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The Statistical Brain Dump: Western Kentucky

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An in-depth look at all aspects of Illinois Football's 42-34 win over the Hilltoppers. The passing game is great, the defense might be okay, and the running game is still a big issue.

JEVARIS LITTLE IS HERE TO HURT PEOPLE
JEVARIS LITTLE IS HERE TO HURT PEOPLE
Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to week two of The Statistical Brain Dump, the freshest, newest series at the Champaign Room. It's critically acclaimed and everything. Just look at this testimonial, from the head coach himself:

Tim Beckman: I tell you what when I see the Statistical Brain Dump, I just can't help but think about how much of a family this team is and how we will continue to improve. I'm sorry, what was your question?

It was truly heart-warming to get that kind of support from the leader of the Illini football family. They're a family. A football family.

(For the record, I actually like seeing that message relayed unanimously by the entire team and coaching staff. Just a bit of teasing.)

Childish, un-funny introduction aside, there's quite a lot to get to in the latest edition of the SBD. Roughly ten topics are on the slate today, ranging from the outstanding performance of the passing game to Taylor Zalewski's slightly exaggerated kicking struggles. This is going to be a particularly extensive one, so buckle up and prepare yourself for everything I learned from the Western Kentucky game.

The Running Game is a Problem

Taking sacks out of the equation, the Illini are averaging just under three yards per carry thus far in 2014. That's against the formidable defenses of Youngstown State and Western Kentucky. Not great, Bob. Josh Ferguson, whom many (including myself) expected to be Illinois' breakout player of the year, has just 25 carries for 74 yards through two games (3.0 YPC). Donovonn Young hasn't had a much more successful start to his season; he's totaled 23 carries for 86 yards.

The important thing to remember is that the failure of the running game hasn't been the fault of the running backs. The majority of Illinois' broken running plays have been the fault of the offensive line. There isn't really much to complain about with the running backs: it actually seems like they've done a good job of taking advantage when the holes are there.

One statistic that really helps illustrate how bad the running game has been, courtesy of Jordan Wells in this wonderful statistical analysis of the game:

First down-WKU held Illinois to a 38 percent success rate on first down, including only 2-for-13 (15 percent) rushing.

"Success Rate" is a statistic created by Bill Connelly. You can read more about it via this link if you're interested, but on first down, a "successful play" comes when the offense achieves 50% or more of the remaining yards until they move the chains. For example, a first down run of five yards or more would keep the team on schedule (having a manageable down and distance) and thus be a "successful play".

In this instance, Illinois essentially failed to reach five yards on 11 of their 13 first down rushing attempts. That is just an abysmal effort, and the offensive line is almost certainly to blame for it. On first down and ten, the defense is frequently expecting the opposing team to run--it's the most likely down for that playcall. The burden is greater on the offensive line, and time and again the Illini OL failed to create any space for Fergie and DY at the line of scrimmage. Next time Bill Cubit draws up a pass on first down, be sure to consider Illinois' struggles to run before complaining.

BRIEF INTERMISSION TO WATCH JIHAD WARD HURT SOMEBODY

Defense: A Tale of Two Halves

Category WKU 1st Half WKU 2nd Half
Drives 7 6
Pass Plays/Yards 27 - 142 15 - 80
Pass Yards Per Play 5.3 5.3
Run Plays/Yards 19 - 112 5 - 10
Run Yards Per Play 5.9 2.0
Third Down Conversions (%) 5/11 (45%) 1/4 (25%)

A couple quick notes before I dive in here:

  • The passing numbers from the second half only cover the six non-garbage time drives. The final WKU drive saw Brandon Doughty throw for 75 additional yards on seven pass attempts. However, that drive began with WKU down 15 points and under two minutes remaining in the game. It's not too much of a stretch to suggest that the Illini weren't giving it their all on that drive: the other six drives are much more representative of their second-half effort.
  • The rushing numbers are solely those of lead WKU running back Leon Allen. I could've included a couple more carries from other players, but they wouldn't have changed the statistics much. That was also an easy way to eliminate sacks from the numbers. I tried to add the sacks back into the passing numbers-- hopefully I did my math correctly.

Now, for some serious, hard-nosed analysis. Those second half rushing statistics are ugly: just the way Illini fans should like them. There aren't quite enough attempts there to make any overarching statements, but after two games, it seems we can officially say that this run defense is better. They may not be great, and they may not even be good, but I highly doubt they will be as atrocious as last season's. I've seen a bunch of people calling WKU a passing team: while they predominantly work with the pass, they have a solid rushing attack as well. Holding them down like that in the second half is a nice accomplishment.

To play devil's advocate for a moment though, there was a pretty clear change in strategy from the first half to the second. Illinois' safeties were more aggressive playing the run in the second half, and WKU was forced into passing more as a result. The results of this change were twofold: they make the rushing numbers look less impressive (there were more defenders in the box in the second half, so it's just easier to stop the run) and the passing numbers of the second half look a bit more impressive. Even with safeties a step in and linebackers focused on the run, the Illini pass D held up against a pretty formidable passing attack and equalled their first half effort. Not bad for a secondary that really struggled last year.The young pups are growing up.

Big Plays Were...Big

Turnovers have eluded the Illinois defense for the better part of the last few years, but Saturday finally saw the ball swing the Illini way when the going got a little tough. I'm not one for "this defense came up big at the perfect time" clichés, but the drives on which Illinois forced their two fourth quarter turnovers were very threatening.

The first came just after Illinois took the lead 28-27 by way of a long touchdown drive. Western Kentucky was easily moving the ball down the field through the air when Taylor Barton undercut a pass and returned it 77 yards--all the way for Illinois' first pick six since Ashante Williams took one to the house against Western Michigan in 2012. It put the Illini up 35-27 and extended the lead that they wouldn't relinquish for the rest of the game.

The second turnover of the quarter came just after Taylor Zalewski (we'll get to him in a few moments) missed his second field goal. That field goal would've all but put the game away entirely, as Illinois would've led 38-27 (my final score prediction!) with just five minutes to play in the game. Instead, WKU began their drive on a quest to tie the game at 35. The Hilltoppers had a bit of trouble moving the ball, but LEO Dawuane Smoot got to Doughty fast enough for Jihad Ward to come over and punch the ball out. Illinois recovered and later took their largest lead of the game, 42-27.

Sadly, the Illini can't expect these turnovers to happen so conveniently from week to week. It's nice that they came through in the fourth quarter, but this defense has yet to prove that they can consistently punch the ball out. Three forced turnovers in one game is a great start and all fans can do is be hopeful that it continues against Washington this week.

There were a few fans on Twitter saying that Illinois was extremely lucky to have those turnovers in this game. I mostly think this comes from the fact that it's been a while since Illinois forced important turnovers. There were eight fumbles in this game and each team recovered four. That's perfectly normal fumble luck. One has to look at the other side of the ball as well-- the offense was rather unlucky in a couple of key moments. Taylor Zalewski missed two field goals on long drives, Wonderful Terry (Name of the Week award winner) ripped a ball out of Malik Turner's hands and took it 95 yards to the house, and the Illini just barely weren't able to punch it in from the one.

Those are situations that go Illinois' way roughly 90% of the time and they are a big reason why I'm optimistic about the team's performance Saturday. Without those key turnovers, this looks even more like a fairly dominant win. Yes, it's easy to say that a win looks better if the team doesn't make big mistakes, but that doesn't mean it isn't an encouraging performance. The team still moved the ball and defended the ball significantly better than Western Kentucky.

BRIEF INTERMISSION TO VIEW A COACH'S TWEET OF JEVARIS LITTLE HURTING SOMEBODY

That's linebacker coach Mike Ward. REMINDER: I tried to tell y'all about Jevaris last week:

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.

For once in my life, I was right. I must be honest, I jumped up in the air and squealed when Jevaris made that hit on the opening kickoff. He will continue to get weekly shout-outs as long as he continues to dominate on special teams.

Kicking-- Who is really at fault?

This is probably going to be the most controversial point of the whole piece. I don't think Taylor Zalewski was that bad on Saturday. The main problem people have with Zalewski is that he missed both of his field goal attempts. That's fine, but he wasn't set up for success on the first field goal.

The Illini had fourth and three from the Western Kentucky 33-yard line. That's prime position to go for it on fourth down, especially when the offense is moving the ball pretty well. People hate being so aggressive in the first quarter, but that's not aggressive; it's just smart. Taylor Zalewski shouldn't be expected to make a 50-yard field goal. That is really difficult for NFL kickers, let alone a college kicker.

The second miss is all on Taylor, but sometimes kickers just miss. Fans will complain about the lack of clutch kicking, but at the end of the day it's no different than a 34-yard kick on the first drive of the game. Zalewski missed, and hopefully he figures out what he can improve upon. Kicking out of bounds on the kickoff is once again ridiculous, and those duties should probably go to somebody else if it continues to happen. Don't burn Zalewski at the stake just yet: a kicker without confidence is one of the worst things to have on a team. Just hope that Zalewski improves on his short-range kicks. If it truly becomes a recurring problem, Ryan Frain will be there to take over.

The Safeties are Surprising

There's still plenty of football to play, and the Illini have yet to face a team that can truly challenge them with the deep ball, but it looks for now like the Illini have a nice pair of safeties this year. It's not great for safeties to have too many tackles because it means that running plays are getting to the second level, but it's still really encouraging to see Taylor Barton and Zane Petty wrapping up in the secondary. Barton currently leads the team with 10 solo tackles and is tied for the team lead with Mason Monheim in total tackles (21). He also has the aforementioned 77-yard interception return.

Zane Petty was arguably the best player on the Illini defense last Saturday. He was constantly involved in stopping runs even at the line of scrimmage, just as he did against Youngstown State. Petty is third on the team in total tackles (19) and is the team leader in pass break-ups (2). These two have had stellar starts to the season and will need to keep it up if the linebacker core continues to struggle.

Quarterbacks and Wide Receivers-- Oh my.

Look at these numbers:

Passing Comp./Att. Completion % Yards Yards Per Att. Touchdowns Interceptions
Wes Lunt 59/88 67% 741 8.42 7 1
Receiving Receptions Yards Average Touchdowns
Geronimo Allison 10 140 14.0 0
Malik Turner 10 98 9.8 0
Justin Hardee 8 126 15.8 1
Mike Dudek 7 116 16.6 2
Martize Barr 6 86 14.3 2

There's not much you can say that properly address how important the passing game has been over the first two games. The level of competition is still a question mark, but in the absence of any running game whatsoever, Wes Lunt and the receivers have been huge thus far.

There was hype surrounding Lunt's performances all summer long, but it's hard to do much better as a first-year starter than Lunt has been through the two non-conference games. His decision-making is somewhat questionable at times, and that interception total will rise steadily throughout the year, but there's no avoiding it: Lunt is a really good quarterback that could become a great one with time.

He's already coming close to placement in the upper echelons of Big Ten quarterback play this year. Who else in the Big Ten would fans take before Wes Lunt to quarterback their team for a drive (provided they've watched his first two games)? Connor Cook and Christian Hackenberg, but after that Devin Gardner is probably the only man who has an argument to be placed above Lunt (I would take Gardner this year).

It's also important to remember that he's doing this in the face of solid pressure from opposing defensive lines. The offensive line still hasn't worked out all the kinks, and Lunt continues to get the ball out on time and on target. His accuracy isn't perfect, but it's coming along. He still throws it into coverage too often, but that's something that should improve with more experience. Put simply, Wes Lunt is going to be a really good one, folks.

One final note about quarterbacking: a lot of people have tweeted at us and commented about the absence of Aaron Bailey. Personally, I'm thrilled with his lack of usage thus far (though obviously bummed if it's due to an injury). If Aaron Bailey is truly dedicated to playing quarterback, as he says, then the best plan for him is to redshirt his sophomore season. Currently, he and Wes Lunt have the same number of remaining years of eligibility (three) but Bailey has yet to take his redshirt. Doing it this season, with Lunt in the starting role and O'Toole as the back-up, means Bailey will have a redshirt-senior season all to himself in 2017 (unless Lunt goes to the draft earlier). I'm already excited for redshirt-senior Aaron Bailey. Don't fault Tim Beckman for Bailey's absence: at this point it just seems like he's planning for the future.

Now: the wide receivers. This group was almost a complete unknown coming into 2014. Geronimo Allison is fresh off two season at an Iowa community college. Martize Barr is the most familiar name but he had an unspectacular 2013 at best. Justin Hardee is the only other returning name, but he has been rather invisible in his first couple years with the program. Turner and Dudek are hyped freshmen, but they are still freshman. And to a man, these five receivers have come in and excelled through the first couple games.

G-Mo is still developing his chemistry with Lunt, but he's been running solid routes. Allison can catch a lot of things with those long, lanky arms, and once Lunt does a better job of timing his throws, these two should start hooking up for a whole lot of yards. Allison has size and speed as impressive as any receiver in the B1G and he should continue to improve on his use of it as the season rolls on. On the other hand, chemistry hasn't been a problem for Lunt and the two freshmen.

Truthfully, Dudek and Lunt already seem to have some sort of telepathic bond going on. Dudek's knack for getting open is unbelievable: I think I saw him juke a cornerback out of his shoes (to the point of falling over) at least three times Saturday. He is a weapon in the slot. Malik Turner has the same bond with Lunt but it seems like he's exclusively reserved for third downs with a million and a half yards to go. These three seem to be the primary receivers this fall, or at least they seem to be Lunt's favorites. Check out this ridiculous drive from the Western Kentucky game, which ended with the Wonderful Terry fumble return:

Screen_shot_2014-09-08_at_11.45.37_am

Lastly, there are the two returning wide receivers. After struggling last year to find a role and avoid the dropsies, both Barr and Hardee have been solid options in 2014. Bill Cubit loves to use as many WRs as possible, so these two will still probably finish with some nice numbers this year. They may take a step back as the newcomers continue to improve, but through the first two games they have had their roles.

Martize Barr has been a solid safety valve for Lunt and Hardee has looked a bit like Ryan Lankford did last year before his injury. He has as much ability to make a game-breaking play as anyone on the team, and the Illini saw that Saturday with his 62-yard touchdown catch-and-run. The year-to-year improvement of these two vets has been extremely important for Wes Lunt and the offense.

***

So, that's just about everything I can think of that happened against Western Kentucky. Thoughts? Questions? Concerns? Disagreements? Suggestions? Be sure to share them all in the comment section.