The late Bob Zuppke has been credited with "inventing" the football huddle at Illinois a century ago, although the idea of concealing sensitive play-calling information originated as far back as the 1890s.
Everyone from the British Secret Service to Bobby Thomson has profited from stolen signals. Communication is ultra-valuable in competitive situations.
Similarly, breakdowns in communication can be detrimental, as it was for Illinois in its 45-14 loss at Arizona State on Saturday night. Illini defenders acknowledged confusion (1) in interpreting early sideline calls that didn't follow the pregame script as coaches sought to adjust and (2) due to the speedy no-huddle tempo that caught the Illini off guard.
Two UI defenders, tackle Akeem Spence and cornerback Justin Green, explained problems that arose early in Tempe's raucous atmosphere.
"We had practiced getting signals communicated from the sideline," Spence said, "but they caught us off guard with the speed of their tempo. It was a case of missed communication. During the week, we had scripted five or six defensive calls in advance. When the coaches made changes, some of the guys were still running the scripted plays while others changed."
The Illini receive hand signals from three sources, but only one is live. Only one counts. One call for all is a change from last year when, for example, coaches Keith Gilmore and Vic Koenning sent separate but compatible signals to their position players.
"Now there is one call for everybody, and we have to make sure we're all on the same page," Spence said. "It was no problem against Western Michigan, but Saturday night was different in that atmosphere and with Arizona State running its plays so fast. We faked ourselves out."
"No lie, that tempo was something we weren't used to. Sometimes it is hard to get the calls that quickly, and we were having issues with communication. We all tried to echo the calls to each other. And Arizona State had some tricks we hadn't seen before. They caught us off guard, and that first series set the tone for the game."
The Sun Devils exploded to the Illini 1-yard before fumbling, then scored on the next four possessions with 11 straight pass completions. Arizona State gained 510 yards overall, 320 of it in the first five possessions. Virtually this same UI defensive unit permitted just 286 yards per game last season, and limited Western Michigan to minus-6 yards rushing a week earlier.
"That's the worst defense we've played since the Michigan game in my sophomore year (a 67-65 3OT loss)," Green said. "We met Sunday to try to figure out what went wrong. We need to stick to our fundamentals. It was a bad game and we were bummed out Sunday. But we have to bounce back. We have to have a short memory."
Tim Beckman called quarterback "wide open this week" as he evaluates the health of Nathan Scheelhaase (ankle), who started 27 straight games before sitting out at Arizona State.
"All three practiced Sunday," the coach said. "Nathan could have entered in an emergency Saturday, but we didn't think it was the right thing for our team or Nathan."
Beckman noted that Miles Osei "dinged his ankle a bit" in the first half Saturday, adding: "Miles did some good things with his feet but those unforced errors (two interceptions) hurt. We simply decided to go with Reilly O'Toole in the second half. We did not play well in any area. I'm not pointing fingers. We need to stop the pass. We didn't. Offensively we need to pick up blitzes and get the ball to our playmakers. We're not. Two young men misread their coverage lanes on the opening kickoff. All these things have to be corrected."
Referring to secondary breakdowns, Beckman said:
"We had eye control violations in that we didn't stay with the players we were assigned to. They were running two and three receivers through a zone — Arizona State had good schemes — and we had some missed communication in our man coverage. Maybe it was the speed of the game ... not all of us on the same page. It is hard to practice how quickly they ran plays, although we tried. They were able to perform well in quick-time, and we didn't."
Defensively, it doesn't appear either of last year's starting safeties, Supo Sanni and Steve Hull, will play this week. Beckman called Sanni "doubtful." Hull injured the same shoulder that required surgery earlier.
On the plus side
The search for something positive swings over to the offensive side. Billy Gonzales, speaking Monday to the Quarterback Club, pointed to:
(1) A rushing attack that netted a respectable 231 yards on 50 rushes, 10 of which were negative-yardage plays (mostly sacks);
(2) Youthful running backs Josh Ferguson (101 yards) and Donovonn Young (65) who did the brunt of the work, the Illini demonstrating good ball security with no fumbles.
(3) Touchdowns on their only two ventures into the red zone, completing a pass to tight end Eddie Viliunas for the second one.
(4) With Darius Millines injured, Cleveland freshman Justin Hardee stepped in with a 17-yard reception and is ticketed for more opportunities.
These positives were offset by backfires that included three interceptions, delay penalties and lack of a vertical passing game. Said Gonzales:
"We want to run first and use play-action passes to take pressure off our offensive line. We have to do what our players do best. Different guys have different tools, and that holds true at quarterback."
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.