"If Illinois loses to Purdue, then I will hand craft a torch and pitchfork and join these fans at the gates of Hell."
— The Champaign Room (@Champaign_Room) September 28, 2014
Well, here I stand, pitchfork and torch at my side.
Last week, when I told people to relax after the defense's embarrassing performance against Nebraska, there was obviously a lot of blowback. From watching the game once through, it just felt like the Illini were merely beaten by an infinitely more talented team. That talent disparity shouldn't have appeared against Purdue, which is why I'm still confident that it was prudent to let the NEB game go. The offense was going to move the ball more easily against a poor Purdue team, especially with Wes Lunt back in action. Certainly the defense would also perform better against such a weak offense.
And yet, against all odds, the Illini defense actually performed worse than they did against Nebraska. Funnily, if Illinois had played D as well as they did against Nebraska, they would have beaten Purdue with a decent amount of ease. It's not hard to see the truth in this.
Against Nebraska, which averaged over 7.5 yards per play prior to facing Michigan State, Illinois gave up 6.9 yards per play. Some of it in garbage time, yes, and the Nebraska averages come mostly from games against weak competition, but still that's about the performance you'd expect from a bad defense. The Illini were frequently in the right spots, but the front seven was just completely overpowered by Nebraska's athletes. Nebraska was sixth in the nation in yards per play-- that's a damn good offense and there's little shame in not being able to stop them (though obviously that would be preferable).
Purdue? Well, Purdue is a completely different story. Coming into the game, Purdue averaged 4.36 yards per play; 120th in the nation. Illinois allowed 8.5 yards per play to one of the worst offenses in the entire country. Appleby showed much more poise on Saturday than Etling had ever shown on a football field in his life, but that doesn't excuse the ridiculously poor effort of Illinois' defense.
Anything over six yards per play against Purdue would have been an abomination: this was an unrelenting massacre. The most frustrating plays of the game were (rather obviously) the explosive ones, which were largely caused by missed tackles. Tim Beckman himself noted this at Monday's presser:
#illini Beckman: Missed tackles key to breakaway runs vs. Purdue. Gave up 342 yards on 7 plays.— Jeremy Werner (@WernerESPNCU) October 6, 2014
Assuming the math is correct, Illinois gave up 62.1 percent of Purdue's total offensive yardage on seven of their 65 total plays (10.7 percent). Stripping away those plays, Purdue averaged...3.6 yards per play, which actually would've been a very nice performance for the defense. Obviously you can't just do take those away-- that's why everybody is mad at Tim Beckman remaining overly optimistic this week --but Illinois showed themselves capable of stopping this team for the majority of the game.
Tackling is an interesting problem for a team to have, because it's hard to know whether the players are failing to do their jobs, the coaches aren't teaching something essential, or the team just has really bad luck in one-on-one situations. Regardless of the cause, there were myriad opportunities to tackle Purdue on a couple of these plays, and nobody on the Illini defense was up to the task. This has been a problem for Illinois for the last couple years. Whether due to player errors or coaching errors, this is the main issue preventing Illinois from having an average defense this season.
Primiano was in the press box this Saturday. He said that by the third or fourth gigantic Purdue play, all the writers and reporters could do was simply laugh. They laughed their asses off because Illinois football has become a punch line. When the unending futility of the Illini against a shitty team like Purdue is a joke even to those who cover them, it's time for changes to be made. In the absence of several more wins and obvious improvement from the team throughout the rest of the year, which are almost certainly not on the horizon, it's time for Illinois to fire Tim Beckman.
Red Zone Performance
Illinois was four-of-eight in the red zone on Saturday. That's not touchdowns, that's in scoring any points whatsoever. They scored four touchdowns, and had zero points on the other four trips. If Illinois kicked a field goal on the other four trips to the red zone, they win by one point. If Illinois scored a touchdown on the other four trips to the red zone, they win by 17 points and hang a 55 spot on a team that held Iowa to 24 last week. The Illini also failed to convert on fourth-and-two from the Purdue 23-yard line, which basically makes them four-of-nine on attempts to score in the red zone. The offense performed well in this game, but they wasted a lot of open chances to win, even in spite of the defense shoving their heads into a blender for three hours and 18 minutes. Three of those failed red zone appearances came on the final three drives of the game, which leads me to my next point...
Fourth Quarter Dominance Yet Again
Though it's almost entirely ignored due to the injury to Lunt and the failure to actually score points, Illinois dominated the fourth quarter against a bad team yet again. Purdue began the quarter at the Illini 13-yard line, following a long drive. They would score a touchdown to finish that drive. After that drive, Illinois ran 27 plays for 170 yards (6.3 per play) and Purdue ran six plays for 17 yards (2.83) as they went three-and-out twice. Sadly, this didn't make a difference in the final score, as Illinois finished their drives with a blocked field goal, a turnover on downs, and an interception. This has been one of the few problems with Illinois' offense, both this year and last, and would help them win a lot more games if fixed.
Fourth Down Playcalling: Guh.
I almost jumped out of my pants when Beckman sent the offense out to go for it on fourth-and-two early in the second quarter. The Illini were at the Purdue 23-yard line, the same situation I mentioned earlier, and called a timeout to think it over before sending out the offense. This is the right call, for several reasons.
Though the Illini were up 14-7 and it was still early, the defense had just given up a long play and touchdown to Purdue. If a shootout is in the works, as became pretty clear early one, it's always best to aggressively go for touchdowns instead of settling for field goals. Not only that, but the Illini have a very unreliable kicking situation at the moment. Couple that with the swirling, crazy winds that were roaring through Memorial Stadium and you have plenty of motivation to go for more points. The only objection I have here is with the play call-- why on Earth is Illinois throwing a 25-yard pass to the end zone on fourth-and-two? Either come up with the best run play you have or throw the ball four-to-eight yards down the field. It's best not to overcomplicate things against a bad team and a bad defense.
Later, on fourth-and-two again from the 13-yard line of Purdue, Beckman curiously attempted a field goal. His logic behind it was pretty obvious: the Illini were down by 11 points in the fourth quarter and Beckman was hoping for the guarantee of bringing Purdue's lead down to just one score. There are a couple of problems with that logic:
- At the time of this kick, there were about six minutes left in the game. Surely, after Purdue had gashed his defense all day, Beckman wouldn't base his entire strategy off of his defense? Yes, moving to a one-score game is good, but who's to say that Purdue doesn't march right down the field yet again and hit a field goal or score a touchdown? Down by that many points, and with few possessions left, the Illini have to be trying to re-gain as many points as possible. It's also possible that Purdue could've been stopped on the following drive, but with very little time left. Perhaps the Illini never reach as close as the 13-yard line again and have to throw a hail mary instead of attempting to set up a field goal.
- Beckman kicked on a fourth-and-two, when earlier in the game he had gone for a touchdown in almost the exact same situation (and at that time, he was in the lead!). As football writer Bill Barnwell of Grantland always says, if you don't have the cojones to go for it on fourth-and-short, you will almost certainly face a fourth-and-longer later in the game. Indeed, on the very next drive the Illini faced fourth-and-goal from the four-yard line. Perhaps they could've kicked a field goal instead of having to go for the touchdown, had they gone for it in a more amiable situation on the previous drive.
- Lastly, why would you rely on Reisner to kick a 30-yard field goal in the first place? The wind, though it had settled a bit, was still blowing at a substantial pace. Not only that, but on the drive just beforehand, Reisner had missed a 19-yard extra point! The XP wasn't blocked, he straight up missed it.
The decision to be conservative on that fourth-and-two didn't cost the Illini the game by itself, but it certainly didn't help their situation. I thought that Beckman may have been past his idiotic game management when he went for it on fourth-and-two early in the game, but apparently he has yet to improve that aspect of his coaching.
I would be remiss not to mention the best player on either side of the field. Lunt heartbreakingly hobbled down the field in between plays and struggled to get up after multiple hits. Every ounce of my body wanted to scream at him to just stay down as the game began to look more and more like a loss. Mercifully, one hit was too much for Lunt and he could no longer continue. His final stat line: 27-of-39 passing for 332 yards, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions. Aside from a poor throw to Josh Ferguson in the flats and one or two inaccurate passes, Lunt was chucking dimes on one leg the entire game. He completely carved up an experienced Purdue secondary in spite of taking hit after hit after hit.
As for the Illini offensive line, this was a pathetic performance. Over and over, they allowed the most important player on the team, who was already playing with an injury, to get hammered. Obviously this is easy to say from the perspective of a blogger, but damn it just seemed like the right tackles gave up on Saturday. It takes a lot for me to mention a possible ack of effort or anything like that, because it's hard to know anything from the stands, but Reilly O'Toole is gonna suffer the same fate Lunt did if the OL doesn't get it together at some point. Ohio State is going to sack the Illini quarterback, whomever it may be, ten or more times. Wes Lunt is a fucking warrior for getting up every time his fellow Illini let him down.
It's impossible not to love Mike Dudek. It is just not humanly possible. An undersized, under-recruited just turned in the best performance from an Illini receiver since A.J Jenkins. Steve Hull had a couple ridiculous games last year, but he didn't have the absurd receiving ability of Dudek. The man can catch anything within a five-mile radius. He was just named to the Biletnikoff award watch list and more than deserves the honor. Geronimo Allison has all the physical tools you love in an outside receiver, but Mike Dudek has already become my favorite football player to watch in a long, long time. I only wish that the defense didn't suck so much in this game-- if they hadn't, a lot more people would be talking about his circus catches and ridiculous athleticism. Get him a Klondike bar.
As depressing as that game was, it's not a complete death knell for the season. That pesky rational and statistically-inclined portion of my brain says that we just saw the worst performance for an Illini defense in a long, long time. They showed earlier this year, in every single game, that they are better than Saturday's effort. If they perform up to par, Illinois still has a chance to win a home game or two this year. If they perform above what they've shown this season, Illinois' offense can carry them to a win against several teams remaining on the schedule.
It's unlikely, but I'm not going to give up on the possibility of another victory. Up next is Wisconsin, who will demolish the Illini. All I'm hoping to see is that this team refuses to give up, as they've done in every game this year. Unfortunately, however they perform will likely be too little, too late for Tim Beckman and his staff.