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Negative Plays November 12, 2012

It’s all I thought about (and tweeted about) yesterday. Negative plays are killing us. #TFLU? More like #getTFLU.

I’m a big believer in the Tackles For Loss statistic. Want to find the BCS-conference programs that are flailing? Look at the bottom of the Tackles For Loss Against statistic.

117: Auburn (7.8 tackles for loss given up per game)
118: Colorado (8.0)
119: Illinois (8.4)
120: Maryland (9.1)

Worst team in the SEC, worst team in the Pac12, worst team in the Big Ten, second-worst team in the ACC. All with the same characteristic: giving up negative plays.

Football is about sustaining drives. Which is why turnover margin is such a huge statistic. When you directly hand the ball to your opponent without a punt, you severely limit your chance to win because you’re giving them a short field in which to sustain their drive instead of a long field.  And you’re not getting many short fields yourself.

To sustain drives, you have to avoid three things: turnovers, penalties, and negative plays.  Most every team – even a team that struggles to move the ball like we do – can put together scoring drives by avoiding these three things.  As a general rule, if you can avoid putting yourself in 2nd and 14 or 3rd and 9 situations, you can keep moving the chains.

For an offense like ours, when we’re in those long yardage situations, we’re in trouble.  I wrote last week how half of the passing playbook is likely not available because there’s no pocket time to wait for the routes to develop.  So when it’s 3rd and 16, we really don’t have many plays we can call.  Every passing route beyond the sticks is unavailable because they require 3.5 seconds of pocket time for the receivers to get down the field, and we just don’t ever have that.

So for this offense to move the ball, we have to stay out of long yardage situations. But we can’t. To the tune of 84 times we were tackled in our own backfield. Why does this keep happening? Partly Nate’s decision making, and partly the play calling, and partly (mostly?) the offensive line. Let’s look at the line issues. Starting with recruiting:

+ Chris Watt was at Glenbard West and Christian Lombard at Palatine Fremd, but they both picked Notre Dame. And now they anchor one of the best lines in football. There are countless other examples. Dan Voltz left the state for Wisconsin. Patrick Ward stayed in state… at Northwestern.

And these struggles continue – there are five blue chip offensive linemen in Illinois in the 2013 class – not one of them is coming to Illinois. This state consistently produces blue chip linemen. And we consistently are unable to keep them home.

+ Andy Gallik starts for Boston College, and Dan Foose is a backup offensive tackle at Florida State, and both of them had verballed to play for Illinois in 2010 before backing out and selecting other schools. This happened last year, too, as Joey Warburg backed out on his Illinois verbal and picked Purdue.

+ Corey Lewis should have been our starting right tackle this year. But he’s just now returning from 5 knee surgeries.

+ Andrew Carter might have been our other starting tackle this year. But he had a tumor removed from the base of his skull, ending his football career.

+ Leon Hill was a 4-star offensive lineman in the 2009 class, but he didn’t even last a year. He tried transferring to NIU, but couldn’t make it into school. Last I saw he was at Joliet Junior College, but I can’t find where he went from there.

Which leaves us with the current roster. A roster that just hasn’t gelled. When I think of one of our lines gellin’ like a felon, I always think of the 2006-2007 line. We moved Akim Millington from the left side to the right side, and we move Xavier Fulton from the defensive side of the ball to left tackle, and we tried a young kid named Jon Asamoah at right guard, and we caught lightning in a bottle. Once that line gelled together, we went from huge offensive line issues to a top tier line almost overnight.

This year, we keep trying different combinations, but we just can’t find the right one. And with two seniors on the line with two games left, next year will be more of the same – trying to find the right combination of the right players at the right position. And then getting them multiple games playing next to each other so they can begin to work as a unit.

Which means these issues aren’t going away. Which means our Big Ten losing streak probably isn’t going away. Which means I’m depressed.

Want to pick me up, Illini football? Stop giving up tackles for loss. Make it the #1 practice priority. Negative plays are poison.


illiniranger November 12th, 2012

Great post. I think to myself, gee, we give up a lot of TFU. Then you run the stats for me and i see holy carp, we do that about as bad as anyone in the country.
our offensive line play since the IU game last year has been terrible. it’s difficult to explain. a very talented group last year looked just dreadful for 7 games. a much less experienced group has looked worse this year.
when you can’t win the LOS you can’t win games. if we don’t see significant improvement here next year we are looking at another 2 win season.

PittsburghNellie November 12th, 2012

I don’t see how it’s possible for the OL to be worse than it is right now

Steve November 12th, 2012

Very interesting post, Robert.
Other adjectives are “sad”, “lame” and “pitiful”.
They aren’t your fault, but they sure fit the facts.
I’m nowhere near the football fan that you are, but now I’m depressed too.
Sure hope Joe John comes along to cheer me up.

Joe John November 12th, 2012

Pocic has had one of the worst senior seasons I can ever remember. Honestly, I cant think of a worse center in my lifetime of watching Illini football than Pocic. His snaps are just horrible…they throw off the timing of every play. Illinois, if they are going to do anything better on the offensive line next year, needs to find a center that snaps the ball at 99% accuracy if the team is going to be in shotgun all the time.

Lou-a-villini November 12th, 2012

Can’t wait to read about the Colbert Report.

wdallen November 12th, 2012

I’ve thought the same thing about Pocic. He’s had a terrible year, but I think it goes way beyond just the snaps. He seems to have awful footwork which is why you’ll see him get beat a lot and out of position. Also probably why he was never able to pan out as a tackle or even a guard. Someone with his size should be a prototypical tackle…

ghengis khan November 12th, 2012

Robert you should check out some of the first video on this page. The videos are of Alex Gibbs, who many consider one of the best oline coaches ever, explaining his tight and wide zone blocking schemes. Anyway the number one thing he worries about is no negative plays. It thought it was interesting since coach Butkus coached under Gibbs in Seattle.

Joe John November 12th, 2012

The chances for a negative play are much greater when you are constantly in shot gun and taking the snap 5-7 yards behind the line of scrimmage (even on running plays!)…If you look at what Illinois has on offense, they just dont have the personnel to run the spread. The only good offensive parts they have is Don Young (as an I back), and the tight ends. If Beckman wanted to maximize the offensive talent, he’d have a power running game centered around Donovan Young…i formations 80% of the time…and then a play action passing game to the tight ends. It would be simple old school Big 10 football. To be successful in the spread, you need to have a bunch of quick skill position guys that can beat press coverage, you need quick running backs that can make the defense miss (since there is no blocking back), and you need quick offensive lineman…Illinois has none of these things and it doesnt look like they’ll have it next year either.

I look at Brady Hoke. He’s an old school Michigan guy but he inherited a Denard Robinson and decided to build around him (for the time being). With Beckman, he inherited a team best built for power running football and decided to go completely away from that and its been a total disaster. Donovan Young cant really make guys miss and he’s not very fast, but he’s a good downhill runner and he gets alot of YAC. The offense would be way more efficient (less negative plays) if they just lined up in the I formation and gave him the ball.

1IlliniFan November 12th, 2012

Just had to stop by and see what was being said, to be honest have not read this blog in awhile. While I applaud the hope and analysis that is given here, it is still futile, they are not real coaches for this league. Really enjoy Robert’s style of writing, just looking forward to it being about basketball and a real coach. I read this article earlier as I am catching up on all my sources for Illini. No offense, but this article is the best one I have read since the season has started.

You might want to read it is brief and to the point and personally could not agree more, especially were we are presently at.

Hoppy November 12th, 2012

Agree 100% with the post JJ just had.
I was under the impression TB was going to do this but I guess he went in a different direction.

kgwasmyfavorite13 November 12th, 2012

I don’t know what you’re talking about Robert. What is this football of which you speak? It is basketball season and we are 2-0. :)

Harry Lime November 13th, 2012

The Sun Times needs a real sportswriter, and his name is not Joe “Hall of Fame for all the Juicers” Cowley.

1IlliniFan November 13th, 2012

Maybe Harry, but we need a real football coach, not a pretend one.