A 52-3 win to open up the 2016 college football season was pretty nice for the Illinois Fighting Illini. Unfortunately, it was also the high point of their season. Since an opening-week win over FCS Murray State, Illinois has been on the wrong side of every outcome. With the lone exception on Purdue, all of these opponents were pretty great football teams, but it has nevertheless been a demoralizing season as we enter the middle of October.
In week two, a home loss to North Carolina wasn’t the end of the world. Illinois ran the ball well, however they couldn’t generate a passing attack while failing to disrupt what the Tar Heels wanted to do. The following week, an underrated Western Michigan team took care of the Orange and Blue as well. At the time, no one was that impressed with the Broncos, but now P.J. Flecks program sits at No. 24 in the polls, marking the first national ranking in program history.
What followed was a road loss at Nebraska; another easily explainable loss for a middling Power 5 team. Of course, just because none of the losses were “bad” doesn’t mean there are moral victories in Illinois’ three-game losing streak. The losses mounted, and they do not go away.
Last week’s loss to Purdue in overtime was the worst of the bunch. It underscored the struggles Illinois has been having this season and will likely continue to have. Once again, Illinois ran the ball exceedingly well but couldn’t do enough other than that to buoy the team to victory. For the season, the Illini have what amounts to a solid rushing offense and few other units that hold up nationally. They rank outside the top 80 in passing offense, scoring offense, and scoring defense. Because of the inconsistent passing attack, they are outside the top 100 in both third- and fourth-down conversion rate. Illinois also struggles inside the redzone, both when it has the ball and when the opponent does. There are simply not enough pieces to field a competent football team.
The silver lining for Illinois is that its next opponent is Rutgers. Rutgers is one of the worst teams in any Power 5 conference. It’s why Illinois is given a 58.5 percent chance of winning by ESPN’s FPI metric despite the game being on the road. It also doubles as the only game remaining this season where Illinois is favored to win.
With road games still remaining later this fall at No. 4 Michigan and at No. 8 Wisconsin, Illinois is almost guaranteed a losing season. It currently sits at 1-4 overall, and 0-2 within the Big Ten conference. There will be no rebound for the Illini within this deep and talented conference — it simply isn’t meant to be in 2016.
There are some positives to build on, though. The aforementioned running game is filled with an extensive group of competent rushers. Five different players have already received double-digit carries, and all five average at least 5.0 yards per attempt. Of the four pure running backs in that group, three are underclassmen and none are seniors. Junior back Kendrick Foster leads the way for a group that will continue to produce and improve this year and should all return next season.
Sophomore quarterback Chayce Crouch is also getting opportunities as the offense looks for production outside the tackle box. This is Lovie Smith’s first season as head coach of Illinois and his first ever season coaching in college. It has surely been a learning experience for a man that has made a Super Bowl. Reporters wondered aloud if Smith was taking it too easy, and the coach did not take kindly to the line of questioning. The only way to stop that thinking, though, is to win football games.