Sep 23, 2019

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.


danny on September 23 @ 11:02 AM CDT

Question for you Nathan or Robert.

The last two games have been winnable in the last few minutes. If this team had Roundtree n Beason do you feel they could have been the difference btw a win and a loss?

The margin for the Illini is so small, just feel like these two players would have made a noticeable difference.

Like your thoughts on if it would have made a difference or not.

Nathan on September 23 @ 12:06 PM CDT

I feel like the difference would be felt over the course of the game, so maybe the better question is, would they have even been in position to lose those games late if they had Roundtree and Beason? And I think the answer is, we can't say for sure, but those guys definitely help.

danny on September 23 @ 01:45 PM CDT

I’m taking your response to be that it is likely the Illini would have beat EMU and/or Neb with Roundtree n Beason were playing and healthy. If so, the narrative today on this team n Lovie would be very different. It’s a fine line between winning n losing for this team with their lack of depth.

Rod Smith could help the D if he could sustain some drives to give the D a rest.

NC_OrangeKrush on September 23 @ 06:02 PM CDT

Plus Bennett Williams..... ??

mwb27 on September 23 @ 02:01 PM CDT

I think the Illini lack of depth is a major concern and could be an absolute reason they are 2-2 instead of 4-0.

Our players are better, we have a solid set of recruits coming in next year. The solid guys we brought in last year and going to be ready to contribute next year. As much as I hate to say it, I gotta believe we are right there. I don't want to believe it would be better to start over, AGAIN. No way!

One of my biggest problems right from the Nebraska game is our execution on offense. Of course the defense is tired, the offense couldn't stay on the field. If Peters is going 9-21 for 78 yards AND he never, ever keeps the ball on the read, why is he playing again? The dude has got to keep the ball at lease 5-10 times per game, even if he get 3-4 yards. He kept it once the other night and scored a TD from like 8 yards out.

We cant win if our defense is tired and our defense will always be tired if we stall on offense. We will stall on offense if Peters never keeps the ball.

I am not sold on all of Lovie's decision (no first Half FG was dumb) but I am not in the mood to go through 4 more years of this when we change coaches and all the talent leaves, no thanks.

Peters has to be better or go to Williams, he's got 2 more weeks to learn and hopefully be ready to step in if Peters stalls again at MN. Defense is doing a fine job so far considering the position our offense has put them in and the lack of quality B10 ready depth.

Offense terrible last 2 weeks and caused the defense to wear out through the middle of the game. Cant do that. Defense gave the offense plenty of opportunity to put points on the board and pull away in both of those games.

This season is on the offense so far.

taz on September 23 @ 05:39 PM CDT

Maybe they make a difference, maybe not. Either way, every team deals with injuries. It's not in any way an excuse to lose a game like Saturday.

W.I.N.T. on September 23 @ 11:36 AM CDT

The past two weeks have completely destroyed what little faith I had left that the Lovie rebuild would work. I'm now counting down the days until he gets fired.

There is plenty of talent on this roster now. Maybe not enough to contend for the B1G West title, but enough to where going 6-6 and winning a few non-Rutgers conference games should be easy. Instead, Lovie continues to trot out a defensive scheme that was outdated a decade ago. He also chooses the most risk-averse path at every opportunity. Unless you're significantly more talented than your opponent, this will never work.

I'm not sure how to fix Illinois football. But Lovie's been given plenty of time and it's clearly not working.

rml on September 23 @ 12:08 PM CDT

Amen. If you're team is better than theirs, then you shouldn't take risks. If their team is better than yours, then you should take risks. Lovie was "content" with up 7 at the half, when we were only in that position because of good fortune (three turnovers at that point?), and our defense was already beginning to show signs of wearing out? What, he assumed we would get another three turnovers in the second half, and the second-half fatigue that has plagued us all year would just magically go away? Head in the sand.

W.I.N.T. on September 23 @ 01:15 PM CDT

I honestly couldn't even comprehend his thought process there. It's like he thinks he has 2006 Bears defense still.

uofibonehead on September 23 @ 12:34 PM CDT

Let me start with this: I'm NOT making excuses for Lovie. Again, NOT MAKING EXCUSES FOR LOVIE...

but... (there's always a but)

The refs really blew 3-5 critical calls or non-calls. The block in the back when Nebraska was in the North red zone was called on the field, teams moved, then they stopped play to say "nevermind! Nothing to see here, all is well." That was a GIANT penalty that was scooped up, erroneously. The TV announcers were stunned by it.

There were two blatant pass interference / holds on Nebraska in the final 8 minutes that were never called.

And most importantly, the pass interference on the final 4th & 10 pass was blatant and obvious as well. That ended the game, and destroyed any chance of the Illini coming back. We get 15 yards, fresh set of downs... who KNOWS what might have happened!

The TV announcers commented on all of these plays and how they were missed / blown calls, and all of them had a debilitating impact on the game. Inexcusable and I'm sick of the Illini getting the short end of the stick over and over and OVER.

And lastly, is no one going to call out Rod Smith for conservative play calling too? If Peters is our best QB, and has the most experience, why can't we put together some big pass plays for him?

Joe Edge on September 23 @ 01:20 PM CDT

'... I'm sick of the Illini getting the short end of the stick over and over and OVER... ' I think that's funny ...

In the post-game presser, Scott Frost basically said the same thing. He said he couldn't say any more, because he didn't want to get in trouble, but Nebraska was sick about getting the short end of the stick over and over again on penalties....

lmfao.... If you play the game right, you don't put yourself in position to be defeated by penalties....

maz13 on September 23 @ 06:31 PM CDT

What is Scott Frost complaining about? The call where a block in the back penalty was called against the Huskers but the flag was picked up because why? So instead of moving the ball to the Illinois 23 yard line, it stayed at the Illinois 3. Hey, how about the obvious pass interference penalty to end the game? How is that call missed? A replay review in the NFL would have overturned this to a pass interference penalty. It was that blatant and an easy call to make but the flags were nowhere to be seen.

Let me say this, the officiating was incompetent for both teams. If it was not for the four fumbles, Nebraska would have won this game easily. However, I am sick and tired of watching incompetent officiating at this level. Last week against Eastern Michigan, there were head scratching calls throughout the game and it occurred again on Saturday night. The players and coaches deserve better than this. The fans in the stands deserve better as well. Incompetent officiating affects the integrity of the game.

As for Nebraska fans, they are by far the most obnoxious in the Big 10. It is not even close. Chanting their nonsense "Big Red" when there is an injured player on the field? Real classy.

maz13 on September 23 @ 07:12 PM CDT

That is two weeks in a row for inexcusable incompetence by the officiating crew and yes, the Illini always seem on the wrong end of the bad calls. However, with a 4-1 turnover margin and 21 points being a direct result of three of them, there is no excuse for losing that game. None!

ahamm445 on September 23 @ 05:26 PM CDT

I think Lovies defense is clearly better than the past few years. The offenses inability to stay on the field and sustain drives is the reason for our two losses.

Groundhogday on September 23 @ 10:41 PM CDT

The last two seasons we finished #119 and #115 in the S&P defensive rankings. Perhaps we'll finished #100 this season? Yes, i'd agree there is some improvement, but the defense is still awful.

Offense was more consistent last year because we knew the QB couldn't throw and didn't really attempt much of a passing game. The Brandon Peters tease has Rod Smith thinking he can run a more balanced attack this year, but passing just isn't consistent enough for that to succeed.

Special teams are great. Offense shows flashes but is below average overall. Defense sucks. That all adds up to another season without a bowl game.

mwb27 on September 24 @ 09:59 AM CDT

Yes, I blame the offense so far this year. The defense plays well enough for 2 1/2- 3 quarters and is gassed in the 4th thanks to the offense inability to sustain drives, both losses. And Nebraska might be the most electric offense we see all season. With everything exactly the same, I say we win that game Saturday with AJ Bush under center, rather than Peters.

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