Postscript, Purdue

Sep 27, 2021

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There are two reasons that I know Kevin Kelley's name.

Well, there are actually quite a few more reasons than that by now. Kelley, the first-year head coach at small Division I Presbyterian College, has been the subject of numerous features in recent days and weeks because of his unorthodox style. ESPN's College GameDay aired a feature on him over the weekend. He's been profiled by ESPN and others as well. Honestly, you might have to try to not know who Kevin Kelley is at this point.

That's the first reason that I know Kevin Kelley's name. He's the guy whose teams don't punt, in any situation, for any reason. He doesn't even carry a punter on his roster. When it works, it works -- his Presbyterian Blue Hose won their first two games this season 84-43 and 68-3, respectively. When it doesn't work, though, it doesn't, as evidenced by his 72-0 loss to Campbell followed by a 63-43 loss to Dayton this past weekend.

The second reason that I know Kevin Kelley's name, though, is because it usually works. Kevin Kelley doesn't become a sensation, at least not in a good way, if he and his no-punt offense are getting stomped week in and week out. He's probably a guy who coaches high school football for a few years, flames out, and is never heard from again.

Kelley is coaching at Division I because he wore out the high school football ranks. Before becoming Presbyterian's coach this season, the 52-year-old Kelley won nine AAA state championships at Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Arkansas. Over his high school coaching career, Kelley's teams went 216-29-1. It works.

And it works because Kelley is backed by probabilities. He knows the numbers, and he puts his faith in them. If the analytics say that a decision, however unorthodox, is the right one for the situation -- whether that's a two-point conversion or an onside kick or going for it on fourth down -- then he's usually siding with math.

"Coach Kelley can be a polarizing figure among traditional football people because he doesn't coach traditional football," PC athletic director Rob Acunto told ESPN. "But the fact that he doesn't coach traditional football is exactly why we hired him in the first place. He looks for angles and advantages to win games. Presbyterian College is looking for angles and advantages to have a winning football program."

The timing of Kelley's joining the national conversation is an interesting one for Illinois football after two high-leverage decisions by Bret Bielema have preceded two losses in recent weeks. Most recently, his decision to punt on fourth-and-two from Purdue's 34-yard line was followed by a 10-play, 94-yard touchdown drive that gave Purdue the come-from-behind win.

Robert referenced the analytics in his piece after the game, and although I didn't see a similar breakdown for his decision to punt the ball back to Maryland late in that contest, I assume the numbers support going for it in that situation as well. In fact, as noted, punting was actually the worst of Bielema's three options on Saturday.

It seems that Bielema could use a little more of Kevin Kelley's mentality. That's not to say that Kelley will continue to be successful or that major college football programs shouldn't carry punters; athletic directors and NFL owners love winning, so if Kelley's system was foolproof it would have almost certainly caught on in more places by 2021. It would just be nice to see Bielema embrace the analytics more in spots where victories are won in the margins.

And that's also not to say it would have worked. Sometimes a hitter beats the shift, even when the probability is high that he won't. Maybe Illinois would have kept the offense on the field against Maryland and not converted the fourth-and-six, giving the Terps the ball at midfield. Maybe Bielema would have called a run play that got stuffed on Saturday, or James McCourt would have missed again from the same spot. Maybe they lose both of those games anyway, just in different fashion.

There's a reason the Rays are consistently one of the best teams in MLB, though. There's a reason the Patriots, whose coach Bill Belichick talks with Kelley weekly, are consistently one of the best teams in the NFL. There's a reason that I know Kevin Kelley's name.

It's because it usually works.

-It's unfortunate that the narrative might be one that suggests the defense can't be trusted. Yes, both Maryland and Purdue marched down the field for scores after Bielema opted to try to pin them deep and play defense, but it's hard to look at either game and think Ryan Walters' defense has been the problem.

It was especially heartening to see the defensive line consistently get push on Saturday without having to send extra men. That could be a huge development moving forward -- if Illinois is able to pressure opposing quarterbacks while also being able to drop seven or eight defenders into pass coverage, more games will probably look like (most of) Maryland and Purdue rather than UTSA and Virginia.

The schedule lays out favorably if that ends up being the case. They should beat Charlotte. The offenses of Maryland and Purdue are better than or at least on par with those of Wisconsin, Rutgers, Minnesota and Northwestern. Penn State and Iowa appear to be the only true, "well, no chance we win that game" games left on the schedule.

That's not to say they'll win most or even a few of those other games, but it at least shouldn't be the defense's fault if they don't.

-What's there to say about the Josh McCray find that hasn't already been said about raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens? These are a few of my favorite things.

-Pat Bryant sighting. You truly do love to see it.

-This isn't a hot take, because Vegas thinks Illinois is a 10-point favorite, but I think Saturday may be a cathartic day for the Illini. The results haven't shown it, but the team has taken strides since the Virginia loss.

After that game, Bielema said he was ready to tighten up the rotation and lean on the players they want to lean on moving forward. It's no surprise, then, that guys like McCray and Kerby Joseph have moved into prominent roles, while others like Chase Hayden and Derrick Smith have faded. (And Brian Hightower and Jafar Armstrong continue to be ghosts.)

It's also no surprise that the team has performed better in the weeks since. Open auditions can't be blamed for everything in the UTSA and Virginia games, but if Bielema was truly using those games as a chance to evaluate a number of different players in hopes of firming up a rotation, it could explain some of it.

Now that they've got their guys in place and performing relatively well in 2.5 facets of the game -- let's not talk about the passing offense -- I have a gut feeling they roll Charlotte. I know Charlotte is 3-1 and beat Duke in the season opener, but if the oddsmakers saw something they thought was impressive about the 49ers they wouldn't have a 1-4 Illinois team as double-digit favorites. This is a team that the Illini should handle.

Now, handle them.


IlliniJoe81 on September 27, 2021 @ 11:48 AM

Great article. Thanks.

Sweetchuck13 on September 27, 2021 @ 01:51 PM

For me, the decision to punt isn't even just about 4th down. As soon as you get to 3rd and 3 from the 35, BB should be telling Petersen that it's 4 down territory and he has two plays to get the first (assuming no negative yardage).

For all of the talk about what he learned from Belichick, that strikes me as a very un-Belichick like decision to make. Feels like more often than not, Belichick will make the call to attempt secure the win by being aggressive in situations like that and take the ball out of the other team's hands.

(Even better would be making that decision that it's 4 down territory on 1st and 10 from the 42, but it seems like we're a ways from BB thinking like that).

Joe Edge on September 27, 2021 @ 01:54 PM

'It's unfortunate that the narrative might be one that suggests the defense can't be trusted.'

I'm of the opinion that what happened suggests the Bielema doesn't trust the 'offense' ... In fact he said as much during the post game presser. He pointed out that they had previously failed to convert on a 3rd and 4, and that McCourt had missed a FG from nearly the same spot... If (big IF) trust is the issue here, I'm suggesting that BB has MORE trust in the Def than the Offense... JMHO...

Chief4ever on September 28, 2021 @ 12:15 AM

I was shocked to see those words even mentioned as well, you beat me to it. There is no narrative- anywhere- about the Defense not being trusted. The narrative isn’t really even 4th down calls- those are discussions, but not the main issue at all. The ENTIRE narrative is the (lack of ) Offense, particularly the QB. The Maryland game was over when the D stripped the ball in the red zone. Until the QB gave it right back on one of the worst passes I have ever seen. Zero touchdowns, 9 points, 2.5 yards per pass?!?! Seriously?? Why is anything else being discussed?!?! Low MAC level QB play wins both games and we are 3-1 with this D. Defense not being trusted is a ridiculous take.

IBFan on September 27, 2021 @ 09:18 PM

BB is full of BS on this one. Regardless of some game plan or notion of what may be applied at any given situation every coach reads the game situation. BB choked and is making shit up to fit his needed narrative to explain away a horrid decision. McCray had shown all game that he could gain two yards, even with contact at the line. McCourt missing one kick, barely, does not mean that the analytics concerning his ability, overall performance are suddenly void. What happened throwing to Tip isn’t relevant to this play call accept for maybe they just have thrown Tip that pass to begin with. Another example of the wrong play with wrong personnel. Work that into a game where the drive, possible win isn’t on the line.

HiggsBoson on September 28, 2021 @ 10:22 AM

Not only did he choke two games in a row, he has stated that he will ALWAYS do it. He's beginning to remind me of a belligerent Gary Moeller with a bigger gut.

thumpasaurus on September 28, 2021 @ 10:47 AM

Gary Moeller is perhaps the most direct analog one could imagine, he was handed a very successful Michigan program when his predecessor became the AD and won several conference championships.

This was after he failed at Illinois, but he still came to Illinois with the mindset that he could simply do what they'd done at Michigan.

Altgeld88 on September 28, 2021 @ 01:02 PM

The question at this point appears to be: does he have the capacity of Brad Underwood to reassess what isn't working and adopt new ways that will, or is he really Gary Moeller c. 1978?

Recall that, though Moeller was handed a Michigan program on top in 1990, he still managed ultimately to lose that job after five seasons because he couldn't control himself: he was drunk, someone heckled him at a suburban Detroit restaurant, and he lost it. He never really became true head coach material.

Chief4ever on September 28, 2021 @ 08:25 PM

I HATE the call, been a big backer of going for it on 4th for years in questionable situations- stats generally back it up, especially when you take time and score into account- almost anywhere near or past mid field. BUT. That did NOT lose the game. Zero trust in the QB lost the game. 100 yards passing lost the game. Holding onto the ball way too long and taking sacks lost the game. Only 100 yards passing with a back gaining over 150 on the ground lost the game. Teams are loading the box and going for sacks with no fear of any passing game. That is the discussion. Yes, 100% go for that every single time!!! BUT, thank you Bart for making us competitive!!!! With a below average B10 QB, we would be actually good!!!

Chief4ever on September 28, 2021 @ 08:36 PM

And I’m not a “the backup is awesome” guy. I am a “how could an athletic guy like Deuce possibly be worse?” guy. Would his QBR be less than 35??? I don’t think so.

I would be afraid a young, inexperienced guy like him would do something like Peters did at the end against Maryland. Seeing what the 6th year senior did though, I can’t see how anyone could do worse. Or give the guy told he’s not a B10 QB try. Might come out with something to prove and surprise everyone with a quick release, getting the ball to IW, Luke Ford, let them make plays.

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