2011 Season Preview: Service Breaks And The Illinois Fighting Illini

Ron Zook and his new-and-improved coaching staff surprised everybody in 2010 by not only surviving, but improving significantly. Can they maintain their upward mobility now that a few stars have walked out the door?

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you don't like numbers, skip to the words.

We'd seen this episode before. Embattled coach gets one last shot to turn things around, only he's forced to re-tool his coaching staff in the process. Rarely does this work. For Ron Zook, who has spent much of the last decade embattled, the changes before the 2010 season were significant. In came new offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, quarterbacks coach Jeff Brohm and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. Utilizing a pistol attack on offense and a more aggressive defense, Illinois' approach was nothing like what Zook tried to accomplish when he first came to Champaign.

And the result was ... solid. Good, even. Not "Best Illinois squad ever" good, by any means, but considering the expectations, Illinois' 2010 was a stark, pleasant surprise. The Illini went 7-6, ranked 33rd in our F/+ ratings, laid few eggs, and played competitive, controlled football.

So now what happens? How does the encore work? To milk a tennis analogy, now that Zook and company have unexpectedly broken serve, do they consolidate their break, or do they get broken right back?

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 7-6 | Adj. Record: 9-4 | Final F/+ Rk**: 33
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep vs Missouri 13-23 L 19.7 - 24.6 L
11-Sep Southern Illinois
35-3 W 24.5 - 18.6 W
18-Sep Northern Illinois 28-22 W 36.9 - 22.9 W
2-Oct Ohio State 13-24 L 28.0 - 20.6 W
9-Oct at Penn State 33-13 W 29.6 - 14.4 W
16-Oct at Michigan State 6-26 L 13.3 - 24.9 L
23-Oct Indiana 43-13 W 19.0 - 14.0 W
30-Oct Purdue 44-10 W 34.1 - 19.4 W
6-Nov at Michigan 65-67 L 32.8 - 31.3 W
13-Nov Minnesota 34-38 L 22.0 - 30.3 L
20-Nov vs Northwestern 48-27 W 35.2 - 24.3 W
3-Dec at Fresno State 23-25 L 24.1 - 33.3 L
29-Dec vs Baylor 38-14 W 35.9 - 25.9 W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 32.5 26 23.5 48
Adj. Points Per Game 27.3 61 23.4 32

Though a host of new coaches can cause shaky staff chemistry, there is also an upside: your new team is completely unscoutable at the beginning of the season. Illinois took great advantage of this, hanging tough with Missouri and Ohio State and romping Penn State in the season's first five games. Over the course of the season, the offense began to look like the young unit they were (ups and downs, ups and downs), while the defense was completely dominant until a November fade.

Illinois Defense, First Eight Games: 19.9 Adj. PPG allowed
Illinois Defense, Last Five Games: 29.0 Adj. PPG allowed

The bag of tricks ran out, and Illinois became a lesser team because of it, but this was still a rock solid squad.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 58 66 52
RUSHING 49 41 54 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 73 99 47 16
Standard Downs 58 61 62 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 53 62 49 107
Redzone 72 76 61
Q1 Rk 56 1st Down Rk 75
Q2 Rk 85 2nd Down Rk 48
Q3 Rk 75 3rd Down Rk 61
Q4 Rk 31

So Bobby Petrino's younger brother comes to town. He brings with him an aggressive, downfield passing attack, right? Not so much. Petrino whipped out the Pistol formation, and it stuck. The Illini really were not any better offensively than they were in 2009, but they weren't worse; and considering they lost four-year(ish) starting quarterback Juice Williams and second-round draft pick Arrelious Benn from the 2009 squad, simply treading water was a nice surprise. They developed a clear identity with redshirt freshman (and another possible four-year starter) Nathan Scheelhaase (1,825 yards, 6.9 per pass, 59% completion rate, 17 TD, 8 INT; 1,061 pre-sack rushing yards, +4.9 Adj. POE, 5 TD) lining up a couple of yards behind center, and that alone felt like a step forward.

With Scheelhaase and Mikel Leshoure (1,697 yards, 6.0/carry, +0.5 Adj. POE, 17 TD) in the backfield, with a little of bowling ball back Jason Ford mixed in for effect, the Illini ran on standard downs and ran on passing downs. Really, they were a bit like Oregon in the way that they pushed the tempo with the run. Only, Oregon could also pass when they needed to. Illinois either couldn't or wouldn't. They mixed a lot of short passes and play-action into the attack, even on passing downs, and the result was an oddly explosive, horribly inefficient passing game.

Typically when a team loses just a single, secondary contributor from the receiving corps, that represents a positive. For Illinois, in losing possession receiver Jarred Fayson (355 yards, 9.3 per catch, 70% catch), that leaves them, incredibly, with just two players who caught ten or more passes in 2010: sophomore tight end Evan Wilson (who caught exactly ten passes) and receiver A.J. Jenkins, one of the more frequently-targeted receivers in the country. Scheelhaase targeted Jenkins (746 yards, 13.3 per catch, 68% catch, 7 TD) with 32 percent of his passes, and despite lacking in the "household name" category, Jenkins made sure the move rarely backfired. But if going to Jenkins was predictable last year, it is going to be extremely predictable this year without Fayson or Leshoure (the fourth of the ten-catch options). Somebody is going to have to step up, and the most likely candidates are both true sophomores; Ryan Lankford and Darius Millines combined for eight catches and 171 yards (with a ghastly 42% catch rate) as freshmen while serving mostly as intermediate and deep options. Expect them to run a lot more short routes this year. We'll see which (if either) that benefits the most.

Other tidbits:

  • With Leshoure, one of the most intriguing running backs in the 2011 NFL Draft, out of the picture, the focus goes to Jason Ford (480 yards, 4.8 per carry, -5.4 Adj. POE, 7 TD). Can he become a feature back? His height and weight (6-foot-0, 235 pounds) are very similar to that of Leshoure, but he looks and plays much bigger (and slower). Troy Pollard (109 yards, 4.5 per carry, -4.8 Adj. POE) is another experienced option, but neither have yet proven they can run the show like Leshoure did. Both Ford and Pollard were dinged up a bit this spring (Ford more than Pollard), so younger backs like Bud Golden and Ean Days got some opportunities to prove themselves as well. Scheelhaase needs a feature back even more than he needs a solid No. 2 receiver; without one, he is going to take a ton of hits.
  • Anytime you see a discrepancy that large between a team's Adj. Line Yards and Adj. Sack Rate rankings (Illinois was 16th in Adj. LY, 107th in Adj. SR), look to the quarterback. He can probably account for some of the difference. Scheelhaase deserves credit for attempting to stay in the backfield and pass instead of tucking and running at all times, but his "Okay, now chuck the ball out of bounds instead of taking the sack" instincts still need a little refining. Scheelhaase was extremely poised and mature for a redshirt freshman, but instincts come with reps, and he hasn't gotten enough of them yet.

    And by the way, I know that it could be easy to overreact to Scheelhaase's bowl performance (he went 18-for-23 for 242 yards against Baylor in the Texas Bowl) and pronounce that he's ready for the next level, but let's tap the brakes on that a bit because a) Baylor's defense was terrible, and b) in the three games before the bowl, against far-from-spectacular Minnesota, Northwestern and Fresno State defenses, he went 21-for-50. Bowl performances along mean nothing. We look for trend data, and Scheelhaase had no trend. He was a freshman.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 13 12 23
RUSHING 9 12 11 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 26 13 39 12
Standard Downs 22 18 28 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 24 19 23 54
Redzone 18 13 22
Q1 Rk 22 1st Down Rk 20
Q2 Rk 32 2nd Down Rk 23
Q3 Rk 15 3rd Down Rk 28
Q4 Rk 36

While the Illinois offense impressed by simply holding steady, the defense impressed by ... impressing. They were stout. Vic Koenning, who didn't make a significant impact on Bill Snyder's Kansas State defense in 2009, pushed all the right buttons for a unit that featured a couple of stars in tackle Corey Liuget (46.0 tackles, 12.5 TFL/sacks, 3 PBU) and middle linebacker Martez Wilson (79.5 tackles, 11.5 TFL/sacks, 3 FF, 4 PBU). The Illini were fantastic against the run and good against the pass. But a host of youngsters will have to step up to maintain the quality this fall, as both Liuget and Wilson are gone.

The Illini employed a rather large front four last year (Liuget was 300 pounds, end Clay Nurse 260, tackle Akeem Spence 305, end Whitney Mercilus 265), and as one would expect given generalizations, they stood up well to run blocking even if they were not amazingly quick in terms of getting to the quarterback. Liuget and Nurse are gone, but with 320-pound OL-turned-DT Craig Wilson looking to replace Liuget, they might not get much smaller. If they are to once again face a higher-than-normal number of passes, though, the pass-rush specialists on the line (smaller ends Michael Buchanan and Justin Staples, who combined for 47.5 tackles and 10.0 TFL/sacks last year) need to more adequately specialize in rushing the passer.

If the line doesn't regress too considerably, there could be a new strength for the Illini defense: a deep secondary. Though run D was the strength, Illinois certainly wasn't bad against the pass despite a weak pass rush, and Illinois returns quite a few interesting cornerbacks. Justin Green (42.5 tackles, 4 PBU), Terry Hawthorne (23.5 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks, 3.5 PBU) and Patrick Nixon-Youman (13.0 tackles, 2 INT) are all strong athletes who have shown hints of play-making ability, and depending on the safety situation, honorable mention all-conference safety Tavon Wilson (47.5 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 2 FF, 3 PBU) could return to CB as well.

It appears safety depth will depend somewhat on Supo Sanni's return from injury. He was projected to start in 2010 but was hurt in August and missed all season. If he is up to speed, then he and the very solid Trulon Henry (47.5 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 2 FF, 3 PBU) should form the back line.

Other tidbits:

  • Linebacker Ian Thomas (47.0 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks, 2 FR, 2 PBU) moves from weakside back to middle this year in Wilson's absence, but in losing Wilson and Nate Bussey, an already thin unit took a bit of a hit. Sophomore Jonathan Brown (24.0 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks) will likely slide into one role, but Ashante Williams and the other candidates for a starting job have pretty thin resumes.
  • I'm not sure what he can do with a thinner front seven, but it is difficult to overstate how good a job Vic Koenning did with this defense last year. In 2009, Illinois' defense ranked 93rd in Def. F/+ with a minus-7.2% rating. They improved to +10.2% and 17th last season, the sixth-biggest single-season improvement on record from 2006-10.

    Largest Single-Season Defensive Improvement According to F/+ Rating:
    2009 Nebraska (+26.3%)
    2010 N.C. State (+21.4%)
    2010 Stanford (+20.6%)
    2008 Florida (+18.4%)
    2007 Louisiana Tech (+17.8%)
    2010 Illinois (+17.4%)

    For what it's worth, Nebraska, Florida and Louisiana Tech combined to fall by an average of 4.1% the year after their surge. A tumble of that magnitude would drop Illinois to the mid-30s in the Def. F/+ rankings. That might not be the end of the world if the offense were to also improve, but is the offense going to improve?

Illinois's 2010 Season Set to Music

For obvious reasons...

"A Country Boy Can Survive," by Hank Williams, Jr.
"I and I Survive," by Bad Brains
"I Survived," by The Graduate
"I Will Survive," by Gloria Gaynor
"I Will Survive," by Cake
"Only The Strong Survive," by Too $hort
"Soul Survivor," by The Rolling Stones
"Survival," by Bob Marley & The Wailers
"Survival Test," by J Dilla and Madlib
"Survive," by Jimmy Buffett

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 43
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 37
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +8 / +3.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 12 (6, 6)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -2.8

Is there any killing Zombie Ron Zook at this point? It really does feel like he's been on a hot seat of some sort for decades (then again, he knows how to cool off), but he keeps winning just enough to survive. And with a rather ridiculous eight home games this year (the non-conference slate: Arkansas State, South Dakota State, Western Michigan, Arizona State) the odds of their reaching bowl eligibility again in 2011 are solid. We can debate what Zook's long-term prognosis is in Champaign-Urbana, but this is Ron Zook. There is no long-term.

Though the schedule gets much more difficult in conference play, it should still at least slightly offset what is likely to be regression on the field. The Illini had solid fumble and YPP luck last season, and combined with the loss of a few stars, it will be difficult to avoid a drop-off. But a strong staff and quite a few young players who got their feet wet next year, the regression shouldn't be severe. This should be a decent-not-great squad, but for a program that was expecting the worst this time last year, the improvement in prognosis has been noticeable and somewhat significant.

 

 

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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