If you didn’t read my column from last week. Here you go:
Overall, I think this is what we expected. Sluggish offense. Sluggish defense. Highly ranked MAC team to come in and give the Fighting Illini a battle.
And a battle it was. All the way to the exciting finish.
Here are the charts:
At first glance, you see Illinois get to its 7-point lead and stagnate. You see Toledo’s offense try and score but not break through until Altmyer throws his interception on the 95th play of the game. That was the only time that Illinois played under its point total.
I want to pause there for a second. This is what I mean by playing under the point total.
In the final game of the regular 2022 season, Illinois blew out Northwestern, but even though the Illini scored points, they were generating negative EPA plays. Thus, playing below your point total.
Had Illinois played Toledo like it played Northwestern, the Illini would have lost on Saturday. I think it’s plain and simple.
Which brings me to point No. 2 — The Altmyer effect. Having a poised presence in the pocket helps. It allows the team to build on positive EPA plays. Unlike last year, where, if Illinois stalled, they went backward, this team kept moving forward until a penalty flag was through to halt its progress. But until the penalty, the plays were positive, moving Illinois towards points on the board. You can see this in the chart above. Toledo was moving positively between Play No. 10 and Play No. 110, while Illinois stayed generally flat.
Flat this early is good. Take out holding penalties. Give Altmyer time to get game experience with his receivers. Give time for the defense to figure itself out. Flat Cumulative EPA over time can be corrected to positive EPA — and positive EPA is points on the board.
Pat Bryant receives the offensive MVP. Bryant led all receivers with six catches for 69 yards and two touchdowns. I feel Luke Altmyer should get an honorable mention here. Bryant, Casey Washington, and Isaiah Williams all had over 50 yards receiving, and Tip Reiman had 30 yards on 2 catches. All 4 of these receivers had over 10 yards per catch. Reggie Love wasn't far behind with 9 yards a catch.
Here's the thing, though. Illinois is spreading the ball. If you have a QB hitting every receiver plus his tight end or running back on every play, you make defenses guess on every play. This is the type of quarterback play we have wanted to see in Champaign for the last decade. Growing pains aside — I can live with those — I am excited to see where this takes us this season.
Unfortunately, you need a good rushing attack for the passing game to succeed. I don’t know what was going on between McCray and Love and how they were being used, but this isn't the same team that led Chase Brown to consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Seeing a Bielema running back room have -0.09 predicted points per play is definitely jarring. Maybe it’s time for Kaden Faegin or Aidan Laughery to join the committee. Whatever needs to be worked out needs to happen fast.
Tarique Barnes recorded the only sack of the night, Xavier Scott and Miles Scott had the only pass deflections (3), and Ryan Meed, Dylan Roziek, and Denzel Daxon all had at least half a tackle for loss.
That is depressing. Heisman candidate Johnny Newton, Keith Randolph, Gabe Jacas, and Seth Colman added up to 0 sacks, 0 quarterback hurries, 0 tackles for losses, and 14 tackles.
I’m sorry but if you are building your defense’s personality around Heisman candidates, the Law Firm, and running people over, you have to back this up with stats. And this wasn't the athletic department gassing these guys up, it was the players themselves.
I don’t know what fire Bielema, Aaron Henry, Terrance Jamison, or Charlie Bullen need to light to wake these guys up, but it needs to happen quickly. You have an up-tempo and hungry offense to play against on
Here is what Bielema said in his press conference post-game, so I am not super worried about the coach's response (2:57):
But hey, our secondary is young and, boy, did they show out.
And so did you.
Honorable Mention: The Fans, EPA +1,000,000
Don’t worry. The rest of us glued our eyes to any screen we could find.