Craig Has The Scout - Western Kentucky 2017
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Ghosts of the Football Game Past
Before the season started every Illini fan and writer said something with regards to Illinois having 54 underclassmen, and needing many of them to contribute significantly. The issue is exacerbated when a team doesn't have a single snap played on defense by a senior (H/T to David). The two are the key ingredients in a recipe for disaster. And when the OL has a senior that doesn't dress, and another dinged up, there will be more issues. Illini fans are ok with the concept this season is going to be rough, but expect the product to be something better than we received on Saturday.
Luckily for Illinois, they walked away with a win, and this week will not require as many adjustments. Players know what game day looks like, and Ball State is not a bad proxy for what Western Kentucky does on offense. So, the Illini staff must work on how to continue to improve the product on the field, while responsibly rotating in players on the field.
I hope the Illini staff uses this week to focus. I hope they can inspire trust into a core group of plays and themes. If they can reach that objective, the goal of continual improvement on the field is within reach.
All nice and good then? Not quite.
First of all: Play calling from the booth is a bit disjointed from what is happening on the field. The Illini's first drive was chaos. The OL had decent (not ideal) protection on the first play, and Dudek broke free on the pass, but Crouch didn't trust his OL and scrambled. The OL was beat on a pure reach block on the second play, and the pass protection fell apart on the 3rd play. The play was bad, the playcalling didn't help. The Illini were completely out of sync on the field and in the pressbox.
Secondly: the continuous rotation of player personnel led to a severe lack of chemistry. The Illini ran 49 offensive plays on Saturday. I graded 24 plays where an Illini OL missed an assignment during a play. That is not good. Illinois shuffled the OL all day, and really struggled to build that chemistry. The best blocker on the field Saturday might have been Henry McGrew (seriously, he had a really nice game).
The third and most important reason for malcontent: Illinois could not get the defense off the field. Even on 3rd and long. The first half was rough, but the 3rd quarter went right past my boiling point. The continued pass completions against a seemingly stagnant defense was infuriating.
A team worthy of B1G consideration is going to take time, and a lot of work. Illini fans want to avoid embarrassment while at the same time having 24 players make their debut. This is hard to accomplish. The first steps were taken on the 4th quarter Saturday though. The offensive line stabilized to a 6 person rotation, and they graded much better in the 4th quarter. Illinois exploited Malik Turner on an island in the final scoring drive, leading to a big play. The defense had five consecutive stops on 3rd down. The staff needs to get the team settled and trusting. While not ideal, it is something to build on moving forward.
**Coming Up **
**Who: **Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
**When: **7:00 pm - September 9th, 2017
**Where: **Home Sweet Home
**Head Coach: **Mike Sanford. Sanford comes to WKU after spending the last few seasons as the offensive coordinator at Notre Dame. He is an interesting pick, as he is stylistically very different than previous coach Jeff Brohm. The fanbase is already up in arms about him, but as the 2nd youngest coach in FBS, some patience might be in order.
**Offensive Style: **Mike Sanford comes from the Chris Petersen Boise State tree. As such, the offense will employ a good amount of motion to create mismatches. Sanford takes over a Western Kentucky team that was a pass first style offense. He inherits a roster full of players that are built for this offense, which is a departure David Shaw Stanford teams he is comfortable coaching. Expect WKU to be 50-50 run pass in this game, but Sanford is going to emphasize the run, much like Willie Taggart did in his time in Bowling Green, KY.
**Defensive Style: **A team featuring a first time defensive coordinator. Clayton White inherits a pretty decent defense from Nick Holt. Holt ran a version of Pete Carroll's scheme from USC (he was a coach there, so it makes sense). Holt generally had a stand up end and three other defensive linemen. White is moving to a more pure 4-2-5 setup. The pieces are there, the Hilltoppers allowed under 100 yards rushing last season and around 375 ypg total in the wide open CUSA.
**Specialists: **Mike Sanford's dad is the special teams coach for the Hilltoppers, and inherits a veteran group of specialists. Jake Collins is the punter for the Hilltoppers, and a very good one at that. He averages 42 yards per punt over his career, and the junior has seen improvement in his hangtime as the years have progressed. I don't think he will give Dudek an opportunity to burn them unlike Ball State.
Three Things to Watch
**Game Pace. **Illinois ran 49 plays last week. Western Kentucky ran 71 against an FCS opponent. Expect both teams to slow the game pace down. WKU will run a similar efficiency driven offense as Ball State, with less tempo.
**Illinois Wide Receivers vs. Western Kentucky Secondary. **Both groups are very seasoned. Eastern Kentucky was able to exploit the Hilltopper backend last week. Crouch should have windows to throw to this week, and man to man matchups favor Illinois across the board.
**3rd down conversions. **Eastern Kentucky ran pressure against the Hilltoppers on 3rd down last week. WKU converted at a 58% clip. Which was only slightly better than the 57% Ball State converted last week. Illinois converted at 20% last week, but WKU gave up over 50% conversions. Illinois will need to improve their numbers on both sides of the ball to win the game.
Scouting Review - Offense
"Schematically, there's a lot of bullets in the chamber," said Sanford. "It'll change week to week. We will not look similar with formations and play calls from week to week. It will change dramatically."
As a guy doing an advanced scout, that is a bit of an issue. When it is a first year coach, that is a bigger issue. When it is his 2nd game ever, I'm not going kill myself trying to figure this thing out. So, my apologies on a little less in depth review this week vs. previous weeks. The best basis of work for Sanford is Notre Dame, and watching another team struggle in 2016 was not in the cards.
My favorite thing to look at is the lines, and the Hilltoppers return a lot of guys who have taken snaps. Most of those snaps are not at their current position. They are anchored by LG Brandon Ray who has started every game he has played, and done so quite well. The rest of the OL took snaps during the 2016 season, but the Hilltoppers graduated 3 starters from last year, and the RG from last year moved to center.
Western Kentucky also has QB Mike White running the offense. White is a prolific passer, with a great arm and touch. Mike Sanford is a read option ball control type of coordinator. This is going to cause some muddled playcalling by the Hilltoppers.
At his core, Sanford wants to establish the run for the Hilltoppers. The best example is the read option utilizing a dive by the running back, with the QB running a sweep behind it. The basics of the play would look like this:
Since Mike White is not much of a runner (two carries last week in scramble mode), this is just an essential dive play with the DE being unblocked and read. Should the DEs crash this, White will pull this and run it given the opportunity. Neal did the same last week. The best example of this I could find is from Notre Dame last year.
The Hilltoppers ran it 40 times last week, but with the stout play of the Illini DTs, expect a little more passing this week against Illinois. The lack of pass rush plays well into White's strengths. A standard play in the repertoire of Sanford is to expose the center of the defense. Eastern Kentucky bottled this up by playing press man, but Illinois will struggle to have the same success early on. Here is a favorite of Sanford.
The main read here is the W, using the R as the secondary read. Should Illinois blitz, or do a great job of coverage, the Y on the out is the next read. The play is a hard one to defend, and if White has time he will pick apart the Illini defense.
If Illinois does a great job of jamming up the entire run game, Sanford will not be opposed to going 5 wide. This is the real danger for Illinois, as it lacks the depth in the secondary to challenge the Hilltoppers.
The play design here is to take what the defense gives. The two deep sideline routes should pull the safeties out of coverage, and would allow the out routes to pick on a LB in coverage. Secondarily, if the safeties cheat up, or the Illini are on a blitz, the Safeties are in conflict in coverage and vulnerable deep. Here is a version they ran against Eastern Kentucky.
One important note is that the play can be run out of 4 wide with a running back as well, and I suspect they will do that more often against Illinois.
Once the Illini safeties have gotten enough eye candy on the short routes, Western Kentucky will run a post route. They absolutely fried the Colonels last week on it. Here is the play.
Illinois is very susceptible to this as well. Whether the Illini are in Cover 1 or Cover 3, Lucky Jackson (#11) is a tough receiver to defend. He averaged 20 yards per catch last week excluding the 66 yard bomb from above.
The Hilltopper offense has the ability to get in rhythm passing and shred the Illini if Illinois is unable to generate a pass rush. Last week, Illinois struggled to do just that until the end of the game. Sanford will do what he can to establish the run though, mainly to protect his depth. Illinois might be incredibly young, but Western Kentucky is incredibly thin. The receiving corps is pretty deep, but they lack pop after the top 2.
Scouting Review - Defense
Nick Holt was a pretty fiery guy as the DC at Western Kentucky last year, and after a few years, he finally molded a solid defensive unit. He left for Purdue, and a lot of the players that led to success for the Hilltoppers via graduation. They have a bevy of players who have game experience, but lack players with a great deal of starting experience.
The primary concern for Illinois is going to be the strength the Hilltoppers have on the defensive line. Derik Overstreet returns at DE, and he is a close replica of Wimbush from last week. The bigger concern will be Chris Johnson, an All-CUSA selection as a DT. Johnson is a disrupter and someone Illinois will have to double most likely on run blocks. Johnson is easily steered though.
The base defense will look like this.
That might look familiar, Ball State ran the same last week. The defense uses standard 4 down linemen principles, with single gap coverage by the DL. They use a 5th DB in the defense which they call the Nickel. The Nickel is smaller than the STAR position that Illinois utilized in the past (more of a pure DB vs. an over sized safety).
In the Eastern Kentucky game, the Colonels picked on DeAndre Farris almost exclusively, while ignoring Joe Brown when possible at the corners. When Farris was given a break, EKU went after Cray, his freshman replacement. (Total aside here, but Nate Hobbs is a Day 1 starter on this defense). The safeties are serviceable, but easily beatable. They are starting a RS FR Devon Key at one safety, and he was beat deep a few times.
The Hilltoppers are a little less disciplined relative to Ball State. Illinois has the opportunity to clear out the sidelines and hit some quick hitters to the tight ends this week, similar to Echard's catch last week. Here is a play that Eastern Kentucky used to some success.
Additionally, the bomb to Malik Turner is open. Turner is more athletic than anyone in the secondary for the Hilltoppers, and he should be able to blow the top off the 2 deep zone they employ.
Ideally, Crouch hits Turner in stride on these throws and presents him an opportunity to take it to the house.
The Western Kentucky defense is set in a bend and don't break mold. They have a couple of solid defensive linemen, but lack meaningful depth at the positions. Additionally, they have a secondary that lacks experience and can be picked on.
What does it mean?
From a pure offensive capability standpoint, Western Kentucky is miles beyond Ball State. Illinois might be lucky to catch the Hilltoppers early in the season, as Sanford is still trying to establish a rhythm with his team. The Hilltoppers have some talent on the defensive front, but can be run on and lack a major presence in the secondary. The key to the game is Illinois on 3rd downs. If they convert, they can keep the defense off the field and establish some order. If they do not, the Illini will be blown out by the Hilltoppers.
For Illinois to Win:
Two keys to the game: Turnovers and 3rd down efficiency. Illinois must do a better job of getting off the field on 3rd down. Additionally, Illinois must force White to make tough throws. He is prone to turning the ball over when under pressure. The advantage of Chayce Crouch is his ability to safely execute the offense. If Illinois wins the turnover battle, it affords the Illini some breathing room on offensive execution.
For Western Kentucky to Win:
Western Kentucky needs to execute their game plan. This will involve more tempo than they used last week, and more reliance on the pass. If the Hilltoppers execute their offense at anything near the efficiency from 2016 and into a week ago, Illinois does not have the offensive firepower to keep up.
Western Kentucky comes in as the favorite. If Brohm is still coaching Western Kentucky, Illinois is easily a double digit underdog. That spread would be deserved. Mike Sanford took over though, and his team struggled with Eastern Kentucky, mainly because of the coaching staff. Illinois will show an improved product on the field and cover the spread this week.
YTD Against the Spread: