5 Things We Don’t Know About This Football Team September 27, 2011
There are 5 things we don’t know about this team. OK, maybe there are 19. Maybe 3. But the number 5 makes for great lists – start out strong, questionable #2, better #3, difficult-to-resolve #4, and then BAM, killer closer. I mean, who wants to read a list with 19 different items?
So here goes: Five things we don’t really have a clue about.
1. Can we stop the run?
BOOM. Starting out strong. So far we have faced a passing team, a passing team, a passing team, and, finally, a passing team. I saw some discussion on some message board somewhere talking about how we’re 5th nationally in rushing defense, only allowing 56 yards per game, and pointing to that as a reason we can stop Wisconsin. I’d point to it as a reason we won’t be prepared for Wisconsin.
Our next opponent, Northwestern, is 23rd nationally running the ball. But that’s a bit deceiving. With Dan Persa back for this game, they’re likely to return to their aerial ways. And Indiana has been struggling running the ball as well, so we’ll likely face a pass-heavy opponent in our next game as well. It’s not until Ohio State comes to town that we’ll find out of this defense can stop a run-happy offense. And that’s mostly because Ohio State can’t throw the ball to save their lives.
So can we stop the run? Our base defense this year seems to be a 3-2-6 (Trulon being #6). What will that defense do against Ohio State’s run game? Sure, we’ll bulk up to a traditional 4-3-4 look, but do we have the horses to run that defense? Do we have the defensive line depth to last 4 quarters against a ground-and-pound offense?
Fortunately, we won’t have to find out this week. Northwestern has run the ball a lot the first three weeks, but that’s mostly because their backup quarterback can’t throw – they’re not a ground-and-pound offense. But that brings up another question…
2. Can we handle a mobile quarterback?
Say Persa isn’t ready – say his listing on the depth chart is all a smoke screen and that Kain Colter will start at QB for Northwestern on Saturday. Are we ready for a mobile QB? So far this season, we’ve faced a pocket passer, a pocket passer, a pocket passer, and, finally, a pocket passer. 3-2-6 works great when you’re cutting off passing lanes and blitzing from all directions. What about when you’re facing a quarterback that can run? What if they spread us out in our zone and then scramble right to the heart of it?
If you haven’t noticed, the Big Ten is full of mobile QB’s this year. Denard Robinson will be coming to Champaign, Braxton Miller will be coming to Champaign, and Russell Wilson is no slouch when running the ball, either. How will this defense handle a mobile QB? We really don’t know yet.
3. Is this offensive line any good?
I’m hesitant to go back and look at some of the things I said about the offensive line in Rantoul. I know I said they were the strength of the team, I probably said a few things like “it’s the one thing I’m not worried about at all – this will be a fantastic offensive line”, and there’s a better than 50% chance I said something like “top offensive line in the Big Ten”.
Have we seen that? I don’t think so – not even close. Yes, we’re 14th nationally in rushing yards, but I’m wondering how that holds up in the Big Ten. Especially since we’re currently 89th nationally in sacks allowed. If we’ve given up 10 sacks against a schedule with the likes of Arkansas State and Western Michigan, will we give up 25 sacks in the Big Ten?
All of this leaves me wondering if we miss Ryan Palmer and Randall Hunt more than we thought we would (or, at least, more than I thought we would). I expected this offensive line to pick up right where we left off in Houston, and we just haven’t seen that at all.
4. Is Nathan’s shoulder an issue?
I’m the ultimate worrier (fantasy football team name alert!). We lead Northwestern 41-27, they haven’t stopped the run all game, we’re in field goal range, there’s 3 minutes left, and I still can’t celebrate. You see enough “Eddie just totally threw it right to their safety” in your day, you become a worrier.
Same with the Texas Bowl. Mikel punches across another touchdown to make it 30-14 with 7 minutes left, and I can’t exhale until the extra point goes through. If we miss that extra point and only hold a 16 point lead, I’m totally convinced we’re about to see two long Baylor drives and two 2-point conversions.
So when I hear that Nathan’s shoulder is fine, I worry that it’s not. I worry that it’s going to be an issue the entire season, limiting our budding superstar to a more reserved, run-heavy, barely-throw approach. I’m worried he’ll struggle to throw the ball this Saturday and we’ll suddenly get hit with a “Scheelhaase to miss the Indiana game to rest sore shoulder” story next Sunday.
Of course, I’m also worried we’ll miss a bowl after a 4-0 start, so take me with a giant grain of salt.
5. Do we get it?
Do we realize that you can’t just say “we learned our lesson against WMU: we can’t take any team for granted” – we have to really learn it? When we repeat Martez Wilson’s outrage at Fitzee’s “we recruit a different kind of player” claims from our game last year, do we understand that you can’t catch lightning in a bottle? That we have to be legitimately outraged to play like we’re outraged?
This is always my concern with a newly ranked team, football or basketball. Once the ranking arrives, the coaches and players will receive 200 media questions asking if they can “handle” this new-found success. And they always repeat the same answers – “we haven’t accomplished anything yet”, “we have to stay hungry”, etc.
The difference is, in my estimation, that some teams actually get it. They realize that with a ranked target and an in-state little brother headed to town, they’ll have to bring 3 times more emotion to the game on Saturday than they think is necessary. That after an embarrassment inside their purple-painted baseball stadium last year, Northwestern will arrive with legitimate revenge on their minds. That despite the fact that they gave up 300+ rushing yards to Army, Northwestern’s defense could shut down our run game this Saturday fueled by emotion alone. This is the Big Ten portion of the schedule – every game will be a dogfight.
Do we get that? Man, I hope we get that. I want to spend my holidays somewhere warm.