Heat Checks and Hail Marys - Gaps to Close

Mike Cagley, Co-host of IlliniGuys Sports Spectacular

November 6, 2022

Isaiah Williams TD against Michigan State courtesy Illinois Athletics.

The good news for the Illini football program is they have the same record as Alabama after 9 games at 7-2. The bad news is if the team executed the principles of Bret Bielema's Football 101, the Illini would be undefeated and 2 games ahead of Alabama. Instead of a 9th victory, the Illini were upset by the Michigan State Spartans for their 2nd loss of the season.

Michigan State came to town with a chip on their shoulder. Frustrated with multiple suspensions as a result of TunnelGate, the team was ready to play. More importantly, this Spartan team was ranked #15 to start the season. The Spartan roster had the players to influence voters to declare them one of the top football programs in the nation. Today, they showed, particularly on the offensive and defensive lines, why they were ranked early in the season. Their lack of consistency is why they aren't ranked right now, they don't put it all together often enough to make them a solid team.

Coming off of the suspensions, announced earlier in the week, the Spartans appeared to have a mind-set similar to the Illini basketball team that was minus Ayo Dosunmu when they destroyed Michigan on the road. The Spartans came together and played hard throughout the game, with no letdown similar to their recent game against Michigan which happened after a solid first half. Their offensive and defensive lines played better than recent games, they played well the whole game, and they put more pressure on DeVito than the Illini defense put on Thorne.

Hail Mary #1 - The Illini Defense Can't Overcome Short Field Turnovers

This is a "everyone knows that" Hail Mary. The Illini have won games by not turning over the ball. Bielema's Football 101 emphasizes that teams lose more games than they actually win due in large part to the turnovers and penalties they commit. Today, the Illini forgot that fact and instead were forced to learn a tough lesson and the consequences took the form of a loss that eliminates the Illini from their remote, but statistical chance to make it into the College Football Playoff. That dream is dead. The chance to win the West is still there but the margin for error is greatly reduced.

The Illini's first (and probably largest mistake) was the punt miscue that reminded old timers of former New York Giant punter Sean Landeta's whiff punt in the 1985 playoffs against the Bears https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WzhwSIuA5XQ Hugh Robertson barely connected with the dropped ball and the result was a punt that was recovered on the 29-yard line of the Illini. Then, the Spartans scored a touchdown on a "drive" of 29 yards in only 6 plays. A big punt could've flipped the field and the Spartans would've had to play against the wind in the shadow of their own goalposts. Alas, it didn't happen.

After the ensuing kickoff, the Illini had to go for it on their own 44-yard line on 4th and 1. The pitch from DeVito to Brown was fumbled. Brown got on top of the ball, but the Illini lost 3 yards and the Spartans started on the Illini 41. This is not technically a turnover, but in essence, it was a turnover. If Chase Brown was less of a competitor, it would have been a "pure" turnover if an MSU player would've recovered the ball. Three plays later, the Spartans scored on a pass from Thorne to Reed. The Illini went from down 9-7 to being down 23-7 and their fate was sealed.

This Illini team is a good team. The defense is one of the best the Illini have ever put on a football field. That said, they can't continually erase mistakes by the offense or the special teams (think of the long kickoff return versus Minnesota). Playing on a short field is a losing proposition. So is turning the ball over. Doing both is the kiss of death.

Hail Mary #2 - Red Zone Issues, Again

The Illini had another bad game in the Red Zone. They went 1-4 in Red Zone attempts coming up with 8 points. Conversely, the Spartans were 4-5 on Red Zone attempts and scored all of their 23 points there.

This huge advantage in Red Zone points eliminated huge Illini wins in other statistics. The Illini had 441 total yards to 294 for the Spartans. The Illini had 153 yards rushing to 112 for the Spartans. The Illini had 288 net passing yards to 182 for the Spartans. The Illini wasted 3 of their 4 Red Zone attempts and with an 8-point loss, this statistic will be analyzed by the coaching staff. Root cause analysis has to be completed.

The Illini rank 88th in Red Zone scoring percentage (not including the Spartan game). The Illini have had 36 Red Zone attempts. They have scored 8 rushing touchdowns, 7 passing touchdowns and 14 field goals. Conversions of half the 7 empty Red Zone trips and/or moving half of those 14 field goals to touchdowns would mean the Illini would be a much-improved team.

Addressing what can be done to improve this, both in the short term (for this season) and in the long term (for future seasons) would help the Illini make the jump from a great single season story to a regular Big Ten title contender. If it was easy, Bielema and Lunney Jr. would've already solved it, but make no mistake, this mystery needs solved.

Hail Mary #3 - The Illini Staff and Players Can't Let Michigan State Beat Them Twice

Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Bret Bielema reacts during the first half against the Michigan State Spartans at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Illini have lost a painful game that was a huge letdown for the fans, players and coaches. The Illini were heavily favored, they were facing a Spartan team with 8 players suspended, and they were playing at home in a nearly sold-out Memorial Stadium. The Illini expected to win. Pretty much everyone had that same expectation. Unfortunately, no one told the Spartans they were supposed to lose. They managed to come home from a Big Ten road game against a ranked opponent with a win.

The Illini have to assess this loss, understand what they have to do better to achieve better results, and then go out against a struggling Purdue team and execute.

Next week's game will be the final home game of the season. The Illini have to play as they did during their six-game winning streak. They need to execute in the Red Zone, avoid turnovers, avoid penalties and find a way to pressure Purdue's quarterback. The Boilers are facing their own crisis of confidence as well. The Boilers have a two-game losing streak - losing at Wisconsin 35-24 and then at home versus Iowa 24-3 in a truly shocking defeat. Purdue gave up 200 yards rushing to freshman Kaleb Johnson. If the Illini come out and play up to their capabilities, they should give Purdue more than they can handle. Anything less against a Big Ten team will result in another loss giving the Illini a two-game losing streak as they head to the Big House in Ann Arbor. That's not an ideal situation. The Illini control their fate, they have to forcefully take the rudder and navigate their way to success.

The key is to learn from the mistakes made against Michigan State and use those learnings to execute coaching plans to defeat Purdue. Leave the angst and the frustration to the fans, that's what fans do. Players need focus to improve and discipline to make that improvement happen and it's all proven in terms of the final score. We haven't seen how the Illini get back up after a loss since they destroyed Virginia after losing another disappointing game to the Hoosiers in the season's second game. Players and teams achieving greatness are in a large part defined by how they react to getting knocked down.

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