Tate: What's wrong with Illini? How long have you got?
Illini offensive statistics speak loud and clear.
They’re scraping the bottom. Considering the proliferation of scoring in the country — Oregon averages 54.8 points, Louisiana Tech 53.4 — this may be the UI’s most inept performance yet. Just two years ago, when Paul Petrino arrived as coordinator, Illinois averaged nearly 32 points per game. It sank in the second half of 2011 and now has fallen to a meager 16.9, ranking 118th out of 120 teams. They’d be last but for a 44-point blowout of previously unknown Charleston Southern.
There stands Baylor, beaten soundly by the Illini two years ago, operating without Robert Griffin III and still producing 564 yards per game. The Illini are short of 300. And don’t ask why Kevin Sumlin preferred Texas A&M over the UI. You got your answer in Saturday’s upset of Alabama. The Aggies’ entry into the SEC finds them averaging 545 yards per game.
Illinois’ multiple losing streaks are well earned. Check out the stats:
Passing: Rank No. 105 nationally and No. 12 in the Big Ten with 175 yards per game.
Rushing: Rank No. 99 nationally and No. 10 in the Big Ten with 123.5 yards per game.
Sacks allowed: Rank No. 104 nationally and No. 12 in the Big Ten with 34.
Illinois has no individual in the conference’s top 10 in rushing, scoring, pass efficiency or receptions.
When you can’t run effectively and can’t protect for a weak aerial game, where do you turn?
Well, of course, you blame the coaches. Tim Beckman needs to get more involved. Or because he already is, he needs to be less involved. And
since he has dual coordinators, too many fingers spoil the pie.
And why have one coach (Chris Beatty) call first and second downs, and another coach (Billy Gonzales) call third down?
Your Aunt Hattie could do a better job calling plays. Right? Or at least Uncle Gabe.
They’re all in
Maybe offense isn’t Beckman’s specialty. He earned his spurs as an apprentice on the defensive side. But he spent years in meeting rooms with such successful head coaches as Urban Meyer, Jim Tressel and Mike Gundy. He understands how it’s done.
“At Oklahoma State, Gundy had four offensive coordinators at one time,” recalled Beckman.
Gundy’s current Cowboys are averaging 44 points a game. The problem with those of us who pose as critics is that we don’t fully understand how the game plan is assembled and carried out. Illinoisans hail Mike White and John Mackovic as the UI’s best play-callers, as though they operated in a vacuum. Actually, they shared duties with assistants who studied film for tendencies and specific situations.
It’s similar everywhere, with lots of fingers in all the pies. During the week, after analyzing the opponent, coaches devise a plan calling for plays most likely to work on first and 10 or third and short on the left hash, or wherever. Mackovic scripted a prearranged list of plays for the start of every game.
What’s the plan?
Last year at LSU, performing for a team that upset Alabama in November but lost to the Crimson Tide in the BCS title game, Gonzales served as passing-game coordinator. LSU scored 35 or more points on 11 occasions with Gonzales setting receiver routes during the week and recommending the appropriate pass plays on game day. He is essentially doing the same thing at Illinois this season as co-coordinator in charge of third down, which often involves the passing game. Each week he determines through study the type of calls that should work best and presents those ideas to the staff for discussion.
“Each coach breaks down a certain area,” Gonzales said Tuesday. “There are many categories ... as examples, red zone, first and 10, second and long, goal line, whatever. And we come back together as an offensive staff to discuss and finalize the plan.”
Beckman is part of that, saying: “I watch tape, and I give ideas on how to help attack the opponent.”
He noted this week that he “went over short-yardage plays” with coaches who are studying the best ones for the team to practice. These are the plays that failed so miserably Saturday against Minnesota.
Part of the considerations are the opponent. Said Gonzales of Purdue:
“Their four linemen are very strong ... a big, thick load. They rotate six linebackers and four corners, but they don’t touch Nos. 4 and 44 (Taylor Richards and Landon Feichter) at safety. Those two make the checks. They don’t rotate.”
Based on Purdue’s strengths and weaknesses, UI coaches will walk into Memorial Stadium with a fixed set of plans to meet each eventuality. When something changes, it’s their job to adjust to it. Up to this point, almost nothing works to satisfaction because the Illini have been losing too many of the one-on-one battles up front.
Petrino saw this coming last season. He tried without success to adjust when the blocking failed, and his successors inherited the problem. While they won’t publicly discuss it, they realize they need help, and they’re scouring the junior college ranks.
Under NCAA rules, Beckman can recruit 29 players this year, four of whom will count back to the previous class when they can enroll in January.
At this point, the Illini have 19 commitments, one of whom is a juco receiver (Martize Barr). With good luck, they’ll bring in three or four more juco transfers.
But there’s a catch. Whereas the likes of Kansas State and Arizona State can accept almost anyone, and have attracted 20-plus jucos in the past three recruiting classes, Illinois has academic limitations.
Recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh told Rivals.com last week that, of the top 100 jucos, the UI probably would approve about 15 for enrollment.
So the Illini are fishing in a tiny pool while K-State, in a dramatic run for the national championship, has no such restrictions.
What it boils down to is this: The UI has strict limits on juco transfers, isn’t doing well in the populous Chicago area (only three so far), and has no recruits thus far from Florida, Texas or the Southern states. Of 18 preps, half hail from Ohio and Michigan, where major powers in those states have first dibs.
Until the personnel problem is resolved, it doesn’t matter who calls the plays.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.