The first one killed a promising drive, the last three added 3, 7, and 7 points to Toledo's score. This game would not have been close without those penalties.

But wait, there's more.

  • We went for it on 4th and 1 from the Toledo 26 and got stuffed. At the very least that's 3 points off the board, at the most its an eventual 7 that was taken away.
  • We forced them into 3rd and 27 (nearly out of field goal range), put two spies on their QB... and allowed him to gain 24 of those 27 yards on a scramble when everyone in the building knew it was the "just drop back and then take off" play.
  • We threw an interception at the 20 on a promising drive that only used two plays to get to the Toledo 43 and then... INT.

This was a 41-13 win that we turned into 30-28 win because of mistake after mistake. I think we can label them "expected mistakes" with so many players playing their first Illini snaps, but they're still mistakes.

2. Miles Scott appears 100% ready to dominate the entire world.

It just came out today that he was named co-Defensive Player of the Week in the Big Ten for opening week. Just for fun I want to remind you of my tweet from April of 2022 (for, like, the 9th time in the last month):

That's one of my favorite things about getting to see practice. Seeing a walkon who clearly shouldn't have been a walkon. And I think I like to link that tweet so much because I comped Miles to Fej there. Is he the new Fej? STAY TUNED.

But seriously, Big Ten Co-DPOTY. Highest rated safety on PFF. And made the two, no three (thanks DB) biggest plays of the game:

  • Stuffed the Toledo two-point try with three minutes left.
  • Ran down Jacquez Stewart at the 11 on that long run, preventing a touchdown (Toledo got 3 on their opening drive, not 7).
  • Oh, this little thing we like to call a PICK SIX.

Is Miles Scott ready to dominate the entire world?

{shakes magic 8-ball}

Signs point to yes.

3. The defense probably won't carry us this year.

How does Illinois finish 21st in the SP+ last year with the 99th-best offense? By having the #2 defense. You might think that this would result in maybe the 50th-best college football team, but no. When you have a defense that exceptional, it dominates your NERDstat profile and you're a top-25 team.

(Another example of that: Last year USC had the #1 offense and the #87 defense That combined to put them 17th in the final SP+.)

Illinois beats Toledo. In the SP+ "Post-Game Win Expectancy", we were 82.4% (meaning, if you played this same game with these same stats 100 times, Illinois wins 82 times and Toledo wins 18 times). So why did this win drop Illinois from #43 to #52 in the SP+? Let's talk about all of it.

First off, Post-Game Win Expectancy. You might see a game where Toledo had more yards (and we got a pick-six) and think "wow, we were lucky to win." And then you see the PGWE and wonder why the NERDstats think that Toledo would have been lucky to win had that Caleb Griffin field goal not sailed through.

I think that's pretty simple. PGWE leans heavily on explosive plays (as it should). Teams that pick up chunk plays on offense (and prevent chunk plays on defense) are highly likely to win a college football game. If you can only pick up 4.5 yards at a time, sure, you might be able to string together a 14 play drive and score, but there's a good chance something bad happens during those 14 plays and you'll have to punt (or kick a field goal, or, worse yet, turn it over). The teams that get down the field quickly and efficiently are the teams that win football games.

We averaged 6.1 yards per play. Toledo averaged 5.3. That might not seem like much, but 374 yards on 61 plays looks better to a laptop than 416 yards on 79 plays. Efficiency usually wins games. (As do pick-sixes, which factors in our favor here.)

OK, so if that's a game that Illinois wins 82 out of 100 times (and Toledo nearly pulled off a 18% chance escape), then why did Illinois fall so far in the SP+? Nine spots is a lot. What gives? I don't have access to Bill Connelly's laptop, but I would guess that the drop is something like this:

In the final preseason SP+, Connelly's laptop had the Illini 43rd. It buzzed and whirred and spit out that, with the roster losses, we should expect Illinois to have the #82 offense and the #7 defense.

Now we have the week one returns. The offense was fairly efficient (you know, when they weren't false-starting or holding), and that moved the offense from 82nd to 78th in his numbers. The defense? The defense gave up 416 yards and 28 points to an offense assumed to be 66th-best nationally going into the season. When you do that, the laptop says you shouldn't assume this will be the 7th-best defense. You should assume that this will be the 19th-best defense. Preseason factors still weigh heavily here, but 8% of the precincts are reporting and the news isn't great.

Does this MEAN anything? No. With as many players as we're replacing (and with Matt Bailey's injury), I didn't see any possible way we'd be the 7th-best defense in the country. If you read the preview I spoke often about the offense hopefully making a big leap to offset the defense's drop. That's probably the best way to frame all of this.

The offense jumped four spots. The defense dropped 12 spots. These are very, very early returns but we need those numbers to be similar. Put simply, if the defense is going to fall 30 spots by the end of the year, the offense needs to match or exceed it with a climb of their own.

4. The offense might have some explosivity?

This will be the shortest section of the five I'm writing because these are very early returns. And most of it is based on #5 below (which is all about Luke Altmyer). But I wanted to make special mention of the possible explosiveness of this offense.

First off, this game wasn't Oklahoma-with-Baker-Mayfield explosive. Other fanbases reading this would laugh at the use of the word "explosive" here. Please know that I could add "for Illinois" at the end of every sentence.

But we saw a few things on Saturday night that made me think that one of the things that was missing last year (explosive plays) might happen more often this year. Last year we had "Chase breaks a long one" and "Isaiah gets free after one of those one-yard passes" and that was about it. This year, I think we saw hints of more in the first game.

Just take Luke Altmyer's runs. He was an inch from breaking about a 65-yard scramble on Saturday. And his 8 rushes for 77 yards were all very impressive. (I say 8-for-77 instead of 9-for-69 because that ninth "rush" was a sack. And it's kind of dumb that those lost yards go into your rushing total. He ran the ball 8 times. He picked up 77 yards on those eight runs.)

So when your QB picks up nearly 10 yards per rush, and your slot receiver looks ready to break one at any moment, and your flanker caught two big touchdown passes, and your split-end caught a 33-yard bomb on fourth down with the game on the line, and your tailback pulled another one of those "he's down - no, wait, he's still on his feet running for an additional 25 yards"... then you might have an offense with a bit more explosivity.

We need an offense with a bit more explosivity.

5. Luke Altmyer appears to be the real deal.

This was the big one. If you like to drink orange and blue kool-aid, the pitcher in the fridge after this game was labeled "Luke Altmyer."

I did a radio appearance with Scott Beatty and Loren Tate this afternoon (you can listen here if you want). Loren asked me the last time an Illini QB had a debut like this. I mentioned several and Loren had the stats ready, making me hilariously wrong (like my memory of Nathan Scheelhaase's debut against Missouri in 2010 which I had as "really good" when he was 9-for-23.) I finally asked Loren what his research showed - when was the last time a QB had a debut with stats like this?


That's man who was roommates with Chuck Boerio in 1951 when he screamed "send Ameche at me", people. He's seen nearly 75 years of Illini football. And if he says that this was the best QB debut he's seen, I sit up and pay attention.

Here's a tweet with the QBR numbers for all of the Big Ten quarterbacks this past weekend:

Fans of nearly every other college football program:

"P'shaw, four other quarterbacks in the conference had a better game and you're hailing this as the best debut 'ever'?"

Me, Illini football fanatic:

"The last time an Illini quarterback was even rostered as the 2nd-string QB in the NFL was 2003. We haven't produced one of the best 75-or-so quarterbacks in the NFL in the last twenty years. Do you know how easy it is to just have one quarterback be the 68th-best QB and to hang on as the third QB on some team that carries three QB's? You'd think it would happen just once in TWENTY YEARS. But it has not happened in TWENTY YEARS. You're damn right I'm losing my mind over our quarterback having the 5th-best performance in the Big Ten week one."

I'm making too much of this. He threw into triple coverage and was picked off in this game. If he does that three times at Kansas on Friday night, I'll feel dumb for writing any of this.

But if he continues to play like that? Well, then, uh, one more list:

  • We'd be able to overcome "shot ourselves in the foot again" games.
  • We wouldn't have to worry about the defense carrying us.
  • We'd be able to utilize this gleesome threesome at wide receiver.

BRB gonna go make Gleesome Threesome shirts.


ditkanate on September 6, 2023 @ 07:47 AM

If he doesn't throw the pick into triple coverage, what does his QBR rating turn into?

Nall23 on September 6, 2023 @ 08:09 AM

I'm normally on-board with your marketing suggestions, but uh, trying to make "Gleesome Threesome" a thing might be....problematic. But perhaps that's just me.

andy on September 6, 2023 @ 09:33 AM

I had the same reaction. Might want to let that one marinate for a minute before firing up the ol' screen print machine.

jdl on September 6, 2023 @ 08:15 AM

Most of those crucial mistakes were committed by returning starters, not new guys playing their first game. But I do think it'll get cleaned up quickly.

gmotil on September 6, 2023 @ 10:38 AM

That actually makes me feel better. Everyone makes mistakes, and it was the first game. Even solid returning starters are gonna have off nights. But I also feel like those guys will more quickly correct the mistakes than someone else more green.

sixthandwhite on September 6, 2023 @ 10:59 AM

Don't forget we went 1-6 in one score games last year (I'm choosing to count the bowl game as one score because it essentially was). The ability to put aside the mistakes, poor play, seemingly one-sided calls, and creeping doubts and go win the game when you have the opportunity can't be overstated. It's been a long time since we can say "Hey, it's a one score game, we're gonna go win this."

Robert on September 6, 2023 @ 03:32 PM

We went 8-5 on the season but 1-6 in one-score games?

sixthandwhite on September 6, 2023 @ 05:13 PM

Should be 1 for 6 not 1 and 6, my bad.

tgb on September 6, 2023 @ 11:19 AM

Hi Robert. I'm old and don't know where to go with this question. Our seating area is a bunch of old season ticket holders who have watched a lot of games. After 2 passes to the tight end on the first series we were so excited to finally see that. Then, not another pass the whole game. Did anybody ask that question to the OC in his press meeting after the game?

Robert on September 6, 2023 @ 03:40 PM

There's no offensive coordinator press conference after the game. Only the head coach and a few players. Someone might have asked Bielema, but I didn't attend the presser.

tgb on September 6, 2023 @ 09:14 PM

Did anyone on the post game interviews ask that question. 2 passes, 2 completions

tgb on September 6, 2023 @ 09:14 PM

Did anyone on the post game interviews ask that question. 2 passes, 2 completions

Shemp89 on September 6, 2023 @ 12:46 PM

Robert, sorry to post this here but I don't see an email link on your page, and I'm not on FB or Twitter. I'm not sure if it's related to the update recently done (you mentioned that others would not need to be posting under your byline anymore), but the last few days the font on my feed has been really difficult to read.

If I could post a pic here I would show an example...the issue is that the letters in the words throughout the post have some in bold, others not. Not different words, but the individual letters themselves. Don't know if anyone else has this issue, but I have it only on the IB page. Thanks for any info or help.

Robert on September 6, 2023 @ 03:42 PM

At this very moment I'm reviewing the new look to the site, so this issue will be going away within the next seven days.

andy on September 6, 2023 @ 04:35 PM

I kept telling myself that this game was similar to Indiana a year ago to assuage my worries about this year’s team, so I went back and compared the stats to this year’s opener.

Some things were similar including a lot of penalties and overall sloppy play. I had forgotten the 4 turnovers (3 fumbles) to Indiana.
The differences were more striking than I first thought and give me more angst than I had before looking up the stats. Against Indiana we owned time of possession (36:33-23:27), total yards (448-362), rushing yards (216-32!!), and first downs (29-20). Indiana had a passing advantage, but it was swamped by our rushing attack and Chase Brown’s 199 yards on 36 carries. Looking at these stats if we cleaned up our penalties (8 for 80 vs Indiana’s 3-35) you could see the contours of last year’s Illini team. Against Toledo we lost all the metrics above: time of possession (33-27), total yards (416-374), rushing yards (186-168), and first downs (27-21).

The things Coach Bielema hangs his hat on were all in our favor last year and all against us in this year’s opener. Toledo was the more physical team and easily could have won this game. It makes me ask, “What are we good at?”. Counting on Luke hero ball every week doesn’t seem sustainable. Altmyer (I thought he was great btw, but that’s not what this team or program is built around)

There’s a lot to learn, but I really thought though there would be some regression in our secondary our line play on both sides would help. A story line I haven’t seen discussed or jumped into is our running backs. I thought they both looked slow to see the hole and not terribly explosive when they got there. Did Chase Brown mask a mediocre run game last year? Does this performance open the door for the younger backs? Will the D-Line perform like we thought they would, or was Toledo a sign of things to come? Johnny Newton is a better player than he showed against Toledo and I thought Keith Randolph picked it up later, but our pass rush didn’t get any pressure and did a terrible job of containment. Next week there’s a quarterback who has all the same skills, but is better at all of them. I was firmly in the 8-4 or 7-5 camp given the schedule, but that feels unrealistic at this point. Will re-evaluate after Friday.

cmi2phx on September 7, 2023 @ 05:00 PM

Even with Chase Brown, we had a mediocre run game last year. Middle of the pack in the B1G and nationally in running yards per game.

'98 on September 7, 2023 @ 03:55 PM

I really don't put the pick on Altmyer either. The wheel with McCray was the clear primary route, except 1) he ran it up the middle (by design??), 2) wheels take time, which means he has to wait, and 3) he had 2 guys on him, and had to throw it.

I'm not sure what that play was designed to do, but a skinny wheel to McCray where he's combatting safeties in the middle of the field doesn't feel like the best play design.

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