Carbon Copy

Oct 1, 2023

I had to go back and look for my "if." I knew I had included an "if" in what I wrote on Monday and Tuesday, but I wanted to see exactly what I had said. I was being bold - I wrote "Turnover Margin" as Part I and then "What If We Win The West?" as Part II, suggesting that if we clean things up, the yards have been there and the West is weak so we can make a run at this division. IF we clean things up.

Here's exactly what I said on Tuesday night:

We do have lingering issues to fix. They were obvious on Saturday. If we continue to football like we've been footballing, we're not going to win three conference games, let alone win the division. If turnovers, penalties, and failed conversions continue to dominate the headlines, this is probably a 5-7 season.

But those things are the most fixable. It's fairly difficult to take an offense that can't move the ball through four games (think 2017) and say "but if we can just start putting together long drives on offense, then maybe we can get on a roll." If you haven't moved the ball in the non-conference, you're probably not going to move the ball in conference play. Same for defense. If you can't stop anyone, you're probably going to continue not stopping anyone.

If your issue is shooting yourself in the foot -- if you're killing drives with penalties and turnovers -- then that's much easier to fix. You only have to clean up seven plays, not 70. And that's why I'm very "hmmmmm" as we play our first Big Ten West opponent on Saturday. I established yesterday that our luck has been bad. And today I want to establish that our issues are quite fixable.

I still believe that our issues are quite fixable. It's easier to fix mistakes than yards. But it didn't feel like we fixed a single thing in this game. In fact, it was a near carbon copy of our struggles in the first four games. If you read my two-part series on Monday and Tuesday, you'll remember some of these things. I'm not going to quote-box everything because that would be too tedious. But if you read those, you'll remember...

  • I talked about how our fumbles have all come in bad locations. At our own 43, and our own 28, and at our own 13. Today.... we fumbled in the endzone.
  • I talked about how many penalties have killed our own drives and extended drives for our opponents. Today was easily the worst of the five games when it comes to that. More on that in a bit.
  • I noted specifically that the #1 thing we could improve on is our third down conversion numbers on defense. Our struggles there exacerbate our already sketchy field position numbers. Today, Purdue was... 8-13 on third down.

After we failed to recover the onside kick with 6:27 left, I tweeted this stat box. I chose that point in the game because that, in my estimation, began "garbage time." Purdue was going to try to grind out yards and clock (they did). And then we got a drive for the twos against the twos. You don't learn much statistically from those drives (I knew it would probably unnecessarily lower Purdue's Yards Per Play, for example), so I wanted to capture the "true" game stats.

Here's the tweet:

Starting with Total Yards, Purdue had 39 more at that point (they finished the game with 31 more total yards). Passing yards were basically identical and Purdue had 30 more rushing yards. YPP was also almost identical - Purdue had 5.7 yards per play, we had 5.6. Turnovers were even and both teams scored a touchdown off their fumble recovery (Purdue immediately, Illinois after a drive). Time of possession? The same. Yards per completion? The same. Yards per carry? More or less the same.

So how does all of that result in 44-19? Especially when turnovers are even? It's absolutely everything that I listed in my "if."

  • Purdue (again, using the stats with 6:27 left) was 7-12 on third down. We were 1-11.
  • Penalties: Purdue 3 for 15, Illinois 9 for 83.
  • Sacks: Purdue 5, Illinois 2

"If turnovers, penalties, and failed conversions continue to dominate the headlines, this is probably a 5-7 season." We only needed two of the three to turn what should have been a close game into 44-19.

Yes, "what should have been a close game." With those yards (and turnover numbers), it should be a close game. But then one team does all of the footballing and the other team does none of the footballing and it's 44-19.

What did I write last Saturday? "Point and yards and points and yards and points and yards and points and yards." What was the only question I asked Coach Bielema at either press conference this week? Is he concerned about not getting any points with all these yards.

Yards Per Point this week?

Purdue: 9.2
Illinois: 19.7

My goodness mercy me. When the Points Per Yard numbers are updated tomorrow, we're likely going to be in the bottom five nationally. We can't do any of the footballing things that will turn yards into points (and prevent yards from being turned into points on the other side of the ball).

Where, specifically, is that showing up? Let's go to the drive chart.

~ A Taz Nicholson personal foul turns 3rd and 8 into 1st and 10 fifteen yards down the field. Purdue eventually punts, but that punt is then fair caught at the 10 and not the 25 (where it would. have been caught had the 15 yards not been applied). And then, on the second play of our drive, Luke Altmyer is strip-sacked and we fumble in the endzone. Take away the penalty on the previous drive and that fumble is at the 15, not the goal line. Not ideal, but also not a touchdown without the Purdue offense needing to pick up a single yard.

~ Illinois stops Purdue on 3rd down but a Nicario Harper Pass Interference penalty gives Purdue a first down. Instead of punting from their own 36, they get a first down at midfield. They would go on to score that drive. 7 points simply because we gave them two drives for the price of one.

~ The ensuing Illini drive, a holding penalty called on Josh McCray, putting us in 1st and 20. Purdue follows that up with a sack and we have to punt from our own endzone. On the ensuing Purdue drive, they only pick up 32 yards before failing on 3rd and 8 but they kick a 40 yard field goal. Without the holding penalty and the sack on the previous Illini possession, that 40 yard field goal attempt would have been from 56 yards. Starting to see how footballing works?

~ The first drive after halftime, we stop Purdue on 3rd and three but a defensive holding call on Taz Nicholson continues their drive. Instead of punting from their own 48, they get a first down at our 42. They would go on to score that drive. 7 points simply because we gave them two drives for the price of one.

There were five other penalties. We advanced them 15 yards with a facemask here, we attempted a pass beyond the line of scrimmage there. Even a simple false start changing 2nd and 7 to 2nd and 12 can be a drive killer (like that one in the third quarter that led to us punting and led to Purdue scoring).

My point is that Yards Per Point being 9.2 to 19.7 when both teams average identical yards per play basically comes down to mistakes and only mistakes. We have a wide open tight end in the endzone but our quarterback overthrows him. We have fourth and one and fail miserably. We turn two drives where Purdue had the punt team headed out into two drives where Purdue scores a touchdown.

I want to say it again because this is basically the culmination of the last four articles I've written. If you just show me those two stats -- yards per play was 5.7 to 5.7, yards per point was 9.2 for Purdue and 19.7 for Illinois -- I can tell you with absolute certainty that Illinois lost more than Purdue won. Getting out-gained by a significant amount is one thing. Losing 44-19 in a game with equal turnovers and 406-375 yards would require an incredible number of "football mistakes." We made an incredible number of football mistakes.

(And is it dumb that my brain still says "but those are the fixable parts of football!")

+ I won't have much stuff that will go down here in the plus signs this week. I feel like I said most of it in the From The Stands. There's still disbelief lingering in my head, and when I'm feeling like that, I can't properly frame certain parts of the game from today. It's still one big "what??"

But I did say during the FTS that I was gonna look up points allowed last year vs. points allowed this year. Ready?

Points allowed in 2022 (13 games): 166
Points allowed through 5 games this season: 153

That makes me so sad, man. I'm not really angry, just sad. We knew we would take a step back defensively. We had no idea it would be this, though.

+ I haven't seen a replay, but I'm pretty sure that Hank Beatty had this ball in his hands (the one near the goal line at the end of the game) longer than he had the ball in his hands last week.

It wouldn't have mattered. In fact, I love talking about things like that in situations where the outcome of the call didn't matter. In this situation, watching it live, I'm fairly certain that he had the ball, turned to run, fumbled, and then Illinois recovered. (We recovered in the endzone but it wouldn't have been a touchdown because you can't fumble the ball forward into the endzone. We would have gotten it at the two or three with one final play remaining.

But still, I'm fascinated when officials make the easy call at the end of the game. Didn't seem like they were even trying to get the call right with 10 seconds left in a blowout game. Incomplete was easiest (don't have to figure out the spot of a ball fumbled forward), so incomplete was the call.

(I'm sure I'll see a replay tomorrow and he'll never have had possession and I'll feel dumb about this entire section.)

+ One point I should probably clarify about the penalty plays I listed above. We'll just call this the footnote section.

I understand everything you're wanting to tell me about "after the penalties there's no way to know if the next drive plays out exactly like it did with the penalties." I understand the multiverse you're pointing to. If Taz isn't called for that 15-yard penalty in the first quarter and Purdue has 3rd and 8 at their 27 instead of 1st and 10 at their 42, maybe they call a crossing route on 3rd and 8, two of our defenders run into each other, and their receiver takes it 73 yards to the house. I understand that I can't fully say "so then after Purdue punted we fair caught it at the 10 instead of the 25 which led to the fumble in the endzone."

My point in playing out those drives like that was to show you why field position is so incredibly important. I really do view it that every penalty on every failed drive (a drive that ends in a punt or turnover on downs) moves your opponent that many yards close to your endzone. One hold and one false start moves the ball 15 yards and after your punt if Purdue has a 58-yard drive in them, the drive with no penalties ends in a field goal and the drive with the penalties ends in a touchdown.

I sometimes picture it like one of those old NFL board games. Your opponent is going to play a 67-yard drive card next. Because you drew two offensive penalty cards on the previous drive and only had a 39-yard punt card in your hand, they get the ball at the 35. And that's just enough for them to play their 67-yard drive card and end up with a touchdown.

That's what I'm saying when I play the drives out like that. Field position matters. And we're getting destroyed in that category all season.

+ It's 2:26 am so I need to attempt to sleep. But if I'm honest, once I head in there, I'm probably going to stare at the ceiling for 12 minutes and then play Bubble Pop on my phone for at least an hour. I struggle to sleep in moments like this.

Please beat Nebraska. Please.


uilaw71 on October 1, 2023 @ 06:57 AM

Only saving grace about Neby game is that it’s at night, at home. And on paper they’re worse than us.

BigRedIllini on October 1, 2023 @ 07:53 AM

One of the things I was most encouraged by in Bielema’s first year was our ability to football. We were in a lot of games because we didn’t beat ourselves. Our offense was ultra conservative which was frustrating, but it allowed us to control the clock and limit mistakes. Do you think there has been a change in philosophy this year to play a little looser to generate more yards and eventually points? If so do you think that it is focused on long term success rather than short term?

illinisludge on October 1, 2023 @ 02:12 PM

Well said! Very discouraging that we aren’t footballing this year

BigSkyIllini on October 1, 2023 @ 09:12 AM

Great analysis Robert. I really enjoy your work and your passion for the Illini. I’m right there with you. ILL.

BigSkyIllini on October 1, 2023 @ 09:12 AM

Great analysis Robert. I really enjoy your work and your passion for the Illini. I’m right there with you. ILL.

thegoah on October 1, 2023 @ 09:34 AM

I don’t disagree with any of this, but I’m gonna go through a thought exercise to see if it holds up. Not sure where I’m gonna land until I’m done.

Assuming that your premise is, “We can be as good as them but we keep making mistakes which kill us.”

What if we make mistakes because we’re not as good as them? What if it’s not fixable because it happens because we’re bad? If every PI happens because we’re beat on the play, (or simply because we don’t know how to defend), then we’re just trading 30 passing yards in the stats for 15 penalty yards. So we could play a “clean” game and even penalties, but lose passing yards by 100.

So I suppose the answer lies in “what type of penalties are we committing?” If they’re just dumb unnecessary penalties, then you’re right. If they’re desperate TD saving penalties then your premise is wrong.

Can’t dissect every one obviously, but a few examples: Nicario Harper had excellent coverage and grabbed the guy for God-knows-why while the ball was in the air. Dumb. Taz held on 3rd & 8 aggressively. Wasn’t a reactionary/make up thing. Just thought “I’m gonna grab this guy as he runs up to me.” Dumb. Maybe I didn’t see it well but from what I saw I didn’t think the McCray hold was a hold at all. Thought he sort of got rung up because the way he swung his arms when the guy fell made the official thing he threw him. In any event, even if I’m wrong, the guy was not getting pressure at the time of the call. Dumb (or unlucky).

So from the anecdotes I can remember, your premise seems solid to me. There are probably some penalties that fall into the other category but I can’t think of them right now.

Chukwuwumba on October 1, 2023 @ 11:11 AM

Completely agree here. Especially related to the oline. All the holds are because they get beat by better players and technique. I’m at the point of thinking where they should hold the opponent every time they get beat in order to prevent altmeyer from getting injuried. They won’t call it every play. Offense has not been consistent and is predictable, and that is not helping the oline either.

Feel like the secondary are trying to be( thinking they are) Witherspoon and brown instead of being themselves. Taz flat footed for the double moves seemed to be targeted from Purdue staff.

GilThorpe on October 1, 2023 @ 09:38 AM

i’m sad we are simply not playing fundamentally sound football and this is a huge surprise with BB coached teams

we are tough to watch

wesd2005 on October 1, 2023 @ 09:43 AM

One of the biggest plays was the Bryant drop. If he hangs onto it, we're down 23-20 mid 3rd and it would have been a different game. Everything just spiraled out of control in the 3rd, and that was right in the middle of it.

Have to be able to beat Nebraska next week. Every game on the schedule is winnable except maybe Maryland, but we need something to go right soon.

RonSwanson on October 1, 2023 @ 11:08 AM

Opening Drive Altmyer airmailed a dart instead of lofting a pass to wide open TE in end zone. (great play call) there's 4 points.

Bryant drop - have to make that catch if you want to win games in the BIG

^^ (The above plays change momentum and confidence)

Adams is a turnstile at RT - have to move him back to LG to try and make that a strength to build from. Try Whitenack and Henderson at RT. Try Barlev and Gesky at RG.

Crisler is clearly not 100% - rest him for two weeks - let him rehab and get right for second half of season.

It seems that Walters (wonder how?) was aware that our DBs are taught to hold WRs b/c just about every third down they ran a fade route to a WR in one-on-one situation and figured they'd either catch it or have a DPI on more than half those throws - and they did.

Need to get our RBs more carries as a whole. I'd play more 12 personnel with IW as the sole WR

We're a young team (not a lot of 4th and 5th year players out there) and young teams make mistakes. Key is continue to coach 'em up and improve. I think we can still win 7 games, but we could also win 5. @Maryland, Wisky, @Iowa and @Manny will be tough games - can we split them to get to seven wins?

We'll find out. I-L-L-

Joe Edge on October 1, 2023 @ 11:13 AM

Robert... Do you know what the biggest word in the dictionary is ? ? IF....

Chukwuwumba on October 1, 2023 @ 11:18 AM

Punt block/ tip was great scheme and play there. Great field position and offense lost yards at mid-field, I believe. Not taking advantage of shorter field while other team does, also adds to this.

IlliniJoe81 on October 1, 2023 @ 06:42 PM

Feels like this is the game we’ll point to and say it was when we knew it was over.

Mr Cool on October 1, 2023 @ 09:44 PM

Mr Cool on October 1, 2023 @ 09:54 PM

Our defense being bad is explainable. We lost 3 NFL secondary players from last year, while Coleman/Jacas/Randolph have not at all made up for it. They all regressed. Newton is great but can’t do it all on his own. Last year we had pros on that side of the ball. This year we don’t.

Our offense is mediocre bc our RT is terrible. It’s impossible to have long sustained drives when you can’t protect the QB. Inevitably you will have a negative play that kills every drive and most of the time it’s due to the RT.

Overall, we have significant less talent than last year. The hope all Illini fans need to have is Bielema fixing the offensive line thru recruiting. That has been his calling card his entire career. If he can, we can get back on track of 7-8 win seasons. If he can’t, it begins to look like last year was a fluke of a bunch of pros coming together on one team similar to 2001.

MuckFichigan92 on October 2, 2023 @ 12:47 AM

Did BB put a lot of OL into the draft during his stay at Arkansas, a la his calling card?

MuckFichigan92 on October 2, 2023 @ 12:31 AM

The lack of improvement so far, with a healthy team, was concerning enough but now injuries are impacting us. Healthy, this team had a shot at seven wins; make that a ceiling. Remove starters and the Ws fall from the left column.

Leechcass on October 2, 2023 @ 03:45 AM

Bob, what has happened? This team doesn't look like a Bielema team. We're falling back and giving the QB all day to throw. Charlie Bullen's expertise ain't showing cause his guys don't seem to be playing much. Am I wrong? The attacking 'D' of the last few years has been lost. Is henry protecting his DBs? Does he have so little faith in them that he won't put them on an island and bring a blitz?

IlliNYC on October 2, 2023 @ 11:04 AM

Agree. The lack of defensive aggressiveness has been jarring--since the first game.

Inexperienced DC wanting to play it safe or different philosophy?

STLINI on October 2, 2023 @ 09:07 AM

Appreciate the breakdown Robert. Love this kind of stuff.

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