Higher tempo correlates with success in offense

After having its worst offensive output of the season against Michigan State, the Illinois offense wasted no time moving the ball this past Saturday against Penn State.

The Illini were able to move the ball in spurts for much of the first half in the 24-17 overtime loss but couldn’t convert yards into points. On the opening drive of the game, Illinois drove six plays, covering 45 yards before quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase’s pass was deflected off the hands of Martize Barr and intercepted deep in Penn State territory.

The Illini ripped off those six plays in the first one minute, 38 seconds of game time, or an average of just 16.3 seconds per snap. In a sport obsessed with high-powered, no-huddle offenses, the fastest tempo in college football for the 2012 season was the Houston Cougars at 18.3 seconds per play.

In fact, two of the Illini’s three scoring drives on Saturday featured tempos that were faster than the Cougars’ high-water mark.

On four consecutive drives, beginning in the second quarter and moving into the fourth, the Illini had at least 12 plays per possession and scored on three of them — the lone outlier being a failed fourth down conversion at the Penn State 4-yard line. For that stretch of offense, Illinois’ tempo was between 14.4 seconds per play and 22 seconds, four of the Illini’s five highest-paced drives of the game.

Even with sustained success moving the ball, the Illini put just 17 points on the scoreboard, a mark not high enough to get the victory.

“I thought we left a lot of opportunities out there,” Scheelhaase said. “We get on their side of the deal twice, and it was my fault on the turnover and my fault again on the fourth-and-one. We got to find a way to make a play.”

For the game, Illinois’ tempo sat at 19.8 seconds per play, which would have been good for fifth-best in the nation in 2012. The contest in State College, Pa., was by far the fastest of the season for Illinois, with the previous high being 24.8 seconds per play against Miami (Ohio) on Sept. 28.

In offensive coordinator Bill Cubit’s offense, the Illini have picked their spots on when to hurry to the line and unleash the hurry-up, but it is an added element that Illinois teams haven’t had in the past. In 2012, the Illini were 89th in the country in tempo, with an average of 27.7 seconds between play.

“We wouldn’t do that (go up-tempo) the whole game,” Cubit said. “We’re just going to be patient and keep the tempo up to wear them down. I thought we did a nice job, I don’t know how many plays we had, but I know it was a lot better job of controlling the ball than last week.”

The up-tempo style was a contradiction of how the Illini had been playing against typical, grind-it-out Big Ten teams. Against Michigan State the week prior, the Illini mustered just 128 yards on only 42 plays. In that offensive disaster against the Spartans, the Illini averaged their slowest pace of the year: an average of 29.9 seconds between plays, good for 116th out of 120 FBS teams for the 2012 season. In a game against the Badgers where the Illini put up 32 points, their tempo still sat at only 29.1 seconds/play in a 56-32 loss.

The downside of an up-tempo attack is if the offense doesn’t move the ball, it gives a quick turnaround to the defense. With a young defense on the other side of the ball, Illinois can’t afford to lose the time of possession battle. In the past three losses to Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State, the Illini have not been close in that statistic.

Against Penn State and Wisconsin, the Illini lost time of possession by about 10 minutes per game (Illinois held the ball for 25:08 against Penn State, 25:42 against Wisconsin) but were dominated by the Spartans. Michigan State held the ball for 39:06, almost twice as much time as Illinois and it showed on the scoreboard in the 42-3 loss.

In the games moving forward against the conference’s top-two offenses in Ohio State and Indiana, Illinois will need to find the balance between ball control and tempo to pull out victories.

“I thought the kids really stepped up and met a lot of challenges,” Cubit said after the Penn State game. “I thought there was a lot to build on, but sooner or later you got to win.”

Stephen can be reached at sbourbo2@dailyillini.com and @steve_bourbon.