Eleven Adjustments #1: Resiliency October 16, 2012
Because I love lists, I’ve decided to put together a series: Eleven Adjustments The Coaches Can Implement To Begin The Turnaround Immediately. I feel uniquely qualified to compile this list given my obsession with this team and my hours logged the last four years at spring practices, at Camp Rantoul, and inside Memorial Stadium. Given that our next three home opponents are winless in the Big Ten, I’m hoping for, nay, expecting, a turnaround. Here’s how we get there.
This one is easy, right? Resiliency. Just be more resilient and we won’t fade at the first sign of trouble. Do that and we’ll be good again. Awesome. The end.
If only it were easy. I decided to start with resiliency because it’s both the most obvious problem and the most difficult fix. If some coach developed a fool-proof system for building a resilient football team, every high school and college coach in the country would flock to his seminars. Most every coach knows that if you can keep your team focused when things go wrong – and it’s college football, so things will always go wrong – you can win a lot of football games.
This is, in my view, the least resilient Illini team I’ve ever watched. At the first sign of trouble, we fold. To wit:
+ Against Louisiana Tech, we came out fired up and ready to play. We received the opening kickoff and started to march. Our first four plays: Nine-yard pass to Josh Ferguson. 13-yard run by Donovonn Young. 13-yard pass to Donovonn Young. 24-yard pass to Josh Ferguson… and then he fumbles. We never looked the same on offense the rest of the night. We scored first, and then Louisiana Tech scored those three quick touchdowns, and then it felt like we just packed it in.
+ Against Penn State, we start the game forcing a three-and-out, and they have to punt… and then Tommy Davis fumbles. They take over at our 26, but we stop them at the seven and force a field goal… and then we run into the kicker. Given a third chance, they score, and our defense didn’t look the same the rest of the day. 21-0 before we know it, and 35-7 for the final score.
+ Against Wisconsin we played three solid quarters. It looked like we were finally starting to put it together. Trailed 10-7 at the end of the third quarter, and then Justin DuVernois shanks a 10 yard punt to give Wisconsin the ball at midfield. It’s like someone let the air out of our tires. Wisconsin goes on a five play drive for the touchdown, then stops us three-and-out, then a two play drive for another touchdown. Ballgame.
+ Against Michigan, the first drive actually looked solid. No, seriously, it did. We started at our 15 and drove to midfield. Donovonn Young had rushes of 7, 5, 8, and 4 yards. We moved the ball well on the ground, but stalled at midfield. We punt, they get a 71 yard touchdown on their fifth play, and we never moved the ball that well again. In fact, in the second half, we didn’t move the ball at all. Even when Michigan had put in their backups. -2 yards for the half. We quit.
Our best performances in the last four games all came in the first quarter. The only sign of resilience in any of those four games was the 13 play touchdown drive in the 4th quarter at Wisconsin. Most every other loss this season followed the same script: something goes wrong, and we don’t look the same for the rest of the game.
Now, starting next week, the schedule loosens up a bit. As I mentioned above, our next three opponents at home – Indiana, Minnesota, and Purdue – are all winless in the Big Ten. These are games where we can make some progress. These are games where we can move the ball here, or force three-and-outs there, and build some momentum.
But if we quit at the first sign of adversity, it won’t matter. Because adversity will come. It’s inevitable. We’ll turn the ball over, or we’ll give up a long touchdown, or we’ll shank a punt. What matters is what happens after we do these things. Our response up until now has been “you’ve been great, folks, that’s it for me…” and walking off stage.
Is it possible to stop that? I think so. But every coach I’ve ever heard talk about this stuff has said one thing: resilience has to come from your leaders. The coaches can scream all they want – assistants can get with their position groups and try to rally the troops – but if it’s not coming from the players, it’s probably not going to happen.
So if I was Tim Beckman, I would make it a point these next two weeks to identify and promote player leadership. One-on-one meetings with captains and seniors where the goals are laid out: adversity will come, and when it does, I will step forward. I will lead by example and with my words.
Easier said than done, I know. Like I said above, if there was a formula to this, every coach would be implementing it. But if there’s one thing that sticks out about the 2012 Illini, it’s that we fade at the first sign of trouble. Once we start to tumble, it’s over. We don’t have a single counterpunch. The Wisconsin game showed us that if we keep a game close, we can stay strong and play together. But it also showed us that when adversity finally hits, even if it’s not until the fourth quarter, we fold quicker than Missouri in an SEC game.
That’s the first thing I would attempt to fix. Identify leaders who can rally the troops, and promote them to even higher positions of leadership. Arrange counterpunch scenarios in practice – tell your defensive leaders that the offense is about to get the ball at your own 16, and it’s up to you to force a field goal. Spend the next two weeks telling the players that adversity will come, and when it does, you must overcome.
If this team is going to turn things around, they have to stop folding at the first sign of trouble. The offense on the first four snaps against Louisiana Tech should be the offense on the last four snaps. The defense in the second quarter against Penn State should be the defense that forced a three-and-out in the first quarter. There’s no reason to see adversity and then just go through the motions. We must maintain our intensity for 60 minutes. Which means we must develop resilience.