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Beyond the Box Score Preview: Illinois

It's that time of year, boys and...well, a couple girls.  BTBS Preview season is back!  One problem: not much has changed since the last time we looked at Illinois back in June.  I'm going to quote liberally from that piece (I know you all have it memorized, ahem, but I'll do it anyway) while adding pieces here and there.  And we'll start with a new feature.

Conventional Wisdom

It's funny.  I expected Illinois to be favored, and I expected most people to pick the Illini over Missouri, just as I expected some people to pick Colorado over Missouri in the preseason rankings.  I knew it would happen...but it still somewhat surprised me to see the complete and total assumption that not only will Illinois win, but they'll easily cover on the way to a 9-3(ish) season.  Never mind Missouri's role in that outcome, let's focus on just Illinois for a second.  A 9-3 season would result in a Top 25 finish.  Here's a graph showing Illinois' S&P+ game score for each game in the last two seasons.  The #25 team in the country has finished with an S&P+ of 224.75 and 224.59 the last two years, so let's make the baseline for "Top 25 performance" a 225.0.

Illinois has only played seven of its 25 games above a Top 25 level the last two years, and three of those performances came in a hot streak in late-2007.  They have a few players who are top-end talents (Juice Williams, Arrelious Benn, Martez Wilson, maybe Jarred Fayson), but they have pretty well-defined holes in other areas, and even the above-mentioned players haven't developed much (outside of Juice) in their time in Champaign.  People are drawn to the potential in guys like Juice and Benn, however, and they overestimate how much impact just two people can have on a team.

Now, this is not to say that Illinois can't finish 9-3 or so--if they survive the opening stretch of games (Missouri on Saturday, Ohio State on 9/26, Penn State on 10/3), their final eight games are all projected within seven points.  They could technically win all seven of those and finish upwards of 9-3 or 10-2, depending on how Saturday goes.  Or hey...Ohio State and Penn State both have deficiencies...technically they could sneak in and pull an upset there too.  But that's the best-case scenario.  The reality is that, if Illinois loses on Saturday (not that anybody's predicting them to), they're staring a 1-3 start in the face, meaning they'll have to go 5-3 in the aforementioned closely-projected games just to get to bowl eligibility.  The projections say they'll go 6-2 in that stretch (with a 3.1-point loss to Minny and a 4.9-point loss to Cincy) and finish at 7-5.  If we were creating a bell curve of likely Illinois outcomes this year, I would say that 7-5 is in the middle of the curve, not 8-4 or 9-3.  The Football Outsiders projections hate Illinois (projection: 4-8), and while my numbers like them a more than that, I think the odds of them living up to the best-case projections aren't tremendously high.  Possible (their upside is certainly enticing), but not probable.

Alright, to the unit previews:



Illinois: 2009 Beyond the Box Score Preseason Offensive Preview


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.

Missouri stopped the Illinois passing game last year with sacks.  Stryker Sulak had three, Brock Christopher one, and Tommy Chavis one.  Well, all three of those guys are gone.  Missouri will need their athletic new ends to beat the Illinois tackles and get in Juice's face if Missouri is going to win this game.  He's mobile, but he does linger in the pocket looking to make a throw, and that gives the lawfirm of Smith, Smith and Coulter a chance to attack.

Running Back

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 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. ... 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.  ...

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?

Illinois fans are virulent that their RBs are the real deal, and who knows...maybe an offseason did them good.  But last year they were quite unimpressive.  Thanks to the fact that they were usually losing the field position battle due to turnovers and brutal special teams, they had plenty of opportunities for empty yardage before stalling and not converting yards into points.  That will need to change if they're going to come anywhere close to living up to some people's expectations.

Wide Receivers / Tight Ends

The single strongest unit Illinois has, the WR corps is also Illinois' most unique unit, with two burners in Arrelious Benn and Jarred Fayson, and Jeff Cumberland, who is big even for a tight end.

Benn and Cumberland return, into [Will] 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

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.

Missouri's run defense will probably regress at the first of the season as they learn to replace Ziggy Hood, and since run blocking was a relative strength for Illinois, the Illini might be able to create a few more holes through which Daniel Dufrene, et al, can run.  But one of the biggest keys to this game will be Missouri's pass rush.  As mentioned above, Mizzou racked up the drive-killing sacks on Juice last year, and while they should have very fast, attacking linebackers, if Missouri has to blitz to get to Juice, that could mean trouble.  If (IF) Jacquies Smith, Aldon Smith, and Brian Coulter are as good as they're supposed to be, then the Illinois line is average enough that they could have some success, and it could turn the game.



Illinois: 2009 Beyond the Box Score Preseason Defensive Preview

Defensive Line

The highest-ranked, most athletic unit on the Illini defense in 2008, the defensive line faces having to replace starting DEs Derek Walker and Will Davis and DT David Lindquist.  The athleticism is still there, but the depth is not, especially after the requested transfer of highly-rated RSFr Reggie Elis.  Doug Pilcher likely returns to the starting lineup after 20 starts in 2006-07, and if Jerry Brown can stay above water academically, he should be pretty good (plus, he had two solid games against Mizzou in 2007-08).  At DT Corey Liuget came on strong last year, earning a couple starts as a true freshman.  This unit is still the likely strength of the defense, but there's more uncertainty here than there was last year.

The Illinois defensive line got deeper with the return of Josh Brent to the team after a DUI-related suspension.  Guys like Brent, Lindquist, and Liuget are very athletic for defensive tackles, and if they suddenly learn how to put together down-to-down success, then look out.  Really, it's the same with Walker, Davis, Brown, and the ends.  The athleticism of the line is undeniable, but there is nothing (yet) suggesting that they can be consistent enough to carry a relatively unproven defensive back seven.


The bad news is, the Illini LB corps loses all-conference performer Brit Miller and two part-time starters in Rodney Pittman and Sam Carson.  The good news is, the unit really wasn't that good with them, so they might not miss them that much (at least not Pittman and Carson).  People are expecting big things out of former 5-star recruit Martez Wilson, and they could be right--his sophomore performance in 2008 (73 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 1 FF, 2 FR) was pretty solid.  Then again, it's not Weatherspoonian ('Spoon as a sophomore: 130 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 2 FF, 1 FR), so we'll see how much improvement he can do.

As Wilson goes, so goes the Illinois LB corps.  Beyond him, things get dicey, and while they are certainly athletic (sensing a trend?), they were a weak unit last year and they're far less experienced this year.  If the UI defensive line isn't plugging holes, Derrick Washington could take advantage of this unit again like he did last year.


Lots of upperclassmen here, I can say that much.  No Vontae Davis, though.  Bellamy and Hardeman both racked up some tackles last year, but the secondary needed to produce infinitely more turnovers and opportunities than they did in 2008, and now they lose their lockdown corner.  There isn't a lot of new blood here, which would probably be a good thing; I picture this unit as a bunch of Hardy Ricks's.  Athletic, pretty smart, decent hitters...and not a whole lot of play-making ability.  With good decision-making from Gabbert, this is potentially a good unit for the green Missouri WR corps to start with.

Once again, if the defensive line isn't generating pressure, there's nothing to suggest that this unit will make too many positive plays.  The star quality of guys like Juice, Benn, and Wilson have distracted people from the fact that the Illinois defense is relatively devoid of playmakers, and while they're experienced enough to potentially take advantage of Missouri's green quarterback...well, let's just say that I'm not too worried if Gabbert has time to make the throws he wants to make.

Special Teams

You see Benn's name atop the list of punt returners, and you think this could be a pretty good special teams unit, wasn't.  He did next to nothing fielding punts--Illinois was one of the worst punt returning teams in the country.  A.J. Jenkins was solid returning kickoffs, and Eller was curiously a better kicker the further out the ball was placed (he was 1-for-4 on FGs from 30-39 yards...and 8-for-10 from 40+), but the net punting (and, as Jeremy Maclin can attest, net kicking in general) was atrocious.  I am still tweaking my special teams unit rankings, but it's safe to say that this unit was pretty damn poor.  All four starters return, but there is plenty of tweaking to be done here.

Under Ron Zook, Illinois has pretty consistently failed in the field position battle, and unless the special teams unit is improved, they will once again be running uphill most of the season.  Hopefully Missouri's new-fangled return game is just good enough to take advantage and win the fight for field position.


Three Keys to the Game

The Line

If Illinois is smart, the focus of their entire defensive gameplan is showing as many different looks as possible and trying to confuse Blaine Gabbert and get him thinking way too much.  There will be serious pressure on the Missouri offensive line to not only open holes for Derrick Washington (he doesn't need much), but also give Gabbert time to breathe and make the right decision.  Aside from Derek Walker's great pick six, last year Illinois didn't get to Chase Daniel much.  They probably don't need to get to Gabbert as much as Daniel to get him scatter-brained, but they still need to get to him a little.  If the Missouri offensive line is as good as we think it could be, Gabbert and Washington will be able to do their thing, and the Tigers won't miss too many beats offensively.  But if not...well...Missouri's not going to win this game.

On the flipside, Missouri's defensive line will need to at least put together a similar effort as they got last year against the Illinois offensive line.  When Juice got time to throw last year, Missouri was in a world of pain, and while we think the world of Smith, Smith, and Coulter (and Jaron Baston), clearly we don't know what they're capable of until they prove it on Saturday.

The bottom line here is that if Missouri's offensive and defensive lines win their respective battles, it will be very hard for Illinois to win this game.  Yes, Missouri is unproven in a lot of areas, but if Washington finds room to run, if Gabbert has time to pass, and if Juice is not sitting comfortably in the pocket, Missouri will almost certainly win...unless the next two keys go massively in favor of the Illini.

The Bomb

If Illinois is smart, they will go deep early and often.  It worked last year, but they didn't really try it until the game was out of reach.  We've heard that Mizzou's cornerbacks are better than a year ago, but they'll have to prove it very quickly.  I mean, I would go deep on the first play from scrimmage.  If Carl Gettis, Kevin Rutland and company really can provide Mizzou with solid coverage, and Kenji Jackson, Hardy Ricks, etc., can do better than Justin Garrett over the top, then the scariest weapon in the Illinois arsenal could be neutralized.  But that's a big if, isn't it?

Meanwhile, Missouri's biggest offensive weakness could be in the same vein--the big play.  At this point, I'm pretty confident in the ability of Andrew Jones, Wes Kemp, Jerrell Jackson, Jared Perry, and Michael Egnew to get open underneath and keep Mizzou moving at least somewhat efficiently.  But as the stats have proven many times over, the only thing more important than efficiency is explosiveness (because it leads to easy scores), and...does Missouri have any in the passing game?  Can Danario Alexander emerge as the big-play threat we've always thought he could be?  Can Rolandis Woodland give us, at the very least, a "once or twice a game" deep-ball threat?

The Turnover

I almost feel like it's a cop-out for me to say turnovers are important.  Of course they're important.  Everybody knows that.  But did you know they were this important?

Mizzou and Illinois Versus
Turnover Margins, 2006-08
Turnover Margin Illinois Missouri
+ 7-1 17-0
0 4-5 7-3
- 5-15 6-8

Missouri is undefeated in the last three years when winning the turnover battle, while Illinois is 7-1.  Extrapolating from this, you could say that Missouri has an 86.5% chance of winning the game if they're on the positive side of the turnover margin, while Illinois has a 68.1% chance of winning if they win on turnovers.  Yards, first downs, S&P+, will not find another stat with that direct an impact on the overall outcome of the game than that.  Last year, Missouri and Illinois split on turnovers.  The year before, turnovers made all the difference in the world (hello, Pig Brown).  No matter how good (or not) these two teams truly are, a poor throw or a clean strip could make the difference in the game.  That is almost always the case, but it seems even more the case in this matchup.


The more I think about Illinois, the more I believe that this game will come down to line play.  Whoever wins there, wins.  Naturally, because I'm a Missouri fan I like Missouri's chances, but I also know that an outsider could make the case that Missouri fans are completely underestimating their own personnel losses, and that we could be in for a very rude awakening on Saturday.  So I'm leaning on the numbers for now.  The projections say that Missouri isn't going to fall off nearly as much as everybody thought, or put another way, the numbers say that Missouri was high enough above most teams that a fall-off should still result in a good season.  They say Mizzou wins by 10, so I'll fill in the points...we'll say 38-28 Mizzou.