Sep 26, 2021

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If you didn't read what I wrote on Wednesday, this probably won't make much sense. Well, the first part of this won't make much sense. I'm basically starting from the end of that post and taking it from there. I'm trying to do this without a recap and I can already tell it's not going to work. I'll just do a quick recap.

In that post, I wrote about The Juice. Sideline juice. The thing Bobby Roundtree was asking for in his pregame speech back in November, 2019. Energy. The thing that fuels all momentum changes in college football.

It's a lot more complicated than that - seriously, this post will make a lot more sense if you read that first - but that was my question for Bret Bielema in last Monday's press conference. I wanted to know his thoughts on sideline energy.

As part of his answer, he talked about the Josh McCray touchdown in the Maryland game and how he reviewed that play with his players during Sunday film review. Here's what he said:

Tip Reiman blocked three people on that play. Casey Washington, who was an outside, perimeter receiver - he runs a decoy route and drags his defender out of bounds by simply putting his hands out. And the only reason that DB turned around was the roar of the crowd turned him around and then he was greeted by Enterprise, Alabama about 10 feet away from him and he had to make a split-second decision on how he wanted to tackle that guy.

"There were several things on that play. Luke Ford had an unbelievable turn-out block which really made the play happen. So there's the energy of that, but the point I made on Sunday (in a team meeting), I talked about the word 'strain'. Strain on the field is easy to see. The strain of Casey Washington running a decoy route versus Tip Reiman blocking three people, his strain is totally different but the effect is the exact same. We had a successful play.

"But I showed the sidelines, and I circled Kenenna, and I showed what 'strain' was for him on that play. He cheered louder than anybody in that stadium. And that's the stuff that will make a difference.

I'm fully on board with this concept. I was highly complimentary of Coach Bielema in that article for his answer to my question. He seems to see football the same way I see football. And he wants to play the guys who bring that juice.

I also very much liked his concept of "strain" that he teaches his players. Strain for Tip Reiman was blocking three people. Strain for Casey Washington was running a decoy route and clearing out the defensive back. Strain for Kenenna Odeluga was cheering louder than anyone in the stadium.

And strain for a head coach, when faced with fourth and short with the lead for the second straight week, to me, would be to trust in his players and inject energy into the sideline with "let's go for this". Two consecutive weeks, we punt on fourth down with the lead in the fourth quarter. Two consecutive weeks the opposing team got the punt yards back in exactly three plays. Two chances to keep the ball in your team's hands... punt twice, lose twice.

"Strain" is a silly concept, right? It's like some team-building exercise at your job. Does that team-building thing really increase productivity? Isn't it just "businesses with smart people coming up with smart ideas grab the market share"? Some business can have the best teamwork and the greatest employee atmosphere but if their product is crap, they'll lose money, right? Does any of this team-building stuff really matter?

I think it does. You probably know me by now. I believe in personal growth and Ted Lasso and "send Ameche at me". Yes, you need to recruit talent and you need to have effective offensive and defensive schemes, but you also need heart. You need effort. The Proper State Of Mind. Juice. Strain.

Which is why I think a fourth-and-two decision like that, with the lead and the ball at the 34, is the head coach's opportunity to show strain. If we're going to talk about how players on the sideline can help the players on the field - and that was his point about Kenenna Odeluga - then we need to talk about how the coach on the sideline can do the same.

Tip needs to block three people and Casey needs to run a decoy route and Kenenna needs to be the loudest guy in the stadium.

And Bret needs to trust his offense to get two yards.

+ After the Virginia loss, I wrote one of my One Question Mailbag posts about how this season didn't feel like 1997 or 2005 or 2012 or 2016 to me (the first seasons of the previous coaches). At least not yet, anyway. I wasn't saying this wouldn't be a rebuild, but I didn't get the sense that the Virginia loss was this big "we're just significantly less talented than our opponents" like I was seeing in my Twitter mentions. I didn't think that things were great, but I didn't think we'd see halftime scores like Penn State 56, Illinois 3. I felt like this team would be competitive.

So then to see that play out the next two games and still be 1-4 is just so hard to take. We've been competitive in all three Big Ten games. Toe-to-toe with Nebraska, Maryland, and Purdue. After years of "could we just maybe be competitive in Big Ten games and not have to sit through 63-0?", we've seen just that through five games. And we're 1-4 on the season.

For the record, I'm not one of those "I'd rather lose 41-6 than lose on a last-second field goal" guys. The first step for Illinois football is to be competitive in the not-crazy-difficult Big Ten West. Through three conference games, we're competitive. We lose a lot of these players in the offseason, so it doesn't "mean" much, but it's something. We're toe-to-toe.

But I'm still driving home impossibly sad.

+ I'm trying to avoid making this entire post about the fourth down decision but, well, one more thing.

In the press conference, I asked about analytics. I wanted to know if a fourth-down decision like that was a gut-feel kind of thing or if he uses a card that says "4th & X from the X - best decision is a punt". Here's the full video of the press conference - my question starts at the 6:05 mark.

I guess the right thing to do here is to transcribe the question and answer since some of you might not be able to click and listen right now. Please note that in his answer, he's referring to something he said earlier in the press conference: that they tried a pass play earlier on a third down that didn't work, and he felt like they'd have to pass it on fourth and two in this scenario, and he didn't want to try a pass play.

Here's my question and his answer:

RR: You've mentioned analytics before and such. On a fourth and one decision like that, or a fourth and two, do you use a card? Do you have anything other than just gut feel?

BB: Again, there's a huge difference right there with what you said. Fourth and one we would have went. Fourth and two, again, we were in the exact same point on the field, almost the exact same scenario - it was a third and three, third and four - we ran a pass play that obviously didn't convert. For us to go for at that moment, obviously if that works you feel good about it but again it's the flip side.

Analytics to decision making, it's the result of a failure that can potentially lose a game for you more so than win. We put the ball five yard line (on Hayes' punt) so we made the advance for them 32, 33 more yards that they had to execute and score a touchdown. They hadn't scored a touchdown all day. That's what I was going off of more than anything.

The reason I asked about "analytics": the slides he went through with the media on our tour of the Smith Center. Bielema took us through part of his "Football 101" stuff that he went through with his players in the spring. That day, he walked us through the percentages of opponent's drives ending in points that start inside your own 20, between the 20 and 40, between the 40's, and so on. He's noted that he makes a lot of decisions based on those percentages (assembled from data including all recent college football games).

If he plays those percentages, I was curious if he had a card that said "fourth and two go for it here, here, and here but punt here". Those have percentages attached as well, so does he use that data? He didn't answer the question specifically (if he has a card or not). He simply said that their decision was to try to pin Purdue deep, and they did that. (He also answered the "kick a field goal?" question earlier by saying that McCourt had just missed from that distance. So that was his thinking there.)

When I got back to the pressbox, I saw this tweet in my mentions. So let's talk about it.

That's pretty much exactly the "card" I was asking about. The data is out there. Chances of winning if you go for it: 78%. Chances of winning if you punt: 69%. Yes, I understand "they haven't scored a touchdown all day so I trust my defense" plays into this, and I do think a coach would typically approach that decision differently in a 48-45 game vs. a 9-6 game, but still, those are the averages. "Go for it" is a better decision than either field goal or punt.

If Bret Bielema had his staffers assemble percentages of drives ending in points from every starting point on the field, I figured that he might have asked his staffers assemble winning percentages based on fourth down decisions in the fourth quarter. That's why I asked the question. It doesn't sound like he has.

+ I need to give Ryan Walters some praise here. We give up 20 points to Maryland and 13 to Purdue. And we lose both games.

Jake Hansen is out, Devon Witherspoon is out, and the defense played lights out. Yes, they gave up a long touchdown drive at the end of both games, but offenses are going to put up yards. 315 yards (and 13 points) means the defense did more than its job. This one is 99% on the offense.

And when I say it's on the offense, that does not include Josh McCray. 24 carries for 156 yards for the guy I said would be a defensive end in college. If we have any passing game at all, we win this one going away. But in college football in 2021, 100 passing yards on 27 attempts will barely ever win a game.

Seems pretty simple. Fix the passing game or the season is over.

(The season might already be over.)

+ I must find something good to talk about. Something I can ponder as I drive back to Champaign. Let me dig through the stats.

Found it.

We talk about the super seniors and how after this season there will be a major overhaul. That's true. Four of the five offensive linemen are seniors. Senior QB, kicker, punter, etc.

But on defense, here's the top seven tacklers today:

Sydney Brown (JR)
Kerby Joseph (JR)
Tarique Barnes (SO)
Khalan Tolson (JR)
Taz Nicholson (FR)
Seth Coleman (FR)
Jer'Zhan Newton (FR)

You have to get to the eighth guy (Tony Adams) to get to a senior. And further down the list you'll find Quan Martin (JR), Keith Randolph (FR), and Calvin Avery (JR).

So there's hope for this defense beyond just this season. There's a big hole in the "rush the passer" category, and I think you'll see a lot of offseason transfer portal emphasis right there, but the last two weeks have seen the defense get younger and better.

OK, I feel a tiny bit better. I'll just stop right here. That's enough to get me out the door, into the car, and back to Champaign. The media shuttle has stopped running, so I have a long hike ahead, but it's probably good for me.



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