A bye week is a great time for a reset. The players will get several days off here where they can just not think about football for the first time since late July. I did the same thing last night - stopped writing, watched TV. And I woke up with a refreshed mind. I hit the reset button on my emotions, I think.
Through four games, my main emotion this year has been "um, it's the third year - why isn't the defense better? Did it somehow get... worse?" I've looked up the statistics and pored over nerdstats and watched the games again and I haven't been feeling good. We'll get into some of those concerns in a bit, but for now, I want to reset back to the preseason. It's when my brain is clear of all fan emotions. Emotions cloud everything. Let's reset.
To do that, I go back and read emotionless words. I check myself against the things I wrote in the preview. I didn't have any "WHY CAN'T WE FORCE SECOND AND NINE??" emotions at the time; I was sequestered in a coffeeshop making an honest evaluation.
So if we just take the defensive line - clearly the biggest concern on the team right now, given the one sack last week as South Florida threw for 411 and the lack of push this week as Penn State ran for 387 - what was I thinking before the season? Some snippets from the 24,000 word preview in August:
Mike Phair to the Colts, Austin Clark to the Illini. A 15-year coaching veteran goes out the door and a 0-year coaching newbie comes in. That's… an interesting choice.
The last time I said that, when tight ends coach Greg Nord left in 2010 and was replaced by a graduate assistant from Arkansas named Chip Long, I was critical of the move. Why not go for more coaching experience? Why hire the kid? Well, seven years later, Chip Long is an offensive wunderkind, having moved from Arizona State to Memphis to now Notre Dame offensive coordinator (where Notre Dame had to fight off Alabama to keep him this offseason). So sometimes these GA hires can work out.
I guess my worry is that the most important developmental coach on this team right now is the defensive line coach. This is a young, youthful, and young defensive line. They need to make strides from game to game and get better in a hurry. And it feels a little risky to hand that development to someone in his first coaching job.
OK, so I think we're seeing my biggest concern play out in these first four games. This young defensive line isn't doing much. It's costing us games. There appear to be no answers. Players sometimes look confused. So yes, August me, I think you nailed it: a coaching newbie is struggling to get much out of his guys right now.
Junior - junior - junior, sophomore - sophomore - sophomore - sophomore - sophomore - sophomore, redshirt-freshman - redshirt freshman, freshman - freshman - freshman - freshman. That's the defensive line. Perhaps that's better listed like this:
Fifth-year players: none
Fourth-year players: Jamal Milan
Third-year players: Tymir Oliver, Kenyon Jackson, Ayo Shogbonyo
Second-year players: Bobby Roundtree, Isaiah Gay, Jamal Woods, Owen Carney, Marc Mondesir, Lere Oladipo, Deon Pate
First-year players: Calvin Avery, Verdis Brown, Ezekiel Holmes, Julian Pearl
So not only is it "three juniors," it's "one single player entering his fourth or fifth season." Every Iowa and Wisconsin defensive line the last 15 years has relied on fourth- and fifth-year players who have developed and developed and developed and then were unleashed on the Big Ten. This year, at Illinois, one player qualifies for that (Jamal Milan), and as of right now, he's out with a knee injury.
If you're someone who draws the line at the third year - every lineman needs two years of development before they're ready, so count your redshirt sophomores and up as the ones who are probably ready - there's just four players who qualify: Milan, Oliver, Jackson, and linebacker-turned-defensive end Shogbonyo.
In two years, when Roundtree, Gay, Woods, Carney, Mondesir, Oladipo, and Pate are all fourth-year players and Avery, Brown, Holmes, and Pearl are all third-year players, man, watch out. I'm already preparing my "Illinois - best defensive line in the Big Ten West?" articles. Two years prior to that moment? I'm nervous.
Feels a little insane, August me, to suggest that this could be the best DL in the Big Ten West in two years. I think you had a little August Syndrome there. But as for your youthful concerns, nail meet head. Milan is still out, meaning there's not a single fourth or fifth-year player out there in these first four games. And it absolutely shows.
The good news is that only two players left from last year (when most of these guys were playing as true freshmen). James Crawford (who was a very important piece to that defense and was voted defensive MVP) and Tito Odenigbo (whose flag-tossing incident where he tossed a flag back at an official who threw it was his last moment in an Illini uniform before transferring to Miami) have departed, and honestly, both were big losses. There's a reason Odenigbo landed at the best transfer spot of any of the 15 players who transferred out, and there's a reason Crawford is currently in camp with the Packers.
So at the start of the year, with those two gone, I think there's a slight step back for this defensive line. Yes, everyone is a year older, but with the new coach, players in new positions, and unknown status of the anchor of the defensive line (Milan), I think the line is in for a rough September. November 2020, "is this the best line in the Big Ten West?" September 2018, "uh, why are they struggling with the Western Illinois offensive line?"
I'm pretty happy with you right now, August Robert. You kind of nailed it. This line DID have a very rough September. And it was predictable back in August. Crawford did make the Packers 53-man roster, and Odenigbo is the third defensive tackle at Miami, and we miss both. Milan is still out, and his presence is missed. This is basically a bunch of second year players trying to hang with an experienced and talented Penn State offensive line (a Penn State offensive line that was a bit of a mess 2/3 years ago because they were so young, I might add). These are the things I believe about football. Defensive lines are about fifth-year guys who come out of nowhere (like Crawford), not second-year guys who are still trying to learn.
Iowa's defensive line right now? 4th-year player, 4th-year player, 5th-year player, 5th-year player. Yes, a borderline 3-star/2-star 5th-year senior (Parker Hesse) is playing in front of their 5-star true sophomore (AJ Epenesa). Illinois defensive line right now? 2nd-year player, 3rd-year player, 2nd-year player, 2nd-year player.
So when I press the reset button, I calm down. Last night's "what has happened to the defensive line?" emotions are calmed by August's sober analysis. The point of this season was to go 4-8 and look for progress. I think we're going to win four games. I think we're seeing progress.
Let's get into that.
+ Honestly, I think the most encouraging thing for me last night was observing the sideline. And that's twofold:
- That was a fired-up sideline. How many times over the past 10 seasons have I written about how dead our sideline was during a game? How the opponent was emotionally invested but our sideline, even in a close game, seemed quiet and reserved. Last night, especially in the third quarter, those players were fired up. In the postgame interview room, every player was talking about it. Nick Allegretti. Doug Kramer. MJ Rivers. The result wasn't there but the players all talk about how things are changing.
- There's a lot of young talent on that sideline. It doesn't mean much until they show it on the field, but when you see Kerby Joseph on special teams or you see Kievan Myers in uniform (massive, MASSIVE dude with giant hands and long arms, perfect for a Big Ten OL), you realize that this year is a little different than last year. Last year every talented freshman was on the field. This year, some of them are on the sideline, likely redshirting. Again, it doesn't mean much until proven, but it reminded me of some of my thoughts back at camp. You see Verdis Brown and Reuben Unije and Dylan Wyatt and Khalan Tolson in uniform and they absolutely look the part.
The second part is what I was thinking about when I woke up today. Did we look improved? Yes. Did was hang with Penn State for three quarters? We absolutely did. Did Penn State's depth and experience lead to us tapping-out in the fourth? Absolutely. Did the same thing happen with South Florida? Yes.
So I go looking for future depth and experience on our sideline. And I think I see it. This offensive line loses Nick Allegretti in the offseason. It might just be a battle between the two massive dudes to replace him (Larry Boyd and Kievan Myers). I feel pretty good about that battle. The line was really good last night, and I can see it getting better in 2019 and even better in 2020.
Defensive secondary? I said we needed a third safety we could count on, and so far that's absolutely Delano Ware. Combine that with four corners you can rely on - Hobbs, Watkins, Adams, and Martin, none of them seniors - and next year is probably a massive leap for the secondary (similar to the leap we're seeing from the offensive line this year).
When I take a step back and evaluate what we've seen... this is what we wanted to see. Is the depth coming along? Are there early-impact guys in the 2018 class? Can we hang with most of the teams on our schedule? Is there hope on the scout team? I think it's a "yes" to most all of those questions. Which is why I woke up encouraged.
+ What could sink it? Well, we saw it last night. If a bend-but-don't-break, keep-it-in-front-of-you, no-big-plays defense gives up those big plays, it's over. The whole reason for bending is to NEVER break, and we broke about four times in the fourth quarter. If that's going to happen, and if we're not going to get turnovers while bending, what's the point?
I think the most concerning thing so far in the Lovie Smith era is the defensive scheme issues. I don't know what they are, specifically (I believe it's silly for anyone who doesn't at least coach high school football to say things like "we should totally be giving them a single-high look here"), but I know that a guy like Tom Allen has really improved the IU defensive scheme while Lovie Smith and Hardy Nickerson, so far, have not.
Yes, a lot of that is completely turning the defensive roster over. There's one senior on the defense and it's a Lovie juco. There are only two Beckman players (Watkins and Milan) on the entire defense. It's almost all sophomores and freshmen. You have to expect mistake after mistake with that.
But we're still seeing checkers, not chess, I think. Can you remember a really great "man, we made a great adjustment there" moment the last two years? I get that Lovie is stubborn in his defensive beliefs, and next season, when we're stopping the run and pressuring the passer and getting the turnovers, he'd read this paragraph and laugh. He knows more about defense than I could ever pretend to know.
Still, as a fan, I want to "feel" something. A confidence in the schemes/playcalling. I don't feel it yet.
+ On the other side of the spectrum, man do I feel it on offense right now. Do you realize that we're doing this with three seniors (Allegretti, Mays, and Roberts), two juniors (Davis and Corbin), and then about 18 sophomores and freshmen? Including a true freshman QB the last 11 quarters?
Here's a stat for you:
2017 Rushing Yards Per Game: 105.6
2018 Rushing Yards Per Game: 243.5
And again - we're doing that with a freshman QB who is more of a passer (if Bush was in there, boost the rushing yardage maybe 40 more yards these last three games). And this is all with an offensive line that goes sophomore-senior-sophomore-freshman-sophomore.
As concerned I am about the defense, I'm equally excited about the offense. Yes, it's easier to get better quicker on offense. Freshmen skill players can contribute on offense quicker than they contribute on defense. Offensive linemen are "ready" maybe a year before defensive linemen. But even accounting for that, this offense is well ahead of where I thought it would be.
Last year's leading rusher was Mike Epstein (in his five games) with 346 yards. This year it feels like... five players might eclipse 346 yards? Both Epstein (324 so far) and Corbin (327) will get there in the next game. And Bonner (109 yards so far) likely gets there, as will Bush (142) once he comes back. And if he splits time with Rivers, perhaps Rivers gets there as well?
I was concerned that the WR injuries would cost us our running game as well (stacked boxes). That clearly hasn't been the case, even against a legit defense like Penn State. I'm really excited to see the offense the rest of this season.
+ A few more quick hitters:
- Who had Carmoni Green as the most important player to return from suspension? Bennett Williams got injured, Lou Dorsey wasn't a factor, and Nate Hobbs didn't do much. But Green had four catches for 49 yards (plus he drew a big PI penalty that led to another TD). And he could have had an even bigger night had the bomb not skipped off his fingertips. With Dudek, Meadors, and Carter out for the season, we really need Green to step up. He did last night.
- It was almost funny how quickly it got out of hand. I tweeted about our wind advantage in the fourth quarter (we were still in the game! no, really! the score was only 28-24 Penn State!), and then things just fell apart. Penn State scored on a 3rd and 12 to open the quarter, and then we're driving again trying to cut the lead to 4 once more. We get to the Penn State 34 and then that MJ Rivers self-fumble (Palcho recovered at midfield, but it put us at 3rd and 26) was the end. Penn State ball, 62 yard touchdown. Illinois possession... bobbled pass in our own redzone is an interception, Penn State scores in one play. Even with two minutes left and the backups playing, Robinson throws an interception that's returned to the 10. It's hard to remember a game getting out of hand that quickly.
- Hey Lovie: go for it on fourth down between the 30 and 40 every once in a while. You don't have to give Chase McLaughlin ALL the 50+ yard FG attempts.
+ That's all for now. I woke up encouraged, and I think that's where I'll stay during the bye week. Pulling out to the 1,000 foot view, this is what we wanted September to look like. 2-2 with a much better performance against South Florida and a surprising three quarters against Penn State.
Now October needs to see a few Big Ten wins.