It is so difficult to stay rational. I've read countless frustrated tweets from fans both during and after the Washington game.
When a team blows the doors off of your favorite squad, executing two devastating big plays to go up 18 points under ten minutes into the game, it's hard to keep your mental faculties under control. The initial response is, and will always be, "There has to be somebody to blame for this." Because that's what fans love to do when things go wrong in sports: they love to apply blame.
Here's the most important message that Illinois fans can take from the first three games of the 2014 season: it's early. That's not necessarily an optimistic view, it's the realistic one. At this point, we have two games against sub-par competition and one game against good competition to go off, and that's not nearly a large enough sample size to make definitive statements, good or bad, about this team.
In the first two games, the run game looked very bad. Against a better team in Washington, not to mention one with a top tier front seven, the run game was much better. The freshman receivers were incredible in the first two games, and in the third they were less of a factor. The passing attack was excellent converting third-and-long in the first two games and they were horrendous at accomplishing the same task in the third.
To properly evaluate the potential of any team, it's best to look past the rarest events of the games; things that happen largely due to luck, good or bad. Wes Lunt is probably not going to gift the opponent with two defensive touchdowns in the first three possessions of every single game. That seems rather unlikely. It's unwise to fully discount that it happened, but it's entirely possible that Lunt doesn't give up two more defensive touchdowns for the rest of the year.
These plays unquestionably destroy the hearts of fans, but they don't hold nearly as much bearing for the remainder of 2014 as fans believe. How is Tim Beckman supposed to prepare for an immediate 21-3 deficit? He simply cannot. Not a single coach in America sits down on Wednesdays and says, "But [offensive coordinator], how are we going to respond to a fumble six and a pick six in the first half?"
This isn't to say that fans cannot or should not hold Beckman accountable for other, related issues. Clearly, Michael Heitz was not prepared to deal with potential All-Americans coming after him on the edge. The coverage teams haven't been performing up to par yet in 2014. Bill Cubit's game-plan for attacking the Washington defense seemed questionable. It just seems unreasonable to blame a horrific beginning on the coaches when nobody, not even diehard Washington fans, could've predicted such an incredible start.
I'll get off my soap box now, because you probably came here for stats, not opinions (go here for Primiano's excellent piece about the context of the UW loss). That's the main point of these articles though: you know what happened in the game on Saturday. Our weekly recaps aim to tell you everything you need to know about why Illinois won or lost. The premise of the Statistical Brain Dump is to further expound upon the events of the game and use those observations to learn and analyze how the team can improve and succeed in the future. Finally, we're going to do that.
Always Use Protection
The cause of both the interception and the fumble six was, as you probably know, the poor pass protection of the offensive line. Lunt was under much more pressure this week than the first two. This could easily be explained away with the superiority of Washington's front seven and the injuries that Illinois has accrued through the first couple weeks of the year. Surely a large part of the line's struggles were because of those forced position changes (Heitz in particular struggled at right tackle), and hopefully Pat Flavin will be able to return this week and move everybody back to their natural spot.
Outside of the injuries and the excellent front seven of the defense, some of the sacks were the fault of Wes Lunt and Bill Cubit. Lunt seemed to hold the ball a bit too long in this game. Illinois relied largely on a short passing attack and he struggled a bit when moving through his progressions. He seemed hesitant and a bit nervous, traits that weren't apparent in the first two games. This is probably something that will work itself out as Lunt becomes more experienced, but quick reads with pressure in his face may not click for a while.
Still, it didn't seem Bill Cubit helped him out much. I was hoping to see a lot of quick routes to receivers on the outside to take advantage of Washington's inexperienced corners, but that didn't seem to be a big part of the plan. If I remember correctly, there was only one quick curl route successfully thrown and completed throughout the game. That just cannot happen against a team with such a questionable secondary and a dominant pass rush. Hopefully Cubit irons out some of these things and puts together a better plan for next time.
Penalties Were Killer
Over and over, Illinois put themselves in terrible down-and-distance positions because of silly penalties. They gave up a first down on third-and-twenty-nine via a penalty. They had multiple first-and-fifteens due to false starts and other infractions. When a team does that to themselves so often, it's incredibly difficult to both sustain drives on offense and finish them on defense.
Illinois currently ranks 109th in the nation in penalty yards per game, giving up 78.0 per contest. Before fans quickly blame this on Beckman and call the team undisciplined, it's worth nothing that teams with well-regarded coaches have struggled with penalties too. Kliff Kingsbury's Texas Tech team ranks 120th, Frank Beamer's Virginia Tech team is 114th, and Art Briles' Baylor team is 106th. This could be related to coaching, but it could also be random chance of a relatively small sample size. The Illini were just about average in penalty yards last year, so while it may not be a trend just yet, it's certainly something to watch for in the coming weeks.
Illinois Must Stay On Schedule
One stat that just about defined this game, aside from turnovers, was each team's success on third downs. After being excellent in this area through two games, Illinois struggled to a 1-for-11 performance on third downs. On the other side, Washington was 8-for-16 converting third downs. The main reason for this difference? Each team's average distance-to-go on third down. (Note: these numbers may not be 100 percent correct, I tallied them myself by hand and could have easily made a mistake or two.)
Washington's average third down was 3rd-and-5.8 yards to go. If we take out two 17-yard outliers that Washington had, their average down-and-distance was 3rd-and-4.3 yards to go. Illinois averaged 8.46 yards to go on non-garbage time third downs, and still averaged just 7.38 yards to go without one of their own 17-yard outliers. That is a huge difference, and it helps explain the success Washington's offense had in sustaining their drives.
Illinois cannot expect to convert more than a few times a game if they are facing roughly eight yards every single time. The offense is locked into passing and it gives the opposing defense the ability to go all-out with a pass rush. That killed the Illini against Washington and will continue to do so against some of the more formidable defensive lines they'll face this year (Ohio State and Nebraska come to mind). One way to fix this may be to actually run the ball more often on early downs against better teams. The 21-3 start probably made Cubit feel more pressure to air it out; hopefully there is more balance on first and second down the rest of the year.
Illinois ranks 85th in the country in average opponent punt return yardage and 120th in the country in average opponent kick return yardage. These are small sample sizes and Illinois' units could easily improve over the course of the year, but thus far it has been a problem. The short field is really the only reason Washington was able to score on their first drive of the game, and perhaps the game goes a bit differently if Illinois isn't out to an early 7-0 deficit. That's grasping at straws a bit, but punt/kick coverage is a part of the game with severely understated importance. The Illini will need to clean this up and prevent teams from starting drives in such nice field position.
Run Game Improvement via Yards Per Play
It's easy to look at the Illini's poor rushing stats from the Washington game (19 carries for 56 yards through three quarters, before Reilly O'Toole came in with the back-ups) and say that the run game is only getting worse this year. However, the NCAA stupidly counts sacks as rushing attempts, even though they only take place on intended passing plays. It's better to look solely at the running backs' rushing stats in these scenarios, and those numbers look much more promising for the Illini.
Excluding his six-yard loss on an attempted pass, Josh Ferguson ran 10 times for 58 yards (5.8 YPC) and Donovonn Young ran four times for 20 yards (5.0 YPC). That's the first time this year that both Ferguson and Young have exceeded five yards per carry. It's strange that this took place against a good team like Washington instead of YSU or WKU, but it could be a good harbinger for the future of the Illini run game.
One last thing: if you're looking for a positive outlook on this game, the yards-per-play statistic is your best friend:
|Year||Illinois Yards Per Play||Washington Yards Per Play||Margin|
By this measure at least, Illinois has made significant progress from last year. There's a lot of noise surrounding this number, especially when a team jumps out to an early lead like Washington did, but it's encouraging nonetheless for the Illini. Per Bill Connelly of Football Study Hall, teams who win the yards per play margin by 0.1 to 0.5 yards per play win the game roughly 55 percent of the time. Teams who lose the yards per play margin by 1.9 like the Illini did in 2013 lose the game roughly 90% of the time.
There's also something to be said for reducing the opponents yards per play by 1.4 in a year, even accounting for the losses of Keith Price and Bishop Sankey. Nearly the entire UW offensive line from last year returned in 2014 and Illinois did a much better job against them this time around. Additionally, Illinois had a higher yards per play this year than last. I'd chalk that up to this offense's increased big play ability over last year's team (hello, Geronimo), but it's something to take note of at the very least.
This week's SBD was a bit shorter than the last couple, largely because I've been devastatingly sick and tired so far this week (and also because it's hard to write from on top of this high horse of "rational analysis"). That's also the reason it's coming to you a bit later than usual. Everything should go back to the usual time and format by next week. As always, leave all of your thoughts and hopes and desires in the comment section. I check my posts obsessively for a few days so you can rest assured that your comment will be answered.