Let Me Sum Up
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To clear the cache in my brain, I think the best thing to do here is to write a mini-post about every thought I'm having. I usually collect those thoughts and turn them into entire articles, but there's just too much here. To quote Indigo Montoya, "Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up."
This is the main thought bouncing around my head today. Here's probably the best way to frame it. Scoring defense the last 10 seasons. As simple as "average number of points allowed" to compare 10 defenses:
2012: 32.08 ppg allowed
A couple things:
1. I feel obligated to remind everyone that after the 2015 season - our best defense this past decade - Bill Cubit fired defensive coordinator Tim Banks. The offense only scored 22.67 points per game, but it was decided that Banks was the reason for the 5-7 season and soon after Cubit was extended on Not Ideal Day he dumped Banks. None of this mattered, of course, because Cubit was let go before spring ball could begin, but I just felt like we should recognize the 2015 defense again.
2. This defense has a chance to equal that defense (at least scoring-wise), and that's by far the biggest surprise this season. As of right now, over the last decade, it's 2015 #1, 2021 in second place, and 2019 getting the bronze.
I also feel obligated to point out that it's down to only five seniors in the entire rotation (starters and backups). Let's go through those rotations.
+ On the interior of the defensive line the main rotation is four guys: two freshmen start (Keith Randolph and Jer'Zhan Newton) and two nose tackles rotate in for various formations (Rod Perry, a senior, and Calvin Avery, a junior).
+ At defensive end (sorry, "outside linebacker"), it's a senior (Owen Carney) and a freshman (Seth Coleman) starting and then a senior (Isaiah Gay) and a sophomore (Ezekiel Holmes) backing them up.
+ With Jake Hansen and Calvin Hart out for the season, it's mainly just two guys playing nearly every snap at linebacker: sophomore Tarique Barnes and junior Khalan Tolson. Then there's a few snaps for junior Alec McEachern and maybe a few for The Dark Angel (also a junior).
+ At corner, mostly three guys: senior Tony Adams, sophomore Devon WItherspoon, and freshman Taz Nicholson
+ At safety + star (the three safety positions), it's a heavy rotation of the starters (Quan Martin, Sydney Brown, and Kerby Joseph, all juniors) with some snaps here and there for senior Prather Hudson and sophomore Eddie Smith.
That's five seniors - Carney and Adams starting, Perry, Gay, and Hudson as backups - on this defense. And next season, with some underclassmen probably ready to contribute and a few transfer portal acquisitions, you have to think this defense should be... better?
Plays You Remember
I'm on the train last night writing the last article - I'm sitting in the vacant dining car while everyone is asleep - and the phone rings. It's O'Donnell calling for the rare celebratory postgame phone call. When I lived in St. Louis, we shared many a postgame "why do we care so much?" phone call while I was driving back to STL. This time, I'm on a train, he's back at home, and we're both still giddy from the win so why not a conversation at 12:30 am?
We got to talking about plays that everyone remembers from road wins. From his era, obviously, everyone remembers the three 3rd-down conversions by Juice at Ohio State (and the fourth down conversion) to run out the final eight minutes of clock and beat #1. Our conversation quickly moved to something else, but I woke up this morning thinking of Plays You Remember in road wins. We're talking Johnson-to-Klein 1993 Michigan plays. I think Casey Washington's catch (in the bottom of the ninth) will definitely be one of those plays in 25 years.
So for this era - let's call it 1995 until today - what would be the top five? I picked "1995 until today" because that's when the "only 5 winning seasons in 26 years" streak started. In those 26 seasons, the top-5 plays I remember from road games. In reverse chronological order because I'm not trying to make this some big debate.
- Brandon Peters to Casey Washington - 2021 at Penn State. The first play I thought about after Washington caught the walkoff winner was Johnson-to-Klein in 1993. I had the same "did he catch it? flags? did we win?" reaction back then.
- Brandon Peters to Daniel Barker - 2019 at Michigan State. This is probably the best comp to the play immediately above. Brandon Peters rolls right and finds a receiver for the win.
- Mason Monheim Pick-6 - 2014 at Northwestern. Easily the most under-appreciated play of the last decade. We're 5-6 needing a win at Northwestern to go bowling. Illini led 33-10 but Northwestern cut it to 33-25. Monheim Pick-6 sealed it with five minutes remaining.
- Juice Williams conversion after conversion - 2007 at Ohio State. Explained above. Wouldn't know which 3rd-down conversion to choose (or if I should pick the 4th-down conversion).
- Rocky Harvey dive into the endzone - 1999 at Michigan. Honestly, as far as "memorable" goes, this play is probably #1. How do I know? I don't even need to explain it.
Honorable mention: Ty Myers Pick-6 at Ohio State in 2001, Jason Reda walkoff FG at Michigan State in 2006, Jeff Cumberland down the sideline at Michigan in 2008, Steve Hull taking a safety to run out the clock at Purdue in 2013, Tony Adams Pick-6 in the rain at Purdue in 2019.
So great to have another one to add to the list.
I've worn out the book at this point (the "book" = the term for the official stats printed immediately after the game in the pressbox), but upon another flip-through just now, I landed on something else. I suppose I could go find the online book and then cut-and-paste the text here, but something about taking a picture of it and linking it here feels right:
I'm talking about the Penn State drive that starts with 4:44 remaining. How many times have we watched that drive? I mean, we saw it twice already this season.
- Maryland had that drive with less than 5 minutes left. They drove the length of the field for the tying touchdown (and then got the ball back and kicked the winning FG as time expired).
- Purdue had that drive. They drove the length of the field for the go-ahead touchdown (their only touchdown of the game).
I mentioned another version of that kind of drive at Penn State (2010) yesterday. How many times have we had the "just need to stop them one more time" game where the narrator speaks up and says "they didn't stop them."
And when Penn State picked up those two first downs, I'm guessing every single one of us was thinking the same thing. Some version of "here we go again."
Followed by a two-yard loss, a three yard gain, an incomplete pass, and a punt. Illinois wins in overtime.
Let's make that the new normal.
Drive For Six
Pretty sure it entered all of our minds.
"Now that we're 3-5, could we possibly win six games and get to a bowl?"
Well, let's get in there and talk about it. Here's the remaining games:
Home vs. Rutgers
Home vs. Northwestern
Looks like the opening teaser line for Rutgers is Illinois -2. And I'm pretty sure Illinois will be favored over Northwestern. So I see it like this:
For it to happen, we'd have to win both of those games. Lose either one and no chance. There's just no way we win road games at both Iowa and Minnesota. The absolute best-case scenario there is 1-1. Likely 0-2.
I just checked to see if Bill Connelly has updated his win probabilities yet and he hasn't. He does a thing where he tracks your chances of 3-4-5-6 wins. Before this Penn State win - which, statistically, his system had as a 95% chance for a Penn State win - here were the Illinois win probabilities:
2-10 - 26% chance
3-9 - 44% chance
4-8 - 24% chance
5-7 - 5% chance
6-6 - 1% chance
7-5 - 0% chance
This win will change a lot there. Not only because 2-10 is no longer possible, but also because of the statistical domination. Here's where he had the postgame win expectancy:
Noteworthy Week 8 postgame win expectancies:— Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) October 24, 2021
ND > USC 44%??
Pitt > Clemson 58%
ISU > Ok St 60%
Miami > NC St 60%
OU > KU 66%
Bama > Tenn 72%
App State > Coastal 74%
Wake > Army 78%
SDSU > AFA 80%
Illini > PSU 87%
Mich > NU 96%
Wisc > Purdue 97%
Ore > UCLA 98%
Cincy > Navy 98%
87% says one thing: Had Penn State scored in the 3rd through 7th overtimes, it would have been a 2019 Illinois/Michigan State-like victory for them. Dominated statistically and they needed turnovers to even keep it close, let alone win the game. Which, hey, I love a good turnover win. But I still acknowledge the fortune required.
So with a statistically dominating win over a good opponent, those percentages will go up. They won't skyrocket - we did just have a game where Wisconsin held us under 100 yards, you know - but they will improve.
Still, I'm not sure the percentage chance of six wins will get much above 10-15%. The defense might be holding opponents to 23.75 points per game, but the offense is only scoring 18 points per game. That is not a formula for finishing 3-1. The most likely finish, I think, would be 1-3.
1-3 would be just fine, of course. Cover the preseason over-under, statement win achieved, would be 3-6 in the Big Ten in year one and that's something to build on. 4-8 can be recruited to with a win like this.
I'm getting lost here. I should just answer my own question. Can we go 3-1 and get to a bowl? No, I don't think so. 4-8 the most likely, but I really want to get to 5-7 with a win over Northwestern that final week. There's some momentum going into 2022.
Do I want to get to 6-6? I have to say no to that question as well.
I want to win the last four and finish 7-5.