Tate: Defense faces perhaps its greatest challenge
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CHAMPAIGN – Vic Koenning had an extra week to study Fresno State's formations and tendencies, and the Illini defensive coordinator found a 78 percent to 80 percent likelihood of what to expect.
But incredibly slippery field conditions threw his game plan into the dumper when the Bulldogs flip-flopped to an all-out aerial game upon discovering their receivers had an advantage against skating UI defensive backs.
Fresno State led 16-0 at the quarter and, even as a readjusting UI defense limited the Bulldogs to nine points in the last three quarters, the home team held on, 25-23.
Now, as he prepares for an electric trigger man in Baylor's Robert Griffin III – a world-class hurdler and 3,195-yard passer – Koenning again can expect something different in the Texas Bowl on Dec. 29.
"On offense, you can have a plan and a system that works for the entire season," he said. "You know what you want to do. But on defense, you are always preparing for the unknown. You might have to be option-sound one week and then you face a spread, three-step drop the next. All require different plans and techniques. And just when you start to have a grasp, the next team changes.
"You can't set up one defense that works for everything. And with us, we're still learning what our team can do best.
"We keep stats 1,000 different ways. But I still don't know everything I'd like to. People ask why we don't blitz more. But then you have to cover, and we still struggle with man coverage. At Fresno, we had to go two-deep to protect the corners. Going in, we saw signs saying they'd had a 1,000-yard rusher for 14 seasons, so we expected them to run a lot. But they saw we had a hard time reacting to the field conditions, and they took advantage. We held them to 60 yards rushing (they threw for 318)."
Covering his bases
In criticizing UI pass defense, which has become an annual pastime for Illini Nation, it is important to stop and recognize certain realities. Fresno State's Ryan Colbert routinely completes 60 percent of his passes. Two Big Ten passers topped 73 percent this season, and five others topped 62 percent. Most Illini opponents went into every game expecting to complete two-thirds of their passes and usually did. This isn't 1960. A 16-for-24 day is NORMAL. Twenty completions is routine. Indiana's Ben Chappell averaged 25.
In this environment, Illinois permitted 58.6 percent completions this season.
Koenning points out the percentage of completions isn't as important as the length of the plays.
"If you get a bunch of bubble screens, who cares?" he said. "I've been told by people who study it that if you can hold your opponent to 6 yards per pass attempt, that's really good. Prime example, Fresno had some big plays, and that's not good. What is disappointing is that we had our best screen-stopping call on the first one, and we didn't play it right. And I'm thinking, they won't do it two times in a row, and they got us again (a 27-yard TD)."
Sometimes luck plays a part in making the right defensive call against a certain play. Or sometimes it is just happenstance.
"We watched the Ohio State game with recruits this last weekend, and we weren't executing perfectly," Koenning said, "but a guy made a play here and a guy made a play there, and we got some pressure ... and I remember saying, we got away with some things. So while it may appear we played better in the first eight games, when you watch film, it all kind of evens out."
This discussion would have a different tone but for three rival marches at the end of regulation: 80-yarders by Michigan and Minnesota and the nine-minute clock eater by Fresno State. In each frustrating case, the defense had a chance to save the game and didn't ... turning a potential 9-3 season to 6-6. The first eight UI foes averaged 16.7 points, the last four 39.2.
Did this unit run out of gas? And does the offense deserve some of the blame for not controlling the ball when the opportunity was there? Whatever your thoughts, the arrow seemed to turn south in the 67-65 triple-overtime loss at Michigan.
"There are a lot of theories, like maybe we were shell-shocked at Michigan and then lost our stinger," Koenning said. "Actually, we had some good stretches in the Minnesota and Northwestern games, and if you take out the first quarter at Fresno ... but it's true we don't have much depth. Some of our defensive backs are playing 100 percent of the snaps, and it wears on you after all these weeks. We don't have a lot of interior depth – Akeem Spence did well at tackle, but he should have been the backup for the guy playing for Dallas (Josh Brent) – and Martez (Wilson) has been in there an awful lot. Take Nate Bussey, all those snaps and special teams, too.
"We've been blessed that guys have stayed healthy, but you get a pinched nerve here and a strain there, and then you're not quite running on all cylinders. I've tried to limit what we've been doing because we started to struggle with assignment issues in the Michigan game, and we probably became predictable because we weren't doing as many things as we were doing earlier."
Here's my analysis: Given his circumstances, given the fact Koenning was handed a unit that gave up 102 points to Cincinnati and Fresno State at the end of last year, and was pounded by Purdue and Indiana and wrapped in negative vibes after a 3-9 campaign, the new coordinator gets a strong 'B.'
That grade is based on improvement, and it won't be a 'B' if the same thing happens next year (assuming Wilson and Corey Liuget return). Without Missouri to open the season, the 2011 schedule will be less demanding, and Koenning has eight months to reshuffle his secondary and locate help in the front seven.
"We have some freshmen," he said. "Jonathan Brown is going to be good, and so are Houston Bates and Earnest Thomas. Jake Howe is over 290 pounds and improving, and Austin Teitsma will be a real solid tackle. We're going to stay positive because negativism breeds negativism, and nobody wants to be around negativism. We want football to be fun, and we're not going to dwell on what we can't do."
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.