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Illinois Football Year-End Statistical Profile In Review

The offense was better. The defense was not.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Northwestern Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

For the fourth straight year, the weekend of Thanksgiving marks the end of the Illinois Fighting Illini football season.

Bill Connelly’s S&P+ rankings have been updated, and while there’s still games to be played for other teams that will affect the rankings, the raw numbers for Illinois are final.


Three things are made abundantly clear from the statistical profile:

  • The offense runs the ball well, but if they don’t gain yards on first down they cannot recover due to a horrid passing game.
  • The defense is dreadful in every measurable category; to quote former Tampa Bay coach John McKay, “we can’t stop a run or a pass...but otherwise we’re in great shape.”
  • When Illinois lost, they lost hard, with five games of 0% postgame win expectancy and another two under 7%. In more than half of their conference games, they were absolutely pulverized into dust.

Offense: 78th (27.9)

The offense finished as a slightly-below-average unit, both nationally and in the Big Ten. This is up from 124th last year. It was by far our best offense since 2014 (68th) and puts us roughly in the lower-middle of the Big Ten, between Indiana (72) and Maryland (86).

The success rate was actually above-average overall (43.8%, good for 59th). What dragged this offense down below average was that the passing game never posed any threat to opponents. Another smaller contributor was the -4 turnover margin (even with that big string of turnover luck games to start the season), which was 91st and right in line with our -4 expected turnover margin (103rd)

Rushing was 10th in S&P+, and the offense as a whole was 28th on standard downs. Illinois produced a just-below-average 2.49 line yards per carry (basically, a statistical measure of offensive line “push” in the run game).

The passing attack was 100th in S&P+, with the 111th best completion percentage (53.8%). On the whole, the offense was 78th on passing downs, which is better than our passing offense because we often elected to run (or scramble) on 3rd down.

The offense set up a lot of long field goals for Chase McLaughlin because it was among the worst in the country between the opponent’s 21 and 30 yard lines (which we’ll call the Gray Zone), with a 36.2% success rate (good for 120th). The success rate improved substantially once we reached the opponent’s 20, but was still below average.

Third downs were completed at just a 33.8% clip (110th), with major struggles on 3rd and medium, where only 10 other teams were worse. We produced a blitz downs success rate of 23.6%, which was 115th; there wasn’t much we could do to counter the blitz other than hope the defense missed tackles.

Diagnosis: The offense has taken to the basics of Rod Smith’s scheme well, or at least those that involve running the ball. However, the rushing offense is not dominant enough for the offense to be above-average without a passing threat, and this passing game leaves an awful lot to be desired, from the pass protection to the receivers’ hands.

Prognosis: With another year in Rod Smith’s system for the skill players and a quarterback with better passing mechanics than Bush (whether that be Williams or Rivers), the short passing concepts ought to work better for the Illini next year, especially if they occasionally use an elite athlete in Marquez Beason. The tape shows receivers often confused on their assignments on screen plays; these type of plays will allow Illinois to counter the blitz and stretch the defense horizontally. A little improvement in the passing game will go a long way considering how well we run the ball.

Defense: 120th (40.1)

This ranking of 120th in the country is the worst on record for Illinois for as long as stats go back (2005). 2005 (107th) and 2013 (103rd) were both substantially better defenses. And the defense is actually worse than this because it’s propped up to 120th by the starting field position average of 29.4 (thanks to our kickers), good for 71st in the nation.

Against the run, we ranked 125th; against the pass, 128th. Only Oregon State has anywhere near this level of performance on defense among Power 5 schools. We rarely stopped a running play from gaining yardage (13.1% stuff rate) and allowed big plays of 20 or more yards at a 10.3% clip. The third-down success rate for opponents was 44.4%, which was arguably overachieving as it was 105th.

The most damning statistic for the defensive line is 3.14 line yards per carry on standard downs. This is dead-last in the country, behind even UConn. No defensive line was more thoroughly manhandled on basic running plays than Illinois’.

Illinois allowed opponents to complete a staggering 63.4% of passes and gave up big plays on 13.9% of blitz downs. That last one really tells a story, because it was third-worst in the country, and what it means is that there was an abnormally high rate of offenses turning things like 2nd-and-15 into big plays. If you watched Illinois, this makes sense because it rarely seemed there was a down and distance the other team couldn’t convert and then some.

The passing downs sack rate was 71st in the nation, but that loses meaning when you consider how few passing downs Illinois faced compared to other teams. The offensive success rate was 128th on standard downs. This implies that offenses could just rattle off long drives without ever seeing third down, and from my recollection of the season, that correlates well. Another contributing factor to the hopelessness of watching this defense was the astonishing 88.9% third-and-short conversion rate.

Diagnosis: It’s just impossible to overstate how thoroughly and completely bad this defense was in every facet of the game, which makes it difficult to know what the solution is. However, Lovie Smith has this off-season to figure one out, and that’s what we’re paying him to do.

Prognosis: With two defensive coaches leaving during the season, there are at least two spots to fill, and that’s assuming nobody is fired. Milo Eifler may prove to be a difference-maker taking over for Del’shawn Phillips, as he’s a fantastically quick backer. It’s hard to know what to do here though. The defensive backs struggled with assignments all year so badly that teams were beating them with the kind of passing plays Cover 2 is designed to prevent. Another year of experience may prove helpful, especially if the Minnesota game indicates Tony Adams’ upside at safety. The defensive line is such a struggle right now, as only Bobby Roundtree is winning any battles, and offenses can just run the play away from him. It’s not known where Verdis Brown will play, but I would imagine we have more use for him on defense.

A dramatic change needs to happen at all levels of the defense between now and next September.

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