Tale Of Two Cities XV: Mailbag 1
Gonna wrap up this little "blogging" series by taking some questions. And this first one isn't even a question. It's a really good response that was buried under 30 other comments in a recent post and I wanted to cut-and-paste it here and then discuss it a little further.
Here's the comment from "ChampaignSipper":
The following in bold is from a Tribune Interview with Illinois Alum and retired Big Ten Referee, Don Capron. I'll link the interview under the bold quote from Capron.
"In an average Big Ten game with 150 to 200 plays, we might miss four. That includes no-calls -- missed a DPI (defensive pass interference), missed a hold, ineligible downfield. A trade secret: As an official, you would much rather have one of those than have a flag that's thrown that's wrong. You don't want to put a flag on the ground unless you're 110% sure. Bill (Carollo) has a saying: I want you to love your call. If you're not sure, don't throw the flag."
Couple of points. When you get ordered to love your call, and millions of dollars are on the line IF the ref gets one of the four flags wrong and Michigan is out of an undefeated matchup with Ohio State and possibly a playoff berth, you can see why ALL of the calls went Michigan's way at the end of the game. It was human nature.
Secondly, about the flag thrown that's wrong-this is what kills me about the Purdue Back Judge on Spoon's interception. The official was seeing things that weren't there. Ironically, the same back judge called PI on Maryland last Saturday that was questionable-at best-and who did it help? Ohio State. If Capron is right about Carollo, the back judge should not be working.
Here's a snippet of what I wrote about this topic after the game on Saturday:
Look, I have sympathy for how difficult it is to officiate a game. I honestly feel for the ref who kept his flag tucked on the fourth down and the ref who pulled it for the PI on Spoon (same guy?). On the pick play, he knows that if he flags that OPI on a 4th down play, his flag just eliminated a College Football Playoff participant. That has to be incredible pressure. When refs move up to Power Five football, they all know they're facing what that one back judge faced in the 2002 national title game. Pull the flag and Ohio State wins the national title. Keep the flag in your pocket and Miami wins the national title. It has to be absolutely terrifying.
The comment there from ChampaignSipper is EXTREMELY APT. I want to paste it again so you can read it again: "When you get ordered to love your call, and millions of dollars are on the line IF the ref gets one of the four flags wrong and Michigan is out of an undefeated matchup with Ohio State and possibly a playoff berth, you can see why ALL of the calls went Michigan's way at the end of the game. It was human nature."
So true (SOOO TRUUUEE). No, it's not some big conspiracy. No, that official isn't under orders to make sure Michigan gets to the title game. His very specific order from his boss (Bill Carollo is the Coordinator Of Officials for the Big Ten) is "if you're not sure, don't throw the flag." Under those orders, knowing your flag would change the College Football Playoff, there's no way some official would throw that 4th down flag. You'd be risking your entire career.
The best thing to do? The decision to make when your options are "see your call on Twitter being discussed by hundreds of thousands of Michigan fans or see your call being discussed by some Illinois blogger in a mailbag post no one will read?"
Hedge your calls towards Michigan.
Is Jayden Epps going to be our #2 option at crunch time after TSJ?— Tom Novak (@ran42k) November 23, 2022
If you know me you know I have to do the "here's what I wrote about this before and then we'll go forward from there" thing, so here's what I wrote about Epps after the Monmouth game last week:
This is Biggest Surprise #2 for me: Jayden Epps. No, I don't expect him to continue averaging 12.0 points per game, but I also didn't expect him to be the third-leading scorer through three games. No one expected Dain Dainja to be averaging more than Coleman Hawkins at this point and no one expected Jayden Epps to be averaging more than RJ Melendez. And I'm guessing that no one, absolutely no one, expected Jayden Epps to be second on the team in minutes after three games.
After this weekend - 4 points in 23 minutes on Friday night, 14 points (leading scorer) in 27 minutes on Sunday - he's still the #3 scorer at 10.8 ppg (behind Shannon and Dainja). And he's also third on the team in minutes played (24.4) behind Shannon and Hawkins. As someone pointed out the last time I talked about this, the minutes thing probably has a fair bit to do with Skyy Clark getting the two-foul auto-bench in two (three?) of the five games. That brings Epps off the bench for more minutes than would normally be expected.
Still, he's third and third after games against the team that was #8 going into the game and the team that's now #5 after the game. Before this weekend there was at least a "once the competition cranks up, his points and minutes will go down" caveat, but then he was the leading scorer (and took the most shots) in the Virginia game. It looks like he'll be a key offensive piece all season.
Will he be the #2 option at crunch time behind Terrence Shannon Jr? I... hope not?
That's not an insult towards Epps. I loved the Frank Mason comp that Underwood tossed out there when meeting with the broadcast crew in Vegas. Mason was a four-year player at Kansas, probably too short to ever play in the NBA (looks like he's in the G-League right now), so he stuck around for four years, scored 1,885 points, started 113 games, and won the Naismith as a senior. Winning the Naismith isn't my expectation here, but I do think he can be a four-year player who starts a ton of games and ends up a top-10 scorer. Chester Frazier with better offensive skills.
This year? If we're going to be top-15 good? I still think we need the #2 option at crunch time to be RJ Melendez.
Think back to the Houston game in the Tournament last year (sorry to do that to you, but try). Remember how RJ was the spark in that game? How his slashing was the thing we needed against that athletic lineup? I'm still hoping to see that very soon. As Underwood has said, he's pressing too much early in the season. But as he settles in, I still think he'll be a great #2 option in crunch time. Shannon will get the ball in his hands as much as possible, but when they hedge towards him, I still want to see RJ step forward as the #2 guy there.
(But I'm not gonna be mad if it's Epps.)
This goes back a little further, but still relevant. I just wonder what went into extending Barry Lunney Jr. after a loss to MSU at home? There were several discouraging moments offensively at Michigan last Saturday is why I’m asking the question here.— Moses (@motownphilly32) November 23, 2022
Moses! Moses and I met at Coffee Cartel in 2017 (?) when I was writing the football preview. I wrote 85% of every football preview at Coffee Cartel in St. Louis from 2014 to 2019. It later closed, and then there wasn't a 24-hour coffeeshop in St. Louis, and it still breaks my heart. Some people love a bar at closing time - I live for the 2:30 am coffeshop vibe.
Anyway, to the question. I have three main thoughts.
1. The stats from Saturday have to be scaled for Michigan's defense.
Here's how I evaluate Saturday's game. What Michigan allowed their first 10 games vs. what Lunney's offense produced.
PPG allowed: 11.2
Points for Illini: 17
Yards allowed per game: 232.8
Illini yards on Saturday: 326
Rushing yards allowed per game: 72.7
Rushing yards for Illini on Saturday: 148
When Penn State went to Ann Arbor, they gained 268 yards and gave up 563. One week ago, Nebraska (statistically this season, a better offense than Illinois) gained 146 yards in Ann Arbor. We will see what Michigan does against a real-deal offense in Columbus this weekend, but in their first 10 games, they've been statistically dominant.
Which means I think I can fairly comfortably say "if we had played UCLA's defense this weekend, we would have scored 45+". This was a really good offensive performance against a defense capable of winning the national championship. Yes, the three-and-out (with a holding penalty) was very frustrating (as I said on the radio yesterday, I'm always all about the killshot pass there to get the first down), but big picture, I was happy with the offense on Saturday. I had much bigger offensive concerns against Purdue and Michigan State than I did at Michigan.
2. The overall offensive statistics have to be scaled for the Big Ten West.
This isn't really answering your question but another comment I received. With only one game remaining, meaning the NERDstats are nearly all current-season statistics at this point, the Illini offense is 101st nationally in the SP+. What gives?
I always look at it like playing Virginia in basketball (you're going to struggle to get to 60 so they just have to get to 61) vs. Iowa (you're going to score 88 but they might score 89). The Big Ten West is just a bunch of Virginia Basketballs.
Offensive/defensive SP+ rankings for the Big Ten West:
Illinois - Offense 101st, Defense 3rd
Iowa - Offense 112th, Defense 2nd
Minnesota - Offense 87th, Defense 6th
Nebraska - Offense 78th, Defense 72nd
Northwestern - Offense 121st, Defense 69th
Purdue - Offense 45th, Defense 53rd
Wisconsin - Offense 69th, Defense 24th
Average offense: 88th nationally. Does that mean "wow, seven horrific offensive coordinators"? I don't think so. This is a "methodical possessions" thing. A "defense and run game" thing.
Just look at the inverse. Arizona's offense is 27th nationally. And they're 4-7 on the season because their defense ranks 126th. To win in the Pac-12, you need a defense that ranks 84th (UCLA, 8-3) or, pinch me, 64th (USC, 10-1).
Does that mean if you took Jedd Fisch's offense at Arizona and installed it at Illinois you'd have the #27 offense to pair with this defense that ranks 3rd? Absolutely not. With the defenses faced (and the "15 play possessions keeping the defense off the field are the goal" thing), it would be very difficult for any team to climb above Purdue's ranking (45th). It doesn't mean that the Fisch offense would be 101st, but... I think you know what I'm saying.
So when evaluating Lunney, I think you need to heavily acknowledge these two things. Now that we have, I can move on to my third point.
3. That said, I was still a bit surprised by the early extension.
Since I have SP+ open...
2021 Tony Petersen offense: 98th nationally
2022 Barry Lunney Jr. offense: 101st nationally
Granted, the 2021 offense was 104th going into the Northwestern game and then jumped to 98th. So there's a chance that after Saturday, the Lunney offense finishes higher. But still, using big, broad strokes, this is last year's team with a better defense.
Using the eye test (and the play of Tommy DeVito), I certainly like the 2022 offense better than the 2021 offense. But you asked about an extension after nine games, and I have to say I was somewhat surprised. When I look at the Big Ten West offense/defense rankings there, I'd hope that the Illinois offense could be somewhere around Wisconsin's offense (69th). They've played a similar schedule and are going to finish middle-of-the-pack offensively.
I'd think something in the 60's should be the goal in the Big Ten West. That's an offense that could move over to the Pac 12 and finish top-25 nationally. Something in the 60's is a perfectly acceptable offense for the Big Ten West.
101st with one game remaining... isn't going to get there.