Explosive impact: Illinois FCS teams seek big-yardage plays

Explosive impact: Illinois FCS teams seek big-yardage plays
Tre Roberson

They raise the voice level of broadcasters and PA announcers alike. They get fans off their phones and onto to their feet. They energize one sideline and demoralize the other. They are “explosive plays.”

Bill Connelly of SB Nation began writing about explosive plays three years ago. At that time, he noted that “Big plays are probably the single most important factor to winning football games.”

In August he refined his original theory. Through further research Connelly wrote, “Every coach knows you should make more big plays than your opponent, just as every coach knows you could commit fewer turnovers than them, too. How?

“If big plays can happen on any down, at a reasonably similar rate, then tell me where I’m wrong in saying this:  The key to explosiveness is efficiency. The key to making big plays is being able to stay on the field long enough to make one.”

In his book Study Hall:  College Football, Its Stats and Its Stories, Connelly defined an explosive play as any run over 12 yards and any pass over 20 yards (many coaches define it as a rush gaining at least 12 yards or a pass gaining at least 16).

Using Connelly’s original measures, Prairie State Pigskin examined the explosive plays of the four Illinois FCS teams that we cover:  EIU, ISU, SIU and WIU. While it makes for interesting reading, as Connelly notes, it’s just one factor of many that translates into winning football.

2017 By the Numbers

ISU 54 (7.71 per game average)  34 by run, 20 by pass

WIU 51 (7.28 per game average)  21 by run, 30 by pass

SIU 44 (6.28 per game average)  17 by run, 27 by pass

EIU 32 (4.0 per game average)  17 by run, 15 by pass

Team leaders to date

ISU:  RB James Robinson 17

WIU:  WR Jaelon Acklin 19

SIU:  WR Connor Iwema 10

EIU:  RB Isaiah Johnson 8

A look back

History can teach us as well.

Illinois State enjoyed a landmark season in 2014 as Brock Spack’s Redbirds advanced all the way to the FCS national championship game. In fact, ISU came within mere seconds of knocking off perennial power and conference rival North Dakota State for the title.

During that 15-game season, ISU produced 134 “explosive plays” (again, according to Connelly’s numbers). The Redbirds were fairly balanced–73 by run and 61 by pass–with playmakers such as Marshaun Coprich, Tre Roberson, Cameron Meredith and James O’Shaughnessy in the lineup.

The Redbirds racked up 15 explosive plays in their victory over Northern Iowa in the opening round of the playoffs. Those big plays were a major reason why ISU toppled UNI 41-21 and got revenge for a loss to the Panthers during the regular season.

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A year earlier, Eastern Illinois rewrote its record book, won the Ohio Valley Conference championship and advanced to the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs.

Utilizing head coach Dino Babers’ fastbreak offense, the Panthers ran 1,230 plays in their 14 games (87.85 plays per game average with a season-high of 112 against UT-Martin). EIU produced 110 explosive plays, meaning that nearly nine percent of its plays were explosive.

Karl Park, who has been a part of Eastern Kentucky and Ohio Valley Conference football since 1969, called EIU “the most potent offensive machine that I can remember among OVC teams that I have seen play.”

What’s the impact?

“It’s really hard to move the football offensively if you’re not getting some chunk yardage and those are things we talk about on both sides of the football,” Eastern head coach Kim Dameron. “On offense, we have to stay patient, but we have to take our shots. Defensively, we try to limit those as much as we can and try to get it so at least they (the big plays) don’t go to the end zone to give us a chance to line up one more time.”

Dameron’s offense has been limited since redshirt senior and returning starting quarterback Mitch Kimble was felled by an injury in the team’s third game of the season. The Panthers have used redshirt freshman Scotty Gilkey, Jr. and redshirt junior Bud Martin in Kimble’s absence.

“The old adage is the game is going to come down to five or six, maybe seven plays,” Dameron said, “but you don’t know when those plays are in the game so you’d better be playing your hind end off and you’d better go hard every snap.”

Illinois State senior kicker Sean Slattery said that explosive plays are an important focus for the Redbirds.

Coach Spack talks about that all the time. Every position group has a goal that we set on Thursdays,” Slattery said. “For us kickers, for example, it’s 100 percent on placement. Receivers might say three or more explosive plays. That’s a huge focus for us.

“It’s momentum. An offense or defense can live or die on an explosive play.”

As noted earlier, explosive plays are just one factor in winning games, yet those big yardage gainers often go a long way to deciding the outcome.

Western Illinois receiver Jaelon Acklin has produced 22 of the team's "explosive plays" this season. (photo courtesy of GoLeathernecks.com)

Western Illinois receiver Jaelon Acklin has produced 22 of the team’s “explosive plays” this season. (photo courtesy of GoLeathernecks.com)

Case in point:  A year ago, Western Illinois jumped out to a 5-1 start. Senior receiver Lance Lenoir, Jr. (now on the Dallas Cowboys practice squad) produced 12 of WIU’s 22 explosive plays. However, Lenoir had just three of the Leathernecks’ next 15 big plays. Though again, it was just one factor of many, Western stumbled down the stretch losing four of its final five games.

This season’s top explosive producer for the Leathernecks is receiver Jaelon Acklin. The senior dropped 25 pounds of fat and put on five pounds of muscle. Acklin has accounted for 22 of his team’s 51 explosive plays (43 percent).

“I didn’t really expect to have this much success,” Acklin told Sam Herder of HERO Sports. “Being behind Lance and seeing what he did and looking at his stats before the season, I was like ‘OK, seven touchdowns and 1,000 yards. I can try to do that.’ I’m just trying to put our team in the best spot to win. Luckily I have a good relationship with (quarterback) Sean (McGuire).”

Connelly calls explosive plays the “three-pointers of football.”

“There are interesting stats, and there are useful stats. Knowing that big plays matter is interesting. Figuring out how that can actually impact your approach to the game, however, is useful,” he wrote.

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