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Illini Football in 2017: The Waiting Game

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A friendly reminder that this team has one Lovie Smith recruiting class.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Six games. Twenty-four quarters. Three-hundred and 60 minutes of gameplay. A 2-4 record.

That’s what we’ve seen from this team (and these 54 freshmen) in 2017. It hasn’t been pretty. In fact, I would say even atrocious at times, but it’s what we have.

I’m not going to sit here and pretend this 35-24 loss to Rutgers was some sort of moral victory. It wasn’t. If the 45-16 bludgeoning at Iowa was even slightly a step in the right direction, then this loss (at home, no less) was a backwards tumble down the metaphorical hill of progress. It won’t be hard to discuss the issues of the game, and it can be summed up pretty simply.

The Illini looked unprepared, they were flat, they simply got out hustled. Even J Leman, the former Illini great, conceded on the broadcast that Rutgers had “won it in the trenches.” The team looked outmatched from the get-go.

But it still isn’t time to panic. At least not for the future of Illini football.

I’ll come back to this idea, but first I want to express how much we probably agree on what exactly happened during the game.

The 1st Half

The defense was simply bad. Rutgers ran all over the Illini, and it didn’t look like there was much they could do about it. Linebacker Tre Watson looked lost quite a bit. During a third down play, he lost sight of a receiver which led to a completion at moment where the Illini needed a stop. This seemed to sum up how the defense really struggled. It can’t all be pinned on Watson, but he did not have his head in the game. In fact, it didn’t look like many Illini did.

There were untimely penalties. Okay, no penalties against the team you are rooting for are timely, but roughing the passer penalty on James Crawford midway through the second quarter put the Scarlet Knights inside the Illinois 20. Jaylen Dunlap (isn’t he a senior?) got called for pass interference in that same series. Rutgers scored two plays later. Penalties are going to happen, but these type of mental mistakes shift momentum in an instant.

The Illini did not look motivated. At all.

The 2nd Half

The second half was better than the first, but only because the Rutgers offense looked more like the Rutgers offense. They still managed to run all over the Illini defense, but it was more controlled than in the first half.

The Illini offense just couldn’t do much with the ball. Just look at this:

Finally, to top off the day of bad play, Carmoni Green, back to receive a punt, tried to jump on it while he was surrounded by Rutgers players. It ended like this:

Oh, and the defense even managed three Scarlet Knight turnovers on the day and scored a whopping 0 points combined off of them.

What else can be said? The Illini were simply out played on Saturday.

Did anything go well?

Yes, actually. Thanks for asking. James Crawford (despite his untimely penalty in the first half) looked like what we were expecting from him out there. He recovered two fumbles, recorded four solo tackles, and added a sack and a tackle for loss.

Ricky Smalling showed why he was one of the best pickups in a talented recruiting class. Smalling hauled in five receptions for 111 yards and a touchdown. He did have a bad drop early on in the fourth quarter, which would been another gain of over 25 yards. Eventually, that drive stalled out and the Illini were forced to punt. Still, it was an exceptional day for the freshman. But the takeaway from his performance is that he can get up and snatch balls out of the air, and he can be a deep threat as well.

Ra’Von Bonner showed some potential, too. He’s no Mike Epstein, but they compliment each other well. Having them both available in the future will benefit this offense tremendously.

Now, back to my overarching point. Some of you might be expecting me to go back on what I said in last week’s column. I won’t.

In fact, I’m pretty discouraged by the attitude of some Illini fans. I had the task of putting together the Tweetcap for the Rutgers game, and I saw a lot of tweets about Illinois football being pathetic and that everyone can’t wait for basketball season.

I get it.

But one tweet in particular got my attention. One “fan” said Lovie is the “worst coach on earth” and that Illinois needs to “fire his worthless [rear end] now.” I won’t show this tweet, because that person doesn’t deserve the attention. If they truly feel that way about Lovie, then that individual both lacks knowledge of what a rebuild really is and wouldn’t have the patience to see one through like a true fan would, anyway.

My four years at Illinois were mediocre and forgettable years in terms of athletics. The basketball team was 4-for-4 on missing the NCAA tournament and the football team averaged four and a half wins per season.

I understand about as well as anyone that this is frustrating. But I implore you, Illini fans, don’t be the “fire Lovie” guy. That guy is wrong, and that guy appropriates a culture of losing with his lack of trust and overly negative attitude.

Fellow writer Brandon Birkhead wrote that the 2017 season is over. He might be right. We could go 0-6 the rest of the season. We might not even have any close games save Purdue or Minnesota.

It’s tough to do, and it’s easier said than done. But we’re just going to have to wait, probably longer than any of us want.