Illinois Penny Package vs. Michigan ('22)
The Illini burst onto the national scene in '22 behind an elite secondary and their own version of the 5-1 (Penny).
The ‘20 Covid shortened season was not kind to the Illini, who finished 2-6 with a defensive FEI of 103rd (FEI is an efficiency metric similar to DVOA). Bielema would return to the sidelines of the Big 10 after an eight-year hiatus that saw him go from Arkansas’ Head Coach to a consultant (& DL Coach) in New England and finally the OLBs Coach for the Giants.
Upon his return, Bielema quickly snatched up a rising young Defensive Coordinator, Ryan Walters. The ‘21 campaign saw marked improvement on defense as the Illini rose to 30th in FEI and a 5-7 record. The ‘22 season would see an elite combination of talent and teaching, as the Illini ended the 3rd in defensive FEI (BCFToys).
From the start of the ‘22 season, something was different in Champaign. Though the collapse at the end of the year was a definite blemish on the season for Illinois, it did not take away from how well they played on defense. In his second year at the helm of the Illini, Brett Bielema rose the defense from the dead along with former DC Ryan Walters, who is now at Purdue as Head Coach. Combined with his knowledge of the Patriots' defense, Bielema and Walters created a unique system featuring a five-man front and excessive use of Cover 1.
The reliance on Cover 1 arose from the plethora of talent in the backend. Devon Witherspoon is currently seen as one of the top CBs in this year’s NFL Draft, along with “do-it-all” Safety hybrid prospect Sydney Brown (whose brother was the Illini’s starting RB). In addition, Jurtaveous Martin, another Safety, is also expected to be drafted. All three were on the All-Big 10 team. Below is the coverage matrix for the ‘22 Illini defense—one of the most extreme from this year’s season.
The Illini had two massive run stuffers at DE in Jur’Zhan Newton and Kieth Rudolph. Both DEs finished the year in double-digit TFLs, 14 and 13, respectively. Newton and Rudolph would also finish the year as All-Big 10 defenders.
Regarding EPA (Expected Points Added), the Illini defense finished 4th overall in EPA/play, 3rd against the pass, and 12th against the run (CFBGraphs). Their style of play fits well in the Big 10. One concept that they relied heavily on was the Penny Front which is mainly seen in the NFL. Illinois utilized the 5-1 alignment to stuff the run and smother WRs outside in man coverage.
With two workhorse DEs and a secondary built for man-free/C1, the Illini feasted on Big 10 offense. After their mid-season victory over Minnesota, I knew the game with Michigan would be a good matchup, as I pointed out in the tweet below. But, unfortunately, reality struck the Illini as they went 1-2 in their lead-up to the Wolverines.
The game against the Wolverines was a great example of how Illinois had built its defense to combat the spread-to-run schemes in the Big 10. Michigan wants to run the ball and had a mobile QB that would raise the difficulty level for the Illini. Though Bielema and Co. came up short, their defensive game plan against Michigan illustrated the philosophy established in Champaign.
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