In the second article of my three-part series grading the 2013 Illinois football season, I'll be grimly reviewing the performance of the defense. I already covered Bill Cubit's offense in great detail, and awarded him a B+ for his strong efforts. I plan on tackling the grades for the Illini special teams within the next week or two, but for now we'll focus on Tim Banks' squad. Before we dig into this dumpster fire, please take note that the disclaimer I wrote in my first piece still applies:
Please keep in mind that the grades I give at the end will be entirely subjective. I certainly welcome your opinions (including disagreements) in the comments, but remember that these are just the views of one informed observer. My grades will also be based on the amount of success you would hope for from a team coming off a 2-10 season. Everything is relative, so I am not going to be judging the Illini with the expectations of an Ohio State fan.
While it may seem somewhat counterintuitive, one key to a great pass defense is solid defensive line play. The Illini struggled majorly to get pressure with their front four and registered an extremely low 14.0 sacks in 2013. That ranked 114th in the country, slightly above half the national average in 2013 (26.0 sacks). Perhaps Tim Banks should have blitzed more often, but there isn't a starter on the defense that seems extremely comfortable rushing the quarterback. Jonathan Brown led the Illini in sacks, with five, and Houston Bates came in second place with two and a half sacks. Bates was a LEO in 2013, a hybrid lineman/linebacker, and he was the only man on the line to rack up more than two sacks. Every single other defensive lineman on the roster combined for three sacks. Simply put, the Illini never got to the quarterback this year, and it allowed opposing quarterbacks to pick apart an inexperienced secondary.
Can you guess what these statistics represent? If you guessed "The Illinois passing defense in Big Ten games extrapolated to a 12 game season", you were right! That looks like a mighty fine quarterback. There are three numbers here that are particularly alarming, the first being that pesky completion percentage. 66.57 percent would rank as the 17th highest number for any quarterback in 2013 (just below Nathan Scheelhaase!). This probably relates back to the Illini not getting any pass rush or calling many blitzes with their front seven. Dropping seven men back into coverage gave opposing quarterbacks all the time they needed to survey the field and make high percentage passes. Ideally, a strong pass rusher will emerge on the D-line next year, though it's pretty hard to find a good candidate currently on the roster.
Next up is the absurdly low number of interceptions made by Illinois in 2013. I tried to explain the Illini's strange dearth of picks a few weeks ago, and came to the conclusion that Illinois was just extremely unlucky in that department:
I can guarantee you right now, Illinois will have more than three interceptions next year. If they don’t, they would have had the worst interception total in three consecutive seasons since at least 2006, and likely much farther back than that. Putting aside the luck aspect of interceptions, Illinois' extremely young secondary will cover better and get more picks as they grow and improve. Don't expect Illinois to be one of the best in the league at intercepting the ball, but they should at least move towards the average.
By all means, fans should expect the Illini to have more interceptions next year. That portion of my analysis hasn't changed. However, while reading Bill Connelly's "Study Hall" (which was predictably amazing), I came upon his explanation of the rate at which passes are typically intercepted:
Play-by-play data tracks both interceptions and what are called "passes broken up." Combined, they make up an overall "passes defensed" number. On average, interceptions make up around 21 percent of all passes defensed. Just as you should be expected to recover in the neighborhood of 50 percent of your fumbles over a long period of time, you should also expect to regress or progress toward that mark when it comes to your interceptions as a total of overall passes defensed.
Being the stats nerd I am, I immediately went back to CFBStats and looked up the number of passes the Illini defended this year. With this new information, there came both good news and bad news. First, the bad: Illinois only totaled 31 passes defended this year. That ties the Illini for 117th in the nation, and is barely over a third of the total compiled by the top-ranked team, BYU (88 passes defended). Prior to my research for this piece, I expected to find the Illinois passing defense to be below-average and the run defense to be embarrassingly terrible, but this number tells a different story. The secondary really had trouble getting their hands on the ball this year, and that led to fewer interceptions than nearly every team in the country. The glass-half-full take on this number being low is that the secondary was still very inexperienced this past year. The number of passes Illinois defends should definitely increase next year as some of the promising young defensive backs age.
As for the good news, this new insight reaffirmed my claim that three interceptions were simply too few for there not to be a great deal of bad luck involved. The Illini defense only picked off 9.7 percent of the passes they defended, well below the average of 21 percent. Per Football Study Hall, only three teams in the entire country intercepted a lower percentage of their passes defended, those being Utah, Temple, and UTEP. Illinois should've had roughly three more interceptions in 2013, which would've been quite welcome in some of their closer losses (Hello, Northwestern and Penn State). All this to say, the Illini secondary has a lot of growing up to do, but luck and the law of averages alone will likely double their interception total next year.
Finally, we come to my favorite basic statistic to use when evaluating a pass defense: yards per attempt. Every single time an opposing QB dropped back to pass last year, he could expect to gain more than eight yards on average. Based on the extrapolated stats from their Big Ten schedule, the Illini would come in at 110th in the nation in opponent yards per attempt through the air. The median opponent YPA was 7.0 in 2013, and the Illini conceded more than a full yard greater than that every snap. Plain and simple, this needs to improve next year. Illinois is not going to be going bowling if they continue to give up more than eight yards a pass attempt, unless of course Bill Cubit dials up 750 yards and 67 points per game next year. Just for fun, it's worth noting that Indiana was the only B1G team to rank worse than the Illini, as they gave up 8.4 YPA. Thankfully, we can revel in #HOOSIERTEARS.
Next year the Illini return nine starters on defense, including the entire secondary. Having two senior safeties will almost certainly help prevent some big plays from occurring and the emerging junior corners will continue to improve in coverage. Unfortunately, Jonathan Brown and DE Tim Kynard will be sorely missed in 2014, but the Illini should be able to replace their talent and improve their pass D given the expected development of the rest of the defense.
Illinois' run defense was heavily scrutinized this year, and not without good reason. In seven of their eight Big Ten games, the opposition's leading rusher exceeded the national median yards-per-carry of 4.17. The only rusher who didn't was Treyvon Green of Northwestern. The Wildcats ranked just 80th in offensive YPC this year, so limiting them was no great feat. If we extrapolate the numbers posted by Illinois' run defense in the Big Ten season for a full year, just as we did with the pass defense, the situation looks extremely dire:
Take a moment to compose yourself.
I realize that by omitting the non-conference games we're looking at an incomplete picture of Illinois' season, but the conference games are really the meat of the schedule. Ignoring the extrapolated numbers for just a moment, Illinois had the worst run defense in the Big Ten by yards per carry, touchdowns, and placed 11th in total yards conceded on the ground. Now using the stats above and comparing them to the full seasons for the rest of the FBS, it's clear just how bad Illinois was in 2013.
Illinois' Big Ten season would've qualified as the 120th best in the country in terms of yards per carry. They would have placed 124th (again, out of 125 teams) in total yards given up to rushers. 36 touchdowns would've ranked 120th in the nation over a full season.There is no bright spot when it comes to the Illini run defense. There is only darkness, failure, and never-ending GIFs of Ameer Abdullah stiff-arming Mason Monheim into the next galaxy.
A Brief Ode To Jonathan Brown
The clear leader of Illinois' defense, Jonathan Brown was one of the few positives on Tim Banks' side of the ball this season. Brown ranked third in the Big Ten in tackles for loss per game, with 1.25 and a total of 15.0. Brown also tied for 27th in the country in TFL/g, a pretty darn impressive rank when considering the huge quantity of talented linemen and linebackers at the college level. I typically prefer to avoid citing tackles as a reputable statistic because the official scorers sometimes hand them out like candy, but Jonathan Brown tied for 18th in the country in tackles per game, above most of the top linebackers in the 2014 draft. Without him, it would not be a stretch to suggest that Illinois would have had the worst run defense in the country.
Jonathan Brown finished his career with 45.5 career TFLs, tying him for third most in Illinois history. In case you weren't aware, Illinois has had a few decent defensive players. Simeon Rice is the leader in career tackles for loss at Illinois, with 69 during his college years. Brown was a three-time All-Big Ten selection and was named to the preseason watch lists for the Butkus award twice, given to the nation's best linebacker. As for Brown's NFL aspirations, various mock drafts have him being picked anywhere between the 5th and 7th rounds. Hopefully, after a nice showing at the Senior Bowl (four tackles, one solo TFL), Brown's draft stock will rise. Finally, Brown stayed classy in defeat this season, and has by all accounts matured into a great player and person during his time at Illinois.
If you've made it this far, I'd like to extend a sincere congratulations your way. For those curious, advanced stats paint a very similar picture to what I've crafted above. Football Outsiders' S&P+ ranks Illinois' defense 103rd in the country, which sounds about right. Somewhat surprisingly, the run defense ranked 83rd while the pass defense graded out as an abysmal 108th in the country. I would've expected those two numbers to be flipped based on my own findings, but they aren't so different that it's bothersome. If you really need an explanation for the run defense being ranked so high (How sad is it that 83rd is considered high for this team?), my best guess is that the non-conference run defense for the Illini was significantly better than during the Big Ten slate. Conference games are focused on most by fans when evaluating the year due to recency bias and the greater significance of the games, so it makes sense that the public perception would be that the run D was much worse. Additionally, Illinois faced a great deal more runs in Big Ten play than passes, so it felt like the offense was always getting yards on the ground.
Aside from Jonathan Brown's efforts and some improvement of players like V'Angelo Bentley and Houston Bates, Tim Banks' defense was simply awful this year. If some of these problems aren't alleviated in 2014, I'll be expecting his firing in the ensuing offseason. Harsh as that may be, multiple years of performance at this level would get a coordinator fired at just about any major conference university. If the Illini don't make a bowl next year, it won't be the offense that held them back.