Heat Checks and Hail Marys - Improvements Required

Mike Cagley, Co-Host Sports Spectacular and Big Sports Radio

September 26, 2023

(Cover photo courtesy Illinois Athletics)

This week we have some short takes on opportunities for improvement for the Illini football team. Thankfully, it is still early in the Big Ten season. With no team truly looking like a favorite in the Big Ten West, the Illini can control their destiny with consistent improved play.

Hail Mary #1 - Style Points are Nice but Wins Last Forever

Illini fans were hoping for a victory that sported a larger margin than what happened last Saturday when the Illini defeated FAU 23-17. I felt the Illini offense would struggle with the FAU defense. The FAU backfield was fast, they flew around like dive bombers, and they delivered hits. My concern was there wouldn't be a lot of separation for Altmyer to exploit in the passing lanes. Instead, the Illini QB picked his spots and threw for 303 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. Armed with a first half lead, the Illini rushing attack took control of the clock and field position in the second half and the Illini won the game.

From a fanbase standpoint would've been nice to see the Illini win by two touchdowns or more. The reality is a larger margin would make fans feel better about future games, but there's no transfer of points to the next game. Momentum doesn't really transfer through a week of practice and lead to more points the next game (just ask the Dallas Cowboys about that, or the Colorado Buffaloes).

The cold harsh fact is that next up are the Purdue Boilermakers and former Illini defensive coordinator Ryan Walters. He leads a coaching staff employing former Illini coaches and they will be motivated to beat their former employer. The Illini are better off facing them at 2-2 as opposed to 1-3. Earning the win this Saturday is what matters most, not what the Illini look like while getting the win.

Hail Mary #2 - Penalties Kill

In four games, Illini penalties have let to 13 opposing team first downs. Keeping opponent offenses on the field, moving the chains closer to scoring without earning the yards is a behavioral weakness the Illini aren't good enough to overcome. Amazingly, penalty driven first downs account for nearly 14% of all opposing first downs.

The Illini are also averaging 69 yards of penalties per game. Bret Bielema preaches the importance of complimentary football. One of the tenets of this is minimizing or avoiding penalties. The Fighting Illini players have to embrace this message, before it's too late.

The Illini are 107th in 3rd Down Conversion Percentage (Defense) at 46%. Not having 13 first downs by penalty would really help this statistic improve. Cut down on the penalties right now as the Illini are ranked 95th in penalties committed at 7 per game (that's bad). Even worse, the Illini are tied for 108th at penalty yards at 277 total yards this season so far. This has to change.

Hail Mary #3 - Turnovers Matter

The Illini have lost the turnover battle as they have given up 7 interceptions and have lost all three Illini 3 fumbles for a total of 10 turnovers in four games. Conversely, opponents have only thrown 3 interceptions and have only lost 1 of 6 fumbles. The Illini have to minimize the turnovers and they have to generate turnovers at the same time while on defense.

Luck is a part of recovering fumbles as the shape of the ball makes it impossible to predict how the ball will bounce when it hits the ground - but forcing 6 fumbles and only recovering one is rare. The Illini have to keep forcing fumbles and be ready to capitalize when the opportunity arises to pounce on the football.

Hail Mary #4 - Offensive Challenges Root Cause Analysis

The Illini are ranked 88th in 3rd Down Conversion Percentage (Offense) at 37.8%. This statistic can be improved in a variety of ways. Being more effective on first down and cutting down on penalties would be two of the easier controlled actions to improve. Improving blocking from the offensive line would be the best way to achieve both goals. Success when executing blocking assignments a greater percentage of the time will produce better first down performance and result in less need to hold and have the penalty flag thrown against the Illini.

Bret Bielema is synonymous for excellent offensive line performance; he is also famous for developing players. The staff needs to keep developing players (particularly the offensive line) to get the results they desire. The ability to control the clock, frustrate the other team, and grind other teams down in the second half cannot happen without improved offensive line play. The staff needs to do what they have shown they are capable of in the past.

Improved offensive line play would help the Illini climb out of their current tie for 120th place on sacks allowed. The Illini have given up 15 sacks for 72 yards in 4 games. Allowing Luke Altmyer to get sacked 3.75 sacks per game is the recipe for increased interceptions and possible injury to their quarterback who has performed well in his starting role so far. The only "good thing" about this statistic is that Alabama (16 sacks) and Colorado (23 sacks) are amongst the 8 teams trailing the Illini.

Hail Mary #5 - One Surprising Thing

Despite the number of sacks that Altmyer has suffered, the Illini are tied for 45th in completion percentage with 64.4% of passes completed. One can easily imagine the completion percentage improve if the Illini weren't struggling in generating rushing yards. Bret Bielema teams aren't used to being the 74th best rushing team in the country. The Illini rush for 148 yards per game and only 4.45 yards per rushing attempt. This goes back to improving play on the offensive line.

Altmyer is playing quite well considering the circumstances and having played one really rough game (his 4-interception performance versus Penn State). Give him more time to find open receivers and force him to survive less sacks and Altmyer may be able to increase his completion percentage.




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