What Went Wrong October 8, 2012
October 8th seems a little early for a What Went Wrong post. But I remembered today that last year, on October 8th, we beat Indiana to become bowl eligible. A year ago today I think I wrote some “bowl eligible before Columbus Day” post. Now, granted, we wouldn’t win another game for 84 days, so longing for 2011 probably isn’t the best idea. But all of our losses have come by 17 or more points. Sitting down? Our last four losses by 17 or more under Zook:
11/26/11: Minnesota 27, Illinois 7
11/12/11: Michigan 31, Illinois 14
10/16/10: Michigan State 26, Illinois 6
10/03/09: Penn State 35, Illinois 17
So if you’re scoring at home, that’s four 17+ point losses in the last five weeks for Illinois. And before this season, four 17+ point losses in the last 35 games. You know what, let’s make this one hurt a little more. 2006 through 2011. Six seasons, eight losses by 17 points or more. This season, four of our six games were losses by 17 points or more.
So what happened? How did everything fall off the cliff so quickly? Five things stick out.
1) Illini Night In America
Martez Wilson ended the Sunday Night Football game by stripping Philip Rivers and recovering his own forced fumble while San Diego was driving for the tying score. Earlier in the game, Corey Liuget stopped a New Orleans drive with a 13 yard sack. Ended another one by batting down a pass that was going to be a touchdown. Chris Collinsworth kept talking him up as a future star in the NFL.
I watched one NFL football game and I remembered why we didn’t lose games by more than 17 points. Just look at our 2010 defense. Corey Liuget, Martez Wilson, Nate Bussey, Tavon Wilson, Whitney Mercilus… we had an NFL defense keeping us in games. And for whatever reason this season, we haven’t recovered from the loss of Mercilus, Thomas, Wilson, and Henry.
Wait, those weren’t the only losses from the 2011 defense. There’s this guy named Vic……
2) Zero Run Game
Illini rushing offense over those years I listed above:
What’s the biggest reason we don’t have a run game right now? Offensive line struggles. What’s the biggest reason we have offensive line struggles? Youth. What’s the biggest reason we have to go with youth? Some poor recruiting and some unlucky injuries.
Ideally, your offensive tackles this season would be Corey Lewis and Andrew Carter. Lewis was a late steal from Penn State in 2008, and Carter was a four-star kid from Florida. But Lewis tore his ACL in 2010, tore it again in 2011, and hasn’t played since the 2009 season (and never will). It’s unfortunate, but it happens in college football.
Andrew Carter had the quick feet of a tackle (he was moved to blocking TE as a redshirt freshman because we needed bodies there). And had he bulked up and gotten experience in 2010 and 2011, he’d be the other starting tackle right now. But a tumor on the base of his skull ended his football career. (Thankfully, the tumor was removed and it is no longer life threatening.)
So that’s two players who had their careers end early. And then there were recruiting losses. Remember Andy Gallik? Offensive lineman in the 2010 class who decommitted after we fell apart? He’s starting for Boston College right now. And there were other recruiting misses, too. What if we hadn’t missed on Chris Watt (starting for Notre Dame) or Patrick Ward (starting for Northwestern)?
All of the above left us very thin. Which means we have to play guys who probably aren’t ready (strength-wise or scheme-wise). Which means we really don’t have any semblance of a running game nor a pocket. Which means our offense isn’t going anywhere. And when you add injuries to Hugh Thornton and Graham Pocic, well… you get the 101st best offense in the country.
3) Sack Attack
Ready for the most stunning statistic of the season? Last year we were 6th nationally and first in the Big Ten with 41 sacks. And last year, Tim Banks’ defense at Cincinnati was even better – 2nd nationally with 45 sacks. Take those two, combine them together, add our defensive line returning three of four starters and…. nine sacks in six games. Nine. Nine times.
Now yes, losing Whitney Mercilus was certainly a huge part of that. He did tie the school record with 16 sacks last year. But using those math skills I learned in second grade… 41 – 16 = 25 sacks from the rest of the defense last year. Even if Mercilus’ replacement had zero sacks, we should at least expect 25 from the rest of the D. But we’re on pace for 18.
And we’re not so great on the other end of this either. 109th nationally and last in the Big Ten in sacks allowed. So why do we find ourselves in so many third-and-long situations? And why are our opponents in so many third-and-short situations? We can’t get to their quarterback, and they can easily get to ours.
Football is so simple sometimes.
4) Physically Unable To Perform
I have always hated the injury excuse. Or excuses in general. I’m always that “there’s 85 players on the roster the coaches need to figure it out” guy.
But every time I see the Northwestern injury report come across my Twitter, I remember how bad we have it. (Yes, I follow Teddy G. For pointers on how to walk the line between homer and journalist. Seriously. I’m so jealous of what he gets to do for Northwestern. Fan AND journalist. It’s the wave of the future. Seriously.)
Last week’s Northwestern injury report had one name, if I recall correctly. Here again is a list of our starters who have missed time due to injury.
On offense, Nathan Scheelhaase, Josh Ferguson, Darius Millines, Graham Pocic, Jake Feldmeyer, Evan Wilson, Hugh Thornton.
On defense, Jonathan Brown, Houston Bates, STEVEHULL, Supo Sanni, Terry Hawthorne. Tim Kynard, Patrick Nixon-Youman.
And our starting kicker has missed four games now, too. Plus numerous backups on both offense and defense. It’s very easily the most injured Illini team I’ve ever followed. Possibly by a factor of three. I can’t remember any season that has come anywhere close.
Several of these players have returned but are clearly not themselves. Hugh Thornton is playing hurt – and God bless him for it, because we need him – but he’s clearly not 100%. Same with Jonathan Brown. And Terry Hawthorne before Saturday’s injury. And Graham Pocic.
We had a thin roster to begin with. Add injuries, and we’re in deep trouble.
5) X’s and O’s for Jimmy and Joe
I think it’s fair to say that the defensive scheme change has been nothing short of a disaster. I would have never guessed in a million years that this defense, with Michael Buchanan and Akeem Spence and Jonathan Brown and Terry Hawthorne, would give up more the 28 points per game in the first six games. I would have bet money against it. 78th nationally in scoring defense? Find me a more stunning statistic in the last five years of Illini football.
From the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, when we rotated around 15 defenders, 11 of those guys returned. Mercilus and Wilson were huge losses, but we still had all the makings of a top-15 defense. So much talent coming back. So many experienced starters.
And now this. It really is hard to fathom. And it makes me wonder how well these defensive coaches fit together.
Vic Koenning told me that his 2011 staff was the best group he’d ever worked with. They were all on the same page, from gameplanning to in-game adjustments. He thought the world of Mike Gillhamer and felt like the improvements to last year’s secondary were the key to last year’s defense being top-10 nationally. He emphasized how important it was for a defensive staff to all be on the same page. Communication is everything.
This staff doesn’t seem to be on the same page. We don’t seem to adjust to things very well. We can’t seem to find the right mix of players when we lose someone to injury. And, perhaps most importantly, we rotated 20-22 players at Wisconsin yet still wilted in the fourth quarter.
On offense, to me, it’s better. Given what they have to work with on the line, and given the injuries, the coaching hasn’t been awful. I realize that on it’s face, a statement like that seems ridiculous. If the offense isn’t moving the ball, “get some play calling” is the first cry from the fans. I’ve done it, both here and on Twitter.
But we’ve made a few adjustments that have made me happy. We’re slowly figuring a few things out, even with no time to throw and very few running lanes. The 13 play drive against Wisconsin was encouraging. After last year’s 11 points per game performance during our losing streak, we knew from the start that this would not be a top-end offense. And the line injuries made it worse. But the coaches seem to be figuring a few things out, albeit slowly.
Perhaps I should put it this way. There are several reasons the offense has been poor, including injuries, youth, inexperience, and schemes. Besides injuries, there’s really no reason for the defense to have been this poor besides a scheme change that has been disastrous.
So there you go. Five of the 39 reasons we’re 2-4 right now and will be home for the holidays. I’d cover the other 34 reasons, but I’m now depressed and will be spending the next few hours watching the Texas Bowl. I hear that Mikel Leshoure guy is pretty good.