It may not have been pretty, but there are some aspects of the 2021 season that should continue into this year.
Ryan Walters Coaching From the Sidelines
A lot of people don’t remember this, but before the game with Maryland, Ryan Walters left the pressbox and moved to the sideline (3:16 for the quote):
Illinois only returns 54% of their production from last season, last in the Big Ten. Most of that loss came on the defensive side of the ball. To maintain consistency, Walters should continue being on the sideline.
New starters still need to be coached and the defensive scheme needs to be tweaked to the flow of the game. In a sport as dynamic as college football, understanding any game’s ebb and flow is extremely important. With Walters in the box last year, Illinois gave up 34 points a game. But with Walters on the sideline, the defense gave up only 18 points a game, allowing only over 30 points once.
Year 1 was about setting up the system. Year 2 needs to be about development and consistency.
Win In the Trenches on Offense
Bielema’s offensive philosophy is to run the ball, bullying the defense and tiring them out. When he coached at Arkansas and Wisconsin, Bielema’s offensive line ranked as one of the best in the SEC and Big 10.
In contrast, for most of the last decade, Illinois’s offensive line ranked in the bottom half of the conference in sacks allowed per game, chunk plays, and tackles for loss allowed. 2016 is the only statistical outlier, probably because the offense rarely saw the field.
Last year was different, Illinois ranking marginally better. When we didn’t punt the ball on 4th and 1, turn the ball over, or pass the ball on a third and short, the offensive line held up. They won in the trenches, kept running the ball, and slowed down the game. In a season where the Illinois offense failed to score, they did keep the ball in their hands for 2 whole minutes longer.
While the offense wasn’t the sexiest, it held its shape and bullied other teams. Barry Lunney Jr. has the same philosophy as Bielema. I hope we see more of that this season.
Let Chase Brown and Josh McCray Loose
We saw it in spurts. When Tony Peterson didn’t hesitate on play calls, Brown and McCray played like All-B1G running backs.
This might be a hot take: both backs have a chance to run for 1000 yards. Brown is the slippery, shifty running back that will break to the outside for the big run. McCray is the north-south big-body back that starts 8 to 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage and wears defenses down.
With a better QB at the helm (hopefully), opposing defenses will be forced to pay less attention to the run. Illinois still doesn’t have the receivers to do damage and demand full attention from the defense, but I think there’s just enough juice for the defense to not completely sell out on the run. In that small opening, these backs have the room to do some damage.
Let the boys loose behind the barge package. It’s the only way this works.
Special Teams and Field Position
The special teams unit was great last year. But with a whole new unit, I just hope that we stay consistent.