Welcome to the Statistical Brain Dump, a new weekly series in which I'll be analyzing the box score and statistics from the most recent Illini victory/tragic failure for your enjoyment! This series will be replacing "Around the Big Ten" every Monday and we will be covering the week's Big Ten results for you more in the B1G Power Rankings piece that goes up every Tuesday.
Frankly, this is an Illinois site and we want you to have as much information about this football team as possible. This article will strive to keep you up to date, yet still laughing at just how much Illinois sucks sometimes. Essentially, it's one gigantic hodgepodge of nearly every single thought I had after Saturday's game. With all that sorted out, let's start with the bad and slowly make our way to the good observations of the day.
Offensively Bad Line Play
The run game against Youngstown State. Woof. Earlier this year, I said that we could never again speak of the basketball game at Northwestern. The play of the offensive line this past Saturday almost certainly falls under the same umbrella. Illinois finished the game with 22 carries at just 3.5 yards per carry. That's horrendous against an FCS team, and there really isn't much more to say.
BUT WAIT: I can make you feel even worse. Take away Donovonn Young's 20 yard carry from the second half, by far the Illini's longest of the day, and you end up with 21 carries for 58 yards-- 2.76 yards per carry (!!!!!!!!). Against an FCS team! With four returning starters on the offensive line! Where was Josh Ferguson on Saturday?
Don't jump off that ledge just yet, though. There is still reason to believe that improvement is on the horizon. The Southern Illinois game is probably the best comparison for this one, given that YSU and SIU are two similarly talented FCS schools. If you'll recall, the Illini ran 30 times last year for 49 total yards. That's even worse than this past week's performance, and the rushing attack turned out to be pretty solid by the end of 2013.
That's not an excuse for the poor blocking against Youngstown State, but it could be a reason to remain hopeful that the Illini will figure it out eventually. Cleaning up the run and pass blocking should be the highest priority of the offense this week in practice. Of all the issues the Illini had against YSU, this is by far the most worrisome in my mind.
Less Punt, More Lunt
Best comment of the gamethread so far: "Less punt, more Lunt." We agree wholeheartedly.— The Champaign Room (@Champaign_Room) August 30, 2014
I was not a huge fan of the way Bill Cubit handled Wes Lunt's first quarter (the first three quarters, actually) as the starting quarterback. Eight of Illinois' ten first quarter plays (that's, like, not a lot of plays by the way--we'll get to that later) were passes. Most were short and quick attempts. While it's not a terrible idea in theory, the execution was pretty bad. Illinois' receivers were clearly not able to break tackles and getting yards after the catch.
The only exception to this rule was one Martize Barr catch where he was able to maneuver his way to a first down. That would be the only first down Illinois had in the first quarter. The quick pass strategy worked a little better as the game went on (see the Jon Davis touchdown drive), but overall the Illini found most of their success when they let Lunt throw the ball downfield. Hopefully, Cubit is more williing to trust Lunt with the deep ball when Illinois takes on Western Kentucky.
Quarterback Draws Are The Devil's Work
I distinctly remember Braxton Miller killing the Illini with several quarterback draws in last year's Ohio State game, and it has become quickly apparent that those defensive issues are not yet resolved. Youngstown State's quarterback Dante Nania ran the quarterback draw five times for a total of 39 yards, by my count. That's nearly eight yards per carry on a simple hesitation and run up the middle. On the fifth try, Austin Teitsma finally clogged the inside and stopped Nania but it was simply too easy for the Penguins to get yardage like that. Defending the QB Draw is something that absolutely has to be cleaned up before some of the better running quarterbacks on the schedule come to town.
Penalties and the Kicking Game
Okay, I swear we're almost done with the negative things, but I can't ignore some of the idiotic penalties that Illinois committed against YSU. First of all, how does a team with experienced kickers boot it out of bounds twice in a row? Once by Taylor Zalewski, and then immediately after by backup kicker/punter Ryan Frain. I'm hopeful and optimistic that this was just a one time thing by those two. They'll be working on kickoffs a great deal in practice this week.
Kicks aside, there were still a couple ill-advised penalties. There shouldn't be such horrible mental mistakes on a team that has worked so hard to succeed in the classroom. That's oversimplifying things a bit, but it's unavoidable: why on Earth is Chunky Clements hitting Dante Nania at all after he's released the ball on third-and-very-long? That resulted in a drive-extending first down for YSU and eventual points.
The Defense and Time of Possession vs. Total Plays
There's a whole lot to unfurl in regards to the defense's performance against Youngstown State. Nearly any argument one makes has a solid counter, which means it's easy to spin their execution any way one desires. I believe this game should be looked at in a fairly positive light, so here's my spin.
Let's begin with the time of possession statistic that people have been so eager to throw out. Youngstown State dominated the time of possession, holding the ball for over two-thirds of the game clock: 40 minutes and 20 seconds to 19 minutes and 40 seconds. On the surface, this looks awful, but one has to consider the strategies of the two teams. YSU was determined to run the ball on nearly every down.
Of their 83 total offensive plays, 59 (!) were rushes and just 24 passes. By comparison, the Illini offense only ran 60 plays total all game. When one team has that many running plays, the clock is going to wind almost continuously during their possessions. Add on the fact that Illinois was working really hard to establish their passing game and there is a very simple explanation for the lopsided ToP statistic.
The real question lies in what we can take from such a disparity. With all those plays run and the YSU offense working so hard to keep the Illini offense off the field, I believe the defense's performance is a major positive. Any defense that is on the field for so many consecutive plays is bound to make a couple tackling and mental errors. YSU wore down the Illini over and over and broke two huge plays because of it-- one a simple screen pass to a running back and the other a simple screen pass to a wide receiver. If we take away those two big plays and chalk them up to fatigue, YSU QB Dante Nania's stats look excellent from an Illini perspective: 9-of-22 passing for 62 yards, a mere 2.8 yards per pass. That is abysmal and pretty encouraging for the defense.
Plenty of people will complain about the run defense, but a similar argument applies there. There are only so many fresh defensive linemen on this team and with Illinois' best defensive end out to injury (Kenny Nelson), it didn't surprise me that the Penguins were able to move the ball a little bit via the run. But consider this: at the end of the day, despite totaling over 200 yards on the ground, the Penguins were moving just 3.4 yards per carry. Take out a 31-yard rush by Martin Ruiz and all of a sudden that number drops even further, to just 2.96 yards per carry. Last year, YSU ran for right around three yards per carry against Michigan State, quite possibly the best defense in the nation.
While one would hope for a few more stops in short-yardage situations, the defense held up in the red zone (YSU was forced into field goals three out of four trips to the RZ) and stuffed a great deal of rushes right at the line of scrimmage. Overall, this was a solid performance for a much-maligned rush defense last year. If the Illini offense is able to put together any real drives during the first three quarters, it's almost certain that YSU fails to reach double digits in points. They barely did as it was--the Penguins had just nine points when Mason Monheim dropped a sure pick six. Later that possession, Illinois would give up YSU's only touchdown of the day.
Redshirts Worth the Burn
Even fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers didn't burn shirts after the Decision as fast as Tim Beckman did this Saturday. Two true freshman wide receivers, Malik Turner and Mike Dudek, were thrown immediately into the fire. Dudek was seen exclusively in the slot while Turner was used more as an outside receiver. Both had excellent debuts, combining for seven catches for 103 yard and a touchdown. Turner showed his ability to find openings in the middle of the defense while Dudek had two short catches and one deep bomb down the sideline that he magically hauled in. These two complement each other well and will probably be among the leading receivers at Illinois for at least the next three years: Illini fans are looking at a couple of studs early in their development.
Hustle Builds Muscle
It's hard to find positives in plays where the defense broke down against an FCS team, but it's also hard to ignore the speed and effort of Taylor Barton. Quite frankly, Barton and the other defensive backs may have saved the game for Illinois by chasing down YSU RB Jody Webb on his game-breaking 54-yard screen pass-and-run. Barton took down Webb before he was able to get into the end zone and the Penguins ended up settling for a field goal on that drive.
In a different phase of the game, back-up CB Jevaris Little really stood out to me on special teams. The sophomore only finished with one tackle of a return man, but he was down the field forcing fair catches on nearly every single punt return. I was thoroughly impressed with his quickness and ability to get past blockers on the outside. Hopefully Jevaris can keep up his excellent special teams play as the Illini move into the tougher parts of their schedule.
That's just about everything I could gather from week one of the Illinois football season. If you have anything else you'd like to discuss, we always love to see comments from our intelligent readers. On the other hand, you can also tell me that I am stupid and that our defense sucks and that our quarterback sucks and that I should be fired and the TCR staff should all be fired and everybody should be fired and Wes Lunt should be executed by firing squad. That is another option, though I wouldn't particularly recommend it.
In all seriousness, please let us know if there's anything more you'd like to see from this series. We are working to bring you the best content possible and any suggestions are always welcome. See you all next week after Illinois kicks some Hilltopper butt (hopefully).