This is going to sound like a broken record, because Illinois football has been a broken record for years.
The excuses have run dry.
I said that in my Postscript last week, and it was true then, too. All the reasons Lovie had to explain away his failures in the first three years on the job -- roster composition, bad coordinators, bad systems, youth -- are gone now, or at least they're not acceptable anymore. So getting outclassed by an Eastern Michigan operation was inexcusable.
If the EMU loss bred depression among the fanbase, Saturday night's letdown should breed anger. Because not only are the caveats now gone, but Saturday was, by all accounts, the way Lovie would like a game to go.
Forcing fumbles. Limiting penalties. Bending but rarely breaking in the first half. Running the ball at will, and with great results.
And they still lost.
If there's ever been an indictment on Lovie Smith's future as Illinois' head coach, that's it. The game fell into the Illini's lap, there for the taking and in a way that looked as though it had been scripted by Lovie himself, and they gave it away.
The subplot, or maybe the main plot depending on your perspective, is that it should never have been a game in the first place, which is another strike against the coaching staff. Four years in and they're still getting dominated by Big Ten West foes.
Let's count the ways:
-first downs, Nebraska 32, Illinois 14
-total yards, Nebraska 671, Illinois 299
-passing yards, Nebraska 327, Illinois 78
-time of possession, Nebraska 37:04, Illinois 22:56
As I've said before, I was fine with Lovie's decision to promote himself to defensive coordinator rather than hire from the outside because regardless of what you think of the decision, the bottom line is that he will answer for it if things go poorly. Allowing 671 yards to Nebraska should require accountability.
When you boil it down, the question for every coach is, can they win? Regardless of the kind of system they run, regardless of the type of personnel they recruit, does what they want to do -- whether it's Jeff Monken's triple option or Mike Leach's air raid -- work?
Lovie's formula sure seemed to be working on Saturday.
The result says a lot about whether it will ever lead to success.
-Another thing that went according to plan was the atmosphere for the game.
Everyone has likely seen the pictures of the full crowd, in particular the student section, and by all accounts the environment lived up to expectations. We tailgated in the Research Lot, and it was a good atmosphere with both Illinois and Nebraska flags flying.
Some people have suggested this on Twitter, and I agree -- give away free tickets to students for every home game, at least until you're good again. A mostly empty student section does nothing for optics or environment, and the money lost on foregone revenue is likely negligible in the long run. I don't pretend to know the finances, but it's just hard to believe it wouldn't be a net positive for the school.
-Adding to the list of "things that went according to plan" is the special teams performance.
Which is all the more frustrating. James McCourt didn't miss! Dre Brown regularly gave the team good starting position, and had another long runback negated by a penalty! Blake Hayes averaged 45.9 yards per punt and was the Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week!
Employing a strong running game. Winning the field position battle. Limiting mistakes.
Still not a win.
-I'm beginning to worry about a post-Reggie Corbin and post-Dre Brown world.
On paper, the team is in OK shape with Mike Epstein coming back as a redshirt junior, Ra'Von Bonner as a senior, Jakari Norwood as a sophomore, Chase Brown being unleashed and Kenyon Sims, Nick Fedanzo and incoming four-star freshman Reggie Love in tow. But Epstein's health can't ever be assumed, Norwood isn't a feature back and Bonner has struggled to get much going this year, owning a 3.4 YPC on 25 attempts. That's after averaging 5.5 yards per carry last season.
Given the reports on Chase Brown and the hope we have for Love and others, the concern is probably overblown. But right now, Corbin and Brown are the two best running backs on this roster and it's not even close. And neither will be around a year from now.
-The Brandon Peters experience has now fallen flat for two games in a row, and his chances may be running out.
Last year, the team underperformed but it was rarely AJ Bush's fault. This year, Peters' inability to move the offense and protect the football have arguably cost them two games.
Another thing that differentiates this year from last is that last year's team didn't have an Isaiah Williams waiting in the wings. If the season goes south, it's worth seeing what they have in Williams -- not only because he might spark some life but also because this October and November is the time to do it, not next August.
-The bye comes at an interesting time.
On the heels of that loss, and with the season feeling as though it's already slipping away, it's a terrible time to let that linger for two weeks. Many players and fans would surely prefer they get back out there sooner than later, if only to get the bad taste out of their mouths.
It does, though, offer a chance to kind of reset for the rest of the season. The coaches and players now have four games to evaluate and try to improve upon. The team has two weeks to prepare for its next biggest game of the season -- every next game until they're mathematically eliminated from bowl contention will likely carry the same heavy weight -- against Minnesota, a game that, if they win it, keeps hope for a bowl berth alive.
Which brings us back to where we began. Six wins and a bowl is still the desired result, regardless of questions about Lovie's viability. (Partly because six wins answers some of those questions, of course. If they find four wins in the remaining Big Ten schedule, it means something has gone right.)
How they'll get there, if they can't win games like Saturday when the recipe is perfect, is the issue.