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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:

2006: 10th
2007: 5th
2008: 38th
2009: 17th
2010: 11th
2011: 41st
2012: 94th

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.

Groundhogday October 8th, 2012

I’m with you on the offensive vs. defensive coaches. We won’t know for sure if the offensive coaches know what they are doing until we get an OL and some quality WR, but there are signs of a plan. On defense, even if the secondary has been weakened by the loss of T. Wilson, Sanni and Hull (for much of the season), the complete lack of a rush is hard to explain. I wonder if Jancek was the guy at Cincy who handled the defensive fronts while Banks focused on coverages. The Cincy defense seems to be doing very well this year with Jancek taking over sole DC responsibilities.

jhwaddell October 8th, 2012

Could it be the biggest loss from last year’s coaching staff isn’t really Vic, but Coach Lou? I struggle to find any other reason for the rash of injuries we’ve seen this year.

illiniranger October 8th, 2012

when you look at injury histories they are generally pretty randomized, i.e. there is really no single thing you can control for. the one thing that you can generally see is that once an athlete gets hurt, they tend to stay hurt. for many guys on our injury list it isn’t their first time. after repeatedly getting hurt i don’t think you may ever see a fully healthy ferguson, hull, or milines. Hull i am positive on – he will never be healthy the rest of his career, regardless of what position he plays.
i’ve seen the stuff about coach Lou – i think it’s unlikely our strength program is the reason our guys are hurt. injuries are fluky things – there were plenty of them under the Zook regime. Rejus Benn was only really healthy for one full season his SO year and look at what has happened to him in the pros – got injured, pretty much stayed injured. Martez Wilson blew a neck vertebra his first game in ’09. Miami Thomas never even sniffed his potential thanks to multiple knee injuries. All of Corey Lewis’s injuries came under the Zook regime. I still maintain that one of the reasons we were so terrible in ’09 was that Juice pulled a hammy (untouched on the play) running free down the sideline against ISU and was never the same that year. care to blame those on Coach Lou?
strength coaches always get blamed for injuries. unless you are in there lifting with the guy it’s hard to say what the strength coach is doing. frankly, they all do about the same stuff, different emphasis on different things, but they are uniformly pretty sound. there are only so many different ways to sculpt a football player.

GrogsBBQPepperoni October 8th, 2012

In the end, the reasons that we are this bad have been covered and we could talk about them until we’re blue in the face. We’re currently just having a hell of bad season and there’s nothing we can do about it right now. As the saying goes, “when you’re going through hell, keep going”. I’ll choose to just support the team, root for an upset here and there and hope we get healthier and better – knowing that may be a while (but we’ve all been conditioned for 3-9 seasons or worse by now). Either recruiting will get better and we will too or it will get worse and we’ll be analyzing the new staff in a couple years. Go Illini.
Thanks for all of the good info, Robert.

Hucklebuck October 8th, 2012

Here are my alternate explanations for your points:

1) Poor coaching,
2) Poor coaching,
3) Poor coaching,
4) Poor coaching, and, last but not least,
5 Poor coaching.

If Zook was the problem, and he was, each game it’s looking more like Beckman is not the answer.

Illinigrad October 8th, 2012

With all the points Robert makes I still wonder:

1. How can you have months to prepare and struggle to get calls in from the sidelines whether you use colored cards or players jumping up and down w/different signals, etc. This has NOTHING to do with injuries and EVERYTHING to do with COACHING.
2. Why would anyone go for a 2-point conversation like Beckman did? And, I won’t even begin with some of the lame calls during the games. That too has EVERYTHING to do with COACHING.
I really see nothing from the coaching staff that indicates we have a bunch of stellar coaches on the sideline. If I am wrong, I hope we see more evidence of my being wrong and soon. I guess I agree with the previous poster: Points 1-5: Coaching

ATOillini October 8th, 2012

I’m with Grog at this point. Go Illini.

Joe John October 8th, 2012

Offense is a lack of talent problem…forget injuries and inexperience, I just dont see much talent on the offensive side of the ball. The offensive line just doesnt have many good players on it (Has Michael Heitz improved at all from last year?)..and the other regulars just arent good. The only playmaker on offense at the skill positions is Josh Ferguson…nobody else is a threat.

The defense is another story…I think its purely coaching because there is talent on that side of the ball and they are absolutely atrocious. Special teams is the same story.

Overall, Illinois fans were sold on this group being Ron Zook lite…good recruiters but hopefully better coaching..But its just not to be.

illinibacker October 9th, 2012

I know Illinois football is having a rough season when I agree with most of what Joe John has to say! Cats & dogs living together…
He’s right when he says there is just no talent on the offense. #5 and #6 are good football players, but beyond that? Meh. I don’t think we have anyone that would make the all-conference team in the MAC. Our top receiver would be on the scout squad for most other teams. Maybe a healthy Milines wouldn’t be… who knows I haven’t seen enough of him to know.
As far as the Ron Zook lite thing… to be honest, it’s been feeling a lot like Ron Zook II to me. I wish the staff would just throw me a bone and give me SOMETHING to be excited about. ANYTHING. The manner in which we’ve lost these 4 games really has me down. If there was discipline & execution I would probably feel different.
I’m with Grogs as well… I’l continue to support the team and cheer them on. I just fear we’re repeating the “Illinois Football Cycle” that we know all too well.

Illinigrad October 9th, 2012

Your right. Here is my new book titie:

Illinois Football — 1967 to 2012 — A cycle of futility

16th&mission October 9th, 2012

As I get older, it only pains me more when the program I’m committed manages to set itself back multiple years, even without any outside help. I’ve become more and more aware that time and opportunity is finite and not to be taken for granted. OSU and PSU did bad things and as a result have and will have had to suffer through a time of reckoning, but we’ve done nothing wrong per the law, excepting sheer management incompetence, which unfortunately isn’t illegal per the NCAA rulebook.
Robert, I think your catchphrase needs updating.
Instead of “We’re Illinois, and we can’t be trusted”
how about “We’re Illinois, and we self-impose probation”?

TC80 October 9th, 2012

There’s a lot of things that Beckman has failed at so far this year, but why is the 2 pt conversion attempt one of the top arguments? Wasn’t that in the La Tech game, the one we won 44-0? Frankly I’d be a little disappointed if he didn’t experiment a little in that game. You can criticize a lot about Beckman – motivation, preparedness, scheme, halftime adjustments (or lack thereof), his staff, etc., but it seems like the 2 pt conversion thing is at the top of the list for some people. Not sure why.

Hoppy October 9th, 2012

It was Charleston Southern.
We got crushed by La Tech.