A 2-2 start isn’t a bad start for this team, but it’s also underwhelming.
If you looked at the state of the fanbase right now, you would be almost certain the team had lost either the FAU or Toledo game. The box scores look good in terms of moving the ball and yards per play, so what is it that is keeping this team from reaching its full potential? One word, turnovers.
The difference maker
Did We Really Get Beat That Bad?— parker fleming (@statsowar) September 18, 2023
Net Success Rates in Week 3 pic.twitter.com/6na3EYkrnI
Here is a chart that pretty sums up how a game should go based solely on how successful each team is at moving the ball during a drive. It takes out the outliers like big breakaway plays and turnovers. Is it the best way to look at how a game should play out? Of course not. But what it does do is allow us to see how the game would have looked without these massive mistakes.
If it is hard to find Illinois on this chart (near the left where the colored bars disappear), it’s probably because the Illinois and Penn State logos are right on top of each other. Some scores of the games around it are...
Missouri 30, Kansas State 27
Eastern Michigan 19, UMass 17
North Texas 40, LA Tech 37
The combined score differential in these three games is nine less points than that of just the Illinois-Penn State game, even though they are relatively the same in terms of placement on the chart. A turnover differential of -5 (including four picks) will do that to a team.
Of course, kudos should be given to Penn State for generating all of those picks. It was more than likely a good portion of its game plan. This is just a way to condense the game to the success of each play.
What it shows that this team can hang with some of the elite. They're young, prone to some big mistakes, but also in a position to improve on that each and every week. The ball moves, the defense looked better against FAU, limit those turnovers and win more games.
The youth is showing
Nine of the 10 turnovers this year have been by sophomores. Seven of those nine have been from Luke Altmyer, and the other two were fumbles by Josh McCray and Hank Beatty.
Josh McCray is the only one on that list who has had significant playing time before starting this year, and even he was redshirted last year with limited playing time. It is a good thing these issues are being worked out before Big Ten West play begins. The early turnovers are cause for concern, but nothing to be too worried about moving forwards.
There seemed to be an improved emphasis on limiting turnovers and playing conservative in the FAU game, to an extent where it even seemed excessive at times. I get the team wanted Altmyer to gain his confidence back, but when the passing game is averaging 8.4 yards per play, it just doesn't make sense to run the ball 41 times.
Hopefully here on out the confidence in the passing game is back, and something the Illini can rely on under a young QB.
The rest of the West...
There are four (4) undefeated teams remaining in the Big Ten East.— Ben Stevens (@BenScottStevens) September 24, 2023
The division’s overall record is 23-5 (.821)
There are zero (0) undefeated teams remaining in the Big Ten West.
The division’s overall record is 15-13 (.536)
The Big Ten West is going out with a BANG. pic.twitter.com/JjzEDKp5K6
...Is pretty bad.
If I had to pick a favorite right now, it would be Wisconsin, who has looked good, and its only loss is to a great Washington State team.
Northwestern is really bad, Minnesota lost to Northwestern, Nebraska lost to Minnesota, Purdue under Walters look like they are still trying to find their footing, and Iowa just lost to Penn State by about double what Illinois did (granted at Penn State).
If the goal at the start of the season was to make the Big Ten Championship, I don’t think that goal needs to change. It's a young team. Limit the turnovers and continue to improve each game and the Big Ten West could come down to an Oct. 21 matchup against Wisconsin in Champaign.
What I consider the biggest rivalry game of the season for the Illini this year is coming up against Purdue, facing off against Walters. This will be the first real test of the West in West Lafayette. Continue to improve and start the division off 1-0.