I won't claim to know all the intricacies of Lovie Smith's defense, but I think I understood the general concept. In my mind, Lovie's entire defensive philosophy at Illinois was waiting for 20-year-olds to make a mistake.
These are kids, after all, not the professionals he was used to facing on Sundays. If we stay sound and be where we're supposed to be, is a sophomore quarterback really going to be accurate enough to drive up and down the field? If we're constantly punching at the football, is that junior second-string running back going to hold onto it all 16 times he carries it?
In theory, it makes sense. I think Lovie went wrong in two areas, though. First, he underestimated college offenses in the 2010s. It's not the pros, but college football gets closer to a professional operation every year. More and more kids arrive on campus physically ready to play at that level. Expecting quarterbacks or receivers or running backs to make mistakes and hand you the ball because they were playing on Saturday instead of Sunday was folly.
Secondly, he was never able to coach his own team up to the point that it needed to be to really execute the plan at a high level. Waiting for the other team to make a mistake only works if you're able to capitalize on the mistakes, and if you're not making them as well. Sometimes the opportunistic defense provided, but more often it was only opportunistic for the opposing offense.
I've spent 250 words talking about the failure of a bygone coach because I think Iowa is what Lovie wanted to be. No easy yards. Keep the game close with a chance to win in the fourth quarter. Make your opponent beat you, but never beat yourself.
For roughly 54 minutes Saturday, Illinois beat Iowa. It wasn't pretty, and it wasn't always fair -- that roughing the passer call on Quinn Schulte was perhaps the most egregiously bad roughing call I've ever seen -- but they were getting it done. Six more minutes was all that was needed.
Of course, we all know what followed. When Kaleb Johnson broke free and found the end zone 30 yards later, there was a sense of, oh, right. That's what this team does. You beat us for 54 minutes? That's cool. But it's not enough.
You need to beat us for all 60 minutes.
-John Paddock's final line isn't anything to look at -- 22-for-47 for 215 yards -- but I actually appreciated the gameplan from Barry Lunney Jr. and company.
Or maybe I should say, I appreciated that it seemed like they had a discernible gameplan. I don't know if attacking Iowa's defensive secondary is the way to beat them, but clearly the coaching staff thought it was Illinois' best chance to win. You don't throw 47 passes -- in a low-scoring game that you led after 54 minutes, no less -- by accident.
I've written previously about the concept of identity, and so if I'm going to criticize the seeming lack of one at times, I can't also not acknowledge when it seems like the team has one. On Saturday, they didn't get preoccupied with running the ball for the sake of running it. When they ran, it was for a purpose, and often it was as a change of pace from the constant passing.
Was it the right decision? I don't know. I think so, given how close it was. But if nothing else, it was good to see that there was intention behind it.
-Assuming Luke Altmyer truly was healthy and available Saturday, the decision to start Paddock was an interesting one for Bret Bielema.
I'm not using the word interesting as a euphemism for something else here, either. It's truly interesting. And I think it was probably the right one, and at the very least it was the path of least resistance.
I know that as a coach you can't make decisions based on public sentiment, but just bear with me. If he'd started Altmyer a week after John Paddock threw for 507 yards and became a media darling, and if Illinois had lost, Bielema would surely have been criticized for the move. Would he care? Maybe not, I don't know. But it would not have reflected well on him.
Starting Paddock, however, was something close to a no-lose scenario if you concede that winning at Kinnick Stadium was always a tough proposition. If Paddock went out and played well against that Iowa defense, you look great and you have reason to continue starting him. If Paddock was exposed and you lost, you've got an easy excuse to go back to Altmyer without creating a quarterback controversy. In terms of making it easy on yourself, starting Paddock and letting the situation take care of itself was the right call.
Given the result, I do expect that it'll be Altmyer starting against the Wildcats on Saturday. It'll be interesting -- there's that word again -- to hear how Bielema talks about the starting quarterback leading up to the game.
-Last note on John Paddock -- just turn it upfield, man. If you want to oversimplify it and boil the entire game down to one play, Paddock trying to bounce outside on third-and-one from the Iowa 11-yard line instead of just going upfield and picking up the first down was the difference. Illinois still has to find the end zone, and Iowa might still have scored and picked up the two-point conversion, but settling for a field goal in that spot set up all the ensuing events in the fourth quarter.
-If we're talking about bad penalties, picking up that flag for defensive pass interference was comical.
How often are DPI flags picked up? I'd imagine it's almost impossible to quantify, but I'm guessing the answer is, almost never. And on a play that was clearly actually pass interference? Unbelievable.
-I hate this Northwestern game already.
Needing to win to make a bowl, in a rivalry game, against a team that's better than they were supposed to be? I hate it.
That last part is what scares me the most. In 2021 and 2022, we boatraced bad teams. That team then lost its head coach and had to promote its brand-new defensive coordinator because the coaching carousel isn't functioning in July. The team was picked to finish dead last in the Big Ten West by pretty much everyone and expected to be one of the worst Power 5 teams in the country to boot.
And now that bowl-eligible team comes to Memorial Stadium with an ax to grind. Will the Illinois players have the same motivation? Or will they remember 2021 and 2022 and think they can roll out of bed Saturday and keep the Land of Lincoln Trophy in Champaign?
I hope the players take Northwestern as seriously as Northwestern has shown it should be taken. Secure the hat, secure a bowl and try like hell to secure a second consecutive winning season.
The next month starts Saturday afternoon.