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Lovie Smith’s first Illinois team was all-or-nothing. When will it be something?

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The Illini were explosive on both sides of the ball ... and inefficient on both sides of the ball.

NCAA Football: Murray State at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

The relationship between efficiency and explosiveness is a delicate one.

Virtually every coach preaches the importance of big plays. And however you define explosive plays, if you have more of them than your opponent and fewer turnovers, you’re going to win 90-plus percent of the time. Big plays matter even more than you think.

But what creates big-play opportunities? Efficiency. Successful plays give you more plays. Staying in favorable down-and-distance leads to more successful plays and therefore more big plays.

Smith certainly understands this relationship. The dude has been a player and/or coach at every level of the sport. He was a high school coordinator, a college linebackers and defensive backs coach, a pro coordinator, and a pro head coach. He brought a team with Rex Damn Grossman at quarterback all the way to the Super Bowl. He fits into the "has forgotten more about football than you or I will ever know" category.

But it doesn't matter what you know; it matters what your players can do. And the players on his first Illinois team couldn't stay on schedule, or keep other teams from doing the same, to save their lives.

Percentage of offensive drives finishing in a three-and-out, Big Ten. The lower, the better.
  1. Purdue 14.6% (eighth in FBS)
  2. Indiana 15.6% (13th)
  3. Wisconsin 17.3% (28th)
  4. Michigan State 17.5% (33rd)
  5. Michigan 19.2% (49th)
  6. Ohio State 19.4% (52nd)
  7. Penn State 20.6% (64th)
  8. Nebraska 21.9% (77th)
  9. Maryland 22.9% (87th)
  10. Minnesota 23.8% (96th)
  11. Northwestern 26.3% (112th)
  12. Iowa 29.0% (119th)
  13. Illinois 29.0% (120th)
  14. Rutgers 36.3% (128th)
Percentage of defensive drives finishing in a three-and-out, Big Ten. The higher, the better.
  1. Michigan 33.7% (second)
  2. Iowa 27.8% (16th)
  3. Ohio State 26.3% (22nd)
  4. Indiana 25.7% (27th)
  5. Michigan State 25.2% (32nd)
  6. Nebraska 24.7% (36th)
  7. Minnesota 24.6% (39th)
  8. Penn State 24.3% (42nd)
  9. Northwestern 24.1% (43rd)
  10. Wisconsin 23.4% (47th)
  11. Rutgers 22.0% (60th)
  12. Maryland 21.4% (68th)
  13. Purdue 18.5% (100th)
  14. Illinois 15.9% (119th)

In all, 42 percent of Illinois’ offensive possessions ended within three plays for a non-scoring reason (namely, punts or turnovers). Only three offenses did worse: Kent State, Boston College, and Rutgers. Kent went 3-9, Rutgers 2-10, and BC had to force three-and-out-plusses at a 42 percent clip to eke out a bowl bid.

Avoiding three-and-outs is only step one toward success; Purdue was good at step one and almost literally nothing else. But in a conference that featured plenty of three-and-outs, Illinois committed them non-stop and forced very few.

That’s a shame because if they could ease into drives, they showed a lot of potential. Running backs Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin were stuffed at the line on nearly one-quarter of their carries but showed massive explosiveness. Receiver Malik Turner averaged 14.8 yards per catch. And the starters on the defensive line combined for 54.5 tackles for loss and 22 sacks. Those are huge numbers! But it didn’t matter because nearly half of Illinois drives were over before they started.

Granted, “inefficient but explosive” has defined Illinois’ fortunes for going on 100 years.

The Fighting Illini went to the Rose Bowl in 2007; the four years before this run, they went 8-38, and the two years after, they went 8-16. They won the Big Ten and went to the Sugar Bowl in 2001; the year before, they went 5-6, and the year after they went 5-7. Everything comes together, then everything falls apart.

Five different coaches have led them to an AP ranking of 12th at least once; only one has done it more than once. That's crazy. When John Mackovic was taking the Illini to four straight bowls in the late-1980s, and when Lou Tepper succeeded Mackovic and took them to two more in three years, it represented the greatest level of sustained success since Robert Zuppke was dominating in Grange's wake in the 1920s.

Still, this was extreme. And it made it hard to figure out Illinois’ potential. Foster, Corbin, and Turner are back, as is twice-injured 2014 star receiver Mike Dudek. The offensive line has size and potential. The back seven of the defense is reliant on sophomores and juniors instead of freshmen and sophomores. This could lead to reliability if a new defensive line holds up.

But when you’re this inefficient, is that simply explained by inexperience? Consider Illinois an experiment for 2017.More efficiency could go a long way for an otherwise explosive roster, but we’ll see if the Illini have the talent — and, it should be said, the coaching.


2016 in review

2016 Illinois statistical profile.

Teams that live off of big plays tend to be dramatically inconsistent. Illinois’ offense averaged 5.3 yards per play in 2016 — not horrendous — but between 5.1 and 5.5 in any single game just twice. Similarly, the Illini averaged 21.8 points per game but scored between 18 and 24 points just three times. They hit 31 or more three times and 10 or fewer four times.

Of course, quarterback play had something to do with that. Senior Wes Lunt began as the starter, but for the third straight year (!), he got hurt. At that point, minimal consistency went out the window.

  • First 5 games (1-4): Avg. percentile performance: 45% (43% offense, 47% defense) | Avg. yards per play: UI 6.3, Opp 5.7 (plus-0.6) | Avg. score: Opp 30, UI 26
  • Last 7 games (2-5): Avg. percentile performance: 25% (25% offense, 36% defense) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.4, UI 4.6 (minus-0.8) | Avg. score: Opp 33, UI 15

Chayce Crouch took over and performed admirably against Purdue but was lost for the season a week later. Illini legacy Jeff George Jr. struggled. Lunt returned but completed just 48 percent of his passes over the final three games of his career.

Illinois kept throwing, if only because of circumstance — for all the run game’s potential, the stuffs were frequent, and Illinois was constantly behind. Foster went off in a 31-27 upset of Michigan State, but most games were over as soon as they began.


Offense

Illinois offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Garrick McGee has had about five different careers at this point. The 44-year-old former Oklahoma quarterback came up as a receivers coach everywhere from UNLV to Northern Iowa, then found himself as Pat Fitzgerald’s first Northwestern offensive coordinator. It didn’t go well (75th in Off. S&P+ in 2006, 73rd in 2007), and he ended up as Bobby Petrino’s quarterbacks coach at Arkansas; that went well enough that he was the OC within three years and got his first head coaching job at UAB by 2012.

He ended up back with Petrino at Louisville in 2014. The Cardinals’ offense ranked 45th in 2014 and 48th in 2015, then erupted to 10th when he left for Illinois in 2016.

When things work for McGee, they really work. And when they don’t, things go like last year. McGee and his charges were good at the dam-busting plays, but the mundane five-yarders were nowhere to be seen. As a result, Illinois’ offense fell from 96th in Off. S&P+ to 114th.

Illinois offensive efficiency & explosiveness

When you can’t keep a quarterback on the field, your chances of consistency vanish. But McGee’s first Illini offense produced a baffling combination of stats.

Texas State v Illinois
Mike Dudek
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images
  • 128th in Adj. Pace. The Illini were in no way in a hurry to get to the line, and when you’re struggling, that makes sense. The only thing worse than going three-and-out is going three-and-out quickly.
  • 125th in % of Solo Tackles created. This means they were creating tons of group tackles. This typically suggests a power-based offense (LSU ranks dead last in this category annually), but ...
  • 96th in standard downs run rate, 72nd in passing downs run rate. Illinois was a pass-first offense ... that created few solo tackles and couldn’t pass (93rd in Passing S&P+, 72nd in Rushing S&P+).

When you’re gaining zero (or fewer!) yards about a quarter of the time when running the ball — Illinois’ stuff rate was a whopping 24 percent, 120th in FBS — and you don’t have a comfortable QB, I guess that means you throw a lot of screen passes. That can result in a lot of group tackles.

Regardless, the offense was a mess. The run game will remain tantalizing; despite all the issues, Foster and Corbin still combined for 1,243 yards at 5.8 yards per carry, and the line basically returns 2.5 starters in three-year starting tackle Christian DiLauro and guards Nick Allegretti and Gabe Megginson. (Senior guard Jordan Fagan also started one game last year.)

Whether this results in run consistency, however, mostly depends on whether the passing game can be less of a liability.

Crouch missed much of spring ball recovering from last fall’s shoulder surgery, so George took most of the spring snaps. This battle will pick up in fall camp, and depending on academics, it could feature a third competitor: former Virginia Tech quarterback Dwayne Lawson. Lawson was a four-star and threw nine passes for the Hokies before transferring to Garden City CC. If his grades are in order, his legs could create an interesting variable.

So, too, could the return of Dudek. Dudek was lost with a knee injury for two straight springs after catching 76 balls in 2014. If he returns to form — and that’s a mighty “if” at this stage — he could provide the kind of possession-plus receiver Illinois didn’t have. He combined 13.7 yards per catch with a 66 percent catch rate three seasons ago.

Dudek’s stability could open up opportunities for the all-or-nothing Turner, who averaged nearly 15 yards per catch but managed a barely 50 percent catch rate. It would also ease the pressure on younger players like 6’3 sophomore Dominic Thieman, incoming high-three-star freshmen Ricky Smalling and Carmoni Green, and redshirt freshman tight ends Andrew Trainor, Brandon Jones, and Griffin Palmer.

It takes quite a few “ifs” and “coulds” to turn this attack into something reliable in 2017.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Rutgers
Chayce Crouch
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Illinois defensive radar

As strange as that “pass-first, group tackles, all explosiveness” combination was for the Illinois offense, Hardy Nickerson’s first Illini D was confusing in its own right.

The Illini had a wonderfully disruptive front (22nd in Adj. Sack Rate, 48th in stuff rate) and allowed only 5 yards per play on first down (18th in FBS), but despite this pass rush, they were so abysmal on passing downs (125th in Passing Downs S&P+) that the ability to force second- or third-and-longs didn’t matter.

At first glance, we’ll blame this on the travails of youth. Linebackers Tre Watson and Julian Jones were key pieces, and they were sophomores; meanwhile, safeties Patrick Nelson and Stanley Green combined for 100.5 tackles as freshmen. When you’ve got two freshman safeties, you’re begging for issues.

Illinois v North Carolina
Tre Watson
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

It’s a good news, bad news situation: Watson and Jones are juniors, and sophomore linebackers like Dele Harding, Justice Williams, and Jake Hansen seem to have potential. So does high-three-star JUCO Del'Shawn Phillips. Meanwhile, Nelson and Green are now sophomores, as is corner Cameron Watkins. Depth could be an issue — while the top three tacklers in the secondary are back, four of the next six are not —but experience will be far less of one.

That would be great news if the line weren’t starting over. Last year’s top five up front — ends Carroll Phillips, Dawuane Smoot, and Gimel President, plus tackles Chunky Clements and Rob Bain — are all gone.

Sophomore tackles Jamal Milan and Kenyon Jackson will be asked to play huge roles, and Smith signed seven linemen in 2017. High-three-stars like tackle Kendrick Green and ends Owen Carney Jr. and Lere Oladipo could feature in the rotation sooner than later.

This doesn’t worry me as much as it should. Milan, Jackson, senior end James Crawford, and junior tackle Tito Odenigbo combined to produce seven tackles for loss and two sacks in reserve duty, and under line coach Mike Phair, last year’s upperclassmen raised their production drastically. The five departed seniors went from 39 TFLs as juniors to 58 last fall.

Illinois ranked ninth in line havoc rate (TFLs, passes defensed, and forced fumbles divided by total plays) in 2016, and that will fall. But the mundane five-yarders were the issue. Consistency in the back seven could mask a drop-off in production up front.

It’s hard to forecast improvement over last year’s No. 59 Def. S&P+ ranking, but if the offense is going three-and-out less and the back seven is steadier, a ranking in the 40s isn’t out of the question.

Illinois v Rutgers
Jaylen Dunlap
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Special Teams

Both the offense and defense regressed, but at least special teams improved. Illinois went from 120th to 60th in Special Teams S&P+; the Illini weren’t particularly good in any single area (their best ranking was 48th in field goal efficiency), but they weren’t bad at anything either.

Place-kicker Chase McLaughlin returns after making all of his PATs, seven of eight under-40 field goals, and five of nine over-40s. He was also steady in the kickoffs department. But if Illinois is going to improve further, the return game will have to increase its danger level. Kendrick Foster and Nathan Echard were both decent last year, but nothing more than that. Plus, punters Ryan Frain and David Reisner are both gone.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Ball State 90 3.6 58%
9-Sep Western Kentucky 51 -7.6 33%
16-Sep at South Florida 56 -11.9 25%
29-Sep Nebraska 42 -9.1 30%
7-Oct at Iowa 48 -12.8 23%
14-Oct Rutgers 92 3.8 59%
21-Oct at Minnesota 47 -12.8 23%
28-Oct Wisconsin 11 -22.1 10%
4-Nov at Purdue 87 -1.8 46%
11-Nov Indiana 39 -10.0 28%
18-Nov at Ohio State 2 -34.5 2%
25-Nov Northwestern 37 -10.0 28%
Projected S&P+ Rk 85
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 110 / 58
Projected wins 3.7
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -3.0 (83)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 57 / 58
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -2 / -5.0
2016 TO Luck/Game +1.2
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 51% (50%, 53%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 3.3 (-0.3)

2016 wasn’t a full-on Year Zero situation, but it wasn’t far from that. The offense juggled QBs, dealt with inconsistency virtually everywhere, and couldn’t do the things its coordinator wanted. The defense was experienced up front and terribly green everywhere else; in year two, it faces the opposite predicament. Plus, per the 247Sports Composite, Smith’s first recruiting class ranked just 46th and 10th in the Big Ten and featured zero four-star recruits, and quite a few underclassmen left in the offseason.

There’s no guarantee this gets better, in other words. Illinois ranked 95th in S&P+ and won three games last year and projects only 85th with four wins this year. The Illini have a better than 40 percent chance of winning in only three games, with a bunch in the 20-40 range.

If Smith can build continuity, and if McGee can find what he’s looking for, then maybe there’s hope. There are just enough explosive guys that you can see promise if you squint. But it’s hard to predict huge things for 2017.

Then again, this is Illinois. The big seasons tend to come out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly.

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