Sunday, July 22, 2012

2012 Big 10 Preview

39 days until kickoff. That's right, in less time than it takes to celebrate the Lenteel season, football will be back. Today we examined the 2012 Big 10 season. To see last year's Big 10 post, click here.



The Illini and Skid Row
Illinois began the 2011 season looking like a Big 10 title contender. They defeated all four of their non-conference foes, including bowl squads Arkansas State, Arizona State, and Western Michigan, then opened Big 10 play with a pair of wins over Northwestern and Indiana. On the morning of Sunday October 9th, the Illini were 6-0 and ranked 16th in the AP Poll, their highest ranking since rising to 13th during their Rose Bowl season of 2007. The Illini would not win another game until the final day of 2011, when they upended UCLA in the Fight Hunger Bowl. Along the way, they would lose six straight and finally rid themselves of the coach known as Ron Zook. What happened to Illinois over the final half of the season? To answer that question, I looked at how Illinois performed in their first two conference games (wins over Northwestern and Indiana) versus how they performed in their final six (all losses). If we're looking for scapegoats, we can forget the defense. Illinois allowed an average of 316 yards per game to Northwestern and Indiana. Not too shabby. However, over their final six league games, the Illini performed even better, permitting their foes to average just 287 yards per game! So where can we place the blame? In their first two games, the Illini averaged 496 yards per game. Over their final six games, that number was almost cut in half. The Illini managed just 269 yards per game during their six game skid. Was there any way to predict this massive cliff dive? The splits for the Illini in some other offensive categories are listed in the following table.
The Illini averaged nearly seven fewer yards per pass attempt over their final six games, a spectacular decline, especially considering their completion percentage did not see a significant drop. They also averaged about a yard fewer per rush. The pair of numbers that may have portended their precipitous decline is the large sack and turnover totals Northwestern and Indiana racked up even in defeat. The Wildcats and Hoosiers combined to sack Illinois quarterbacks seven times. The Illini actually improved their protection, albeit marginally over their final six games, merely allowing three sacks per game. However, the lack of pass protection was clearly an issue even when they were moving the ball and winning. Illinois also committed five turnovers in their two wins. Their turnover rate was relatively unchanged (2.5 per game in the wins and 2.67 in the losses), but their proclivity for killing drives with mistakes was manifest even early in the season. While the schedule did toughen up in the second-half, with the Illini facing five bowl teams in their final six games, their offensive decline was likely a market correction of sorts. The Illini simply performed well above what could reasonably have been expected based on the weaknesses and mistakes evident in their offensive numbers from the first two games.

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