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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.