Heat Checks and Hail Marys – The Football Fear Factory

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

October 3, 2023

Johnny Newton courtesy Steve Snider, IlliniGuys

It’s October and Illini fans are fearful that the football season will be in shambles before even half the games are played. Hopes of a successful follow-up season to last year’s bowl appearance are fading fast. The Illini face a Nebraska team in the first year of Matt Rhule’s reconstruction project. Both teams come into the game at 2-3 with 0-2 records in the Big Ten.

There is a sense of foreboding for the future of Illini football. A loss on Friday night’s game would be the second loss in a row against a team with a first-year coach in the Big Ten. While the Illini are hardly a Big Ten powerhouse, Illini fans were hoping to sweep Purdue and Nebraska and take their chances with first-year coach Luke Fickell and Wisconsin on October 21st in Champaign. The Purdue loss to new head coach Ryan Walters has made the Nebraska game critical for the Illini to win to save the season.

Illini fans are rightly concerned about the football program imploding in year three of the Bielema Era.

Hail Mary #1 – The Offensive Line

The offensive line play has been atrocious. The Illini have moved the ball, but it’s been inconsistent, and Illini QBs have been sacked 20 times for 101 yards lost through five games. Starting QB Luke Altmyer is being hit on plays he’s not sacked, and it shows as he’s missed open receivers for potential touchdowns, made some poor reads in blitzing situations, and had one interception laden game (Penn State with 4). With a serious drop off in talent between Altmyer and his backups, it is critical to keep him upright and healthy. It would also be nice to keep him clean as his statistics when he isn't under duress from defenders are much better.

The Illini running game has not flourished either. The loss of Chase Brown cannot be underestimated. He made plays and broke tackles other running backs don't and that trait earned him a spot on an NFL roster. This year’s backs may not have the skill of Brown, but we are seeing that Love, McCray and now Feagin are at least serviceable backs, but they need running lanes to exploit.

Bielema is famous for presiding over excellent line play in his years as a head coach. Whatever has been tried to generate a productive offensive line so far hasn’t been effective or consistent, the results are clearly seen in the offense's trouble with scoring points. If the line is incapable of certain tasks, it’s time to stop asking linemen to do things they have demonstrated are beyond their capabilities.

There is a myriad of alternatives that an experienced coach can implement. For example, a possible solution is the team needs to evaluate whether a 2 tight end offense would allow for better blocking for both passing and running situations. Coaches can decide the best solution but maintaining the status quo will not work. Pick the best option for improvement and get it done.

The season will be effectively ended if the Illini can’t score points or keep their defense off the field. The roster is what it is, no saviors can come in to change the season’s trajectory. The players on the roster are all the Illini have. Evaluate each player and find a way to maximize their effectiveness by asking them to do what they are good at, after that is accomplished then go after executing a theoretical idea of what these players should be good at.

Hail Mary #2 – Penalties Are Killing the Illini

The Illini have given opponents 17 first downs by penalty. That is not a typo. For comparison purposes, the least number of first downs the Illini offense has posted in a game is 20. Thus, not even halfway through the season, the Illini have almost given up an entire game of first downs!

This might be nothing more than an intriguing piece of trivia if the Illini were a high-powered offensive team that was averaging 30+ points per game. But 21.6 points per game is not 30 and when your offense is struggling to score in a collegiate game that is designed for scoring, you can’t have 17 different times that you allow your opponent to receive a full set of downs that they’ve not earned by actually gaining those yards against the Illini defense.

On the latest I on the Illini post-game podcast https://illiniguys.com/i-on-the-illini-purdue-destroys-illinois-44-19-269/ Matt Stevens and I discussed what could be done to solve the penalty problem. There are no easy answers when the team isn’t deep and there are positions where the drop off from first string to second string is massive (like the quarterback position). Because of the depth issue, many feel the staff cannot bench a starter because the opposing team will mercilessly target his replacement. The issue is when a coach takes playing time off the table, how do you motivate a player to change his on-the-field behavior?

Currently, the penalty problem is so bad, it is time to pull players for repeated penalties, particularly the personal fouls after the play that have heavy yardage or automatic first downs associated with the infraction.

Playing time is critical to today’s players. Take playing time away for repeated penalties may be the only course of actions to reverse this penalty trend. Sit any player who commits a predetermined type of penalty for a series of downs or even the balance of a quarter. If one of the players punished is a star, that sets the standard that anyone can lose playing time. Hopefully, you only need to sit someone once or twice and then the standard is set, and players realize the mental mistakes of penalties carries a consequence too heavy to risk. A warning mantra could be, "If you want to sit, go ahead and make that late hit."

The bottom line is this is a coaching issue. To fix it is a four-step process:

  1. Set clear expectations (which doesn't always happen)
  2. Coach the players to meet those expectations
  3. Monitor the results
  4. Apply rewards or consequences based on the results (rewards are easy, applying consequences is hard)

An old coaching proverb is "only two things happen on the football field, what I coach them to do and what I allow them to do" - it's time to stop "allowing" dumb penalties that cost the Illini in the form of opponent first downs and forcing Illini punts.

Hail Mary #3 – To NIL or Not to NIL

Any discussion of NIL based upon the on-the-record quotes of anyone currently involved in college sports needs to be taken with a massive grain of salt. Like politicians, collegiate athletic directors and coaches can’t always say what is on their collective minds. Whether a coach likes NIL, hates NIL, or is hesitant about NIL is immaterial. A school’s collective(s) either has the requisite amount to invest in players or it does not. NIL spending is the metric to track, not statements for or against NIL.

If a team doesn’t have a large war chest of NIL funds, there is absolutely no advantage to publicly stating that NIL funds are scarce. Such a quote will be repeated endlessly to prospective recruits followed by, “Don’t go to school X, you’ll never make any NIL money there.”

Pay for play is not technically legal, though like all things recruiting, there are a lot of anecdotes describing the abuse of this tactic. The collective associated with Illinois, ICON does it’s best to set up charitable opportunities for Illini athletes to give back to the community. If we fast forward to a hypothetical future reality where the ICON has tapped into multiple donations from well-to-do Silicon Valley Illinois alumni, this will be the moment when we find out what a coach or athletic director really think about NIL.

NIL funds, coupled with the transfer portal have served to spread talent across the spectrum of college football. Without NIL funds, it can be challenging to attract players to any school. An unwillingness to use the portal to at least fill roster holes (due to injury, graduation, poor recruiting, or transfer portal losses) is a decision akin to a contractor deciding to only use nails and not use screws because he/she is "against" screws. There’s little reason to be “for” or “against” a tool - whether the tool is used in roster building or home building. The transfer portal is nothing more than a tool to improve a team’s roster. Use it when appropriate. My expectation would be for any coach to use whatever tools work effectively and contribute to stocking their team's roster full of good players.

ICON needs to develop relationships with as many billionaire Illini alumni as possible. Indiana allegedly has support from Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. Michigan State allegedly has the support of Suns owner Matt Ishbia. It would be nice if ICON were to enlist similar assistance from Illini alums. One could start in Silicon Valley, there would be quite a few targets and one could keep travel costs down. Tasks like this are never easy and they take time and even a bit of good luck to work. Start the clock now on building those relationships. The clock needs to start ticking towards earning additional support to help Illinois coaches.

Last year, Ohio State coach Ryan Day said he needed $13 million to adequately resource his roster for Buckeye football. If ICON were to raise that type of money, I suspect that Bret Bielema and Josh Whitman would find a way to use that war chest to make the Fighting Illini football program competitive compared to the highest levels of college football. Sadly, I can’t prove my hypothesis until at least one uber-wealthy donor gets lined up.

I’ll be patiently waiting until that happens. Until then, the statements of NIL hesitancy will be just that, statements that are designed to provide no "gotcha" quotes for opposing coaches to use to dissuade scholar athlete recruits away from looking to play sports at the University of Illinois.

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