Illinois: 2009 Beyond the Box Score Preseason Preview: The Offense

Confused?  Catch up with the BTBS Primer.

Did you get as many chills reading that subject line as I got typing it?  Oh baby.  It's time once again to begin our week-to-week BTBS previews of Mizzou's 11 FBS opponents (and the three other Big 12 South teams too).

We start with Mizzou's September 5 opponent, and possibly the most confounding team in the country to analyze.

2008

Record: 5-7 (3-5)
S&P+: #25
Scoring Margin: 344-319 (+25)
Conference Scoring Margin: 218-206 (+12)
Wins (S&P+ Ranking in parentheses): Iowa (#13), @ MIchigan (#68), Indiana (#71), UL-Lafayette (#85), Eastern Illinois (FCS)
Losses: @ Penn State (#6), Ohio State (#8), vs Missouri (#10), @ Northwestern (#44), Minnesota (#63), @ Wisconsin (#64), Western Michigan (#106)

Yes, we know that it was rather ridiculous that Illinois made the Rose Bowl in 2007, but Illinois did still manage 9 wins that season, a nice, upwardly mobile change in zip code after winning a combined eight games in the previous four seasons.  But a drop from 9-4 to 5-7 was both rather surprising and unacceptable.  It's one thing to lose to top teams (Illinois played four of the top 13 teams according to S&P+, even beating Iowa); it's quite another to beat only one team with any sort of winning record and go 3-3 against teams ranked 50th or worse.  Any sort of goodwill Ron Zook earned with 2007 likely went flying out the window in 2008.  And the schedule gets much more dicey in 2009.  Okay, maybe not dicey...but full of tossups.

Coaching

Head Coach: Ron Zook
Record at Illinois: 18-30 (conference: 10-22)
Career Pythagorean Record (explained further down): -4.0 wins (-0.6/year)

According to Rivals.com, here are the recruiting rankings for Ron Zook's six recruiting classes at Florida and Illinois (excluding 2002 and 2005, where Zook took the given job late in the recruiting year): #2, #7, #30, #20, #23, #35.  He hasn't done as good a job recruiting at Illinois as he did at Florida (where I could take over and lock down a Top 15 class), but still, he and his staff have brought in quite a bit of highly-touted talent in his coaching career.

Now here's his record as head coach from 2002-08: 41-45.  He inherited a Florida team that had gone 103-23-1 in the past decade (a win% of .815) and went 23-15 (.605) in Gainesville.  In the four years since he left, Florida's gone 44-9 (.830).  Now, in four years in Champaign, Zook has managed exactly one winning season and gone 18-30.  Yes, the Rose Bowl was nice, but one has to wonder exactly how much time he has left to prove that he can do more than attract decent talent to play for him.  One would think that eventually you need to consistently win with that talent.

How does one evaluate a coach's performance with numbers?  At least, beyond final records and rankings?  You can get at part of the story by looking at a team's record versus their Pythagorean record.  What the hell is that?  Well, it started as a Bill James baseball measure (what didn't?), taking a team's run totals (both for and against) and projecting the record a team should have from those numbers.  It is a good method for showing which teams might be performing well if used midway through the season (be on the lookout for the Devil Rays, by the way--they're not going to be hovering around .500 for long with their run differential), or which teams might be due a bounceback season the next year.

 

Aside from using different multipliers, it works reasonably the same for football.  In theory, most coaches' records should end up right around the +/-0 mark (one year they overachieve their Pythagorean record, the next they underachieve); over time, you can get a good idea of which's coach's teams constantly overachieve or underachieve based on points scored.

So what is Zook's career Pythagorean record?  45-41.  Actual record?  41-45.  So his teams have done about four games worse than they should, or -0.6 per year.  As comparison, Gary Pinkel is -0.1/year, Jim Tressel is +1.0/year, Rich Rodriguez is +0.6/year, and Joe Paterno (over the last seven years) is, strangely, -0.6/year.

Now, none of this conclusively proves that Zook is a good or bad coach--as a whole, Zook doesn't have a wonderful reputation, and these numbers don't prove that perception wrong.  But whether he's a truly good or bad coach, he probably needs to start winning this year.

Offense

Overall Stats

S&P+*: 112.78 (#31)
Success Rate+: 107.74 (#34)
PPP+: 120.88 (#29)

Standard Downs** S&P+: 116.24 (#18)
Passing Downs S&P+: 120.71 (#24)

Redzone S&P+: 110.62 (#39)

Q1 S&P+: 133.72 (#10)
Q2 S&P+: 94.61 (#84)
Q3 S&P+: 132.22 (#9)
Q4 S&P+: 122.71 (#16)

1st Down S&P+: 119.96 (#17)
2nd Down S&P+: 124.41 (#17)
3rd Down S&P+: 109.85 (#41)

Rushing Stats

Rushing S&P+: 109.84 (#44)
Rushing SR+: 111.98 (#30)
Rushing PPP+: 108.06 (#56)

Standard Downs: 115.45 (#26)
Passing Downs: 111.13 (#48)

Redzone: 107.07 (#51)

Line Yards+: 110.82 (#29)

Passing Stats

Passing S&P+: 115.82 (#24)
Passing SR+: 103.80 (#45)
Passing PPP+: 131.89 (#17)

Standard Downs: 118.39 (#20)
Passing Downs: 124.91 (#22)

Redzone: 114.06 (#37)

Adj. Sack Rate***: 6.1% (#68)


* The general S&P+ stat used is really the "Close-Game S&P+" stat you know and love.  The definition of "close game" has been expanded (Close game = within 24 points in Q1, 21 in Q2, and 16 or less, i.e. two possessions, in the second half).  So what that means is that junk time yards/points are not included in these numbers, nor should they be.

** "Standard Downs" = what used to be "Non-Passing Downs". Passing Downs are defined as follows: Second-and-8 or more, third-and-5 or more, fourth-and-5 or more. Anything less than that—any first down, second-and-7 or less, third-and-4 or less, fourth-and-4 or less—are considered Standard Downs because running and passing are more-or-less equal options.

*** Adjusted Sack Rate is a new creation.  It simply looks at the average of the Standard Downs and Passing Downs sack rates.  As you'll see, combined with Line Yards+, this will give you a pretty good read of O-line performance.

Lots of numbers there, I realize.  What do they mean for the most part?  In a majority of categories, lllinois ranked between about #25 and #50.  Good, not great.  The most interesting splits are found in the by-quarter and by-down numbers.  Illinois had a great offense in Q1, Q3, and Q4...and were terrible in Q2.  Eh?  How does that happen?  Usually when I look at numbers that are great in the first quarter and bad in the second, I surmise that a coach's gameplanning was good, but the in-game adjustments were lacking.

One encouraging trend for Illinois: their first- and second-down numbers were strong, but they were lacking on third downs.  At the pro level, third down success is the last thing to come when a team is learning how to win.  That could be good for Illinois in 2009, but...well, they weren't extremely young in 2008, at least not at the QB position.  How much development does Juice still have to make?

Quarterback

Will Andre Ware's favorite quarterback finally put all the pieces together his senior year? (via)

2008 Unit Ranking: #22 in the nation (#3 in the Big Ten)

Projected Depth Chart
Juice Williams (6'2, 235, Sr.)
Eddie McGee (6'4, 210, Jr.)
Jacob Charest (6'4, 220, RSFr.)

What else is there to say about Juice Williams at this point?  There is a bigger contrast of good and bad analysis with him than there was about even Brad Smith.  He has a bazooka for an arm, he can buy time with his legs, he looks like a great quarterback in terms of the eyeball test, and he beat Ohio State in Columbus in 2007...but Illinois is just 16-21 in his three years in Champaign, 14-11 in the last two.  Guys calling Illinois games can't help but gush about him, but while Illinois scored 42 points in a shootout with Missouri and 47 against Eastern Illinois, they only scored 20 against UL-Lafayette, and they only averaged about 21 points per game against teams with winning records last year--decent, but certainly not great.

As you will see throughout the rest of the summer, I've come up with rough ways to rank individual units*--in the case of Juice, it's probably the best possible way to evaluate him without all the contradicting information our eyeballs tell us about him.  In the end, the numbers ranked Illinois' QB unit (of which Juice was about 98%) as the 21st unit in the country, 3rd in the Big Ten behind Penn State (#4) and Ohio State (#17) and ahead of Iowa (#34), Minnesota (#39), and Wisconsin (#41).  That sounds about right; while the offense wasn't quite as good as it seemed it could be, defensive breakdowns were the bigger problem in 2008.

* I'm sure I'll tweak how I rate them a million times, but I'd say I've already got better methods than these people do.

Oh, and about Eddie McGee.  Look, I realize that we Missouri fans are the biggest McGee proponents as there is, but...he's simply not as good as Juice Williams.  Yes, he caught Mizzou by surprise in 2007 and almost led a dramatic comeback, but since then, mostly in mop-up time, he's 17-for-33 for 246 yards, a TD, and an INT.  Certainly not terrible, but not better than Juice.  That said, I love the "Eddie > Juice" meme, and we should absolutely keep it up.

Running Backs

2008 Unit Ranking: #95 in the nation (#11 in the Big Ten)

Projected Depth Chart
Jason Ford (6'0, 230, So.)
Daniel Dufrene (5'11, 205, Sr.)
Mikel Leshoure (6'0, 225, So.)
Troy Pollard (5'8, 185, So.)

Here's where the numbers tell a pretty cruel tale.  Yes, Daniel Dufrene averaged a decent 5.7 yards per carry in 2008, and yes, Illinois was a not-terrible 44th in the country in Rushing S&P+.  But there were two main factors attributed to that: 1) Juice Williams was a solid running threat, and he's not a RB, 2) the offensive line was quite good.  The running backs themselves did not acquit themselves well.  Dufrene was one of the nation's leaders in worthless yards, averaging only 0.28 PPP (EqPts Per Play) despite the decent yards per carry figure.  Jason Ford, was just barely better, at 0.31 PPP.  In limited action, Mikel Leshoure posted only a 0.21.  As means of comparison, Juice Williams averaged 0.34, and Derrick Washington averaged 0.48.

As a whole, this unit was the worst in the Big Ten in terms of POE.  What's POE?  A new stat, of course!  It stands for Points Over Expected.  It takes the "expected" value of every carry a team's RBs made based on the opponent's rush defense stats and compares it to the actual output.  For Illinois, their RBs' POE was -4.9, meaning they gained 4.9 points fewer than what the typical, average D1 unit would gain in their carries against their opponents.  Combined with good Line Yards figures (meaning the O-line was doing its job), this unit should have produced much more than it did, hence the putrid ratings.

If there's any hope for this unit, it's that three of the four listed RBs are only sophomores now.  While Dufrene has likely topped out his development, Ford, Leshoure, and Pollard (particularly Ford) still might have potential.  But how much improvement can you make in one year?

Wide Receivers / Tight Ends

Are the numbers right?  Is he maybe overrated?  Sure doesn't seem like it watching him...

2008 Unit Ranking: #24 in the nation (#3 in the Big Ten)

Projected WR Depth Chart
Arrelious Benn (6'2, 220, Jr.)
Jeff Cumberland (6'5, 255, Sr.)

Jarred Fayson (6'0, 215, Jr.)
A.J. Jenkins (6'0, 185, So.)
Chris Duvalt (5'11, 175, Sr.)
Terry Hawthorne (6'0, 170, Fr.)
Fred Sykes (6'0, 185, So.)
Cordale Scott (6'3, 215, So.)
Chris James (6'0, 195, Jr.)

Projected TE Depth Chart
Michael Hoomanawanui (6'5, 270, Sr.)
Hubie Graham (6'4, 245, So.)
London Davis (6'4, 255, RSFr.)

I still have some work to do on a good Receiver POE number.  In its infancy, the number doesn't really think too highly of Arrelious Benn.  It says that, over 67 receptions, he only produced 13.80 Points Over Expected, good for only #77 among eligible WRs.  It says that of the passes he caught, he really didn't do anything with them beyond what the average receiver would do.

Now, there's a skill in and of itself for catching that many passes, and I will continue to tweak the formulas, but in the meantime Benn only comes in at #77.  However, his pass-catching mate, TE-turned-WR-even-though-he-looks-like-a-TE Jeff Cumberland came in at #83, at 13.12, in only 20 catches.  This makes a bit of sense, in that Cumberland managed four touchdowns in his 20 catches, while Benn somehow only had three all year (and as we've seen, yards gained are worth more EqPts close to the endzone).  Meanwhile, since-departed Will Judson came in at #104.

Having three receivers in the top 104 gave Illinois a pretty decently-ranked WR corps even if the formulas didn't like Benn all that much.  Benn and Cumberland return, into Judson's shoes steps Florida transfer Jarred Fayson.  Fayson, a former 4-star signee from Tampa, caught 13 passes for 157 yards and 3 TDs in two years in Gainesville, while adding 33 rushes for 215 yards and a TD.  He's an interesting run-catch dual threat, and he could be a nice complement.  If he's more consistent than Judson, who caught one pass or fewer in seven of 12 games in 2008, this receiving corps will improve.  That alone could improve Juice Williams's numbers more than any last-second development Juice could make on his own.

Meanwhile, Michael Hoomanawanui was a distinctly average tight end, producing 0.36 Points Over Expected in 2008, good for #49 in the country.

Offensive Line

2008 Unit Ranking: #37 in the nation (#2 in the Big Ten)

Projected Depth Chart
Jon Asamoah (G, 6'5, 315, Sr.)
Jeff Allen (T, 6'5, 310, So.)
Eric Block (C, 6'3, 290, Sr.)

Corey Lewis (T, 6'6, 315, So.)
Graham Pocic (G, 6'7, 320, RSFr.)
Craig Wilson (T, 6'5, 320, So.)
Jack Cornell (G, 6'5, 315, So.)
Tyler Sanders (C, 6'5, 295, RSFr.)
Ryan Palmer (T, 6'7, 310, Jr.)
Randall Hunt (G, 6'6, 320, Jr.)

The Illini O-line in 2008 was pretty good at run blocking (29th in Line Yards+) and below-average at pass blocking (68th in Adjusted Sack Rate).  Now, the sack rate figure is directly tied to a quarterback's ability to avoid a sack, and maybe Juice just hung in the pocket too much, but it's the best stat we have to work with right now, and it suggests what it suggests.  They return two senior starters in Jon Asamoah and Eric Block, plus a promising sophomore in Jeff Allen, who started some games as a true freshman last year.  In terms of experience, they don't have a particularly high or low amount, and it does look like, alongside the two seniors, they could start three sophomores/redshirt freshmen, which isn't encouraging.  Mizzou's defensive line did rather well against this line last year, and on September 5, both units will be less experienced than they were twelve months previous.

Summary

Add all this up, and what do we have?  A Top 20 quarterback, a Top 20 receiving corps, a Top 50 offensive line, and poor running backs.  That gives them distinct advantages and disadvantages against what we think we know about the Mizzou defense.  Mizzou's inexperienced-but-athletic defensive line should be able to hold its own against UI's OLs, and the Tiger LB corps could dominate UI's RBs (much like they did last year).  But a good WR corps should be able to find holes in a better-but-younger Mizzou secondary, and an experienced QB in Juice Williams should be able to make a few things happen against an overall young Mizzou defense.

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