Well, this is rock bottom, isn’t it? I’ve heard that term thrown around a lot over the years when referring to Illinois football, but this has got to be it, right? I mean, it’s well chronicled how many freshmen are starting and getting significant time, but they have to get better, and THIS has to get better.
1. Youth is not an excuse when being embarrassed at home against Rutgers. This terrifies me. I’ve long preached that this year is all about developement and patience. The insane influx of freshmen contributors reinforced this notion and made it imperative to watch games with youth-tinted glasses. Yeah, the blowouts to Nebraska and Iowa were trying, but look at who is out there experience wins in college football, and there isn’t much to be seen out there for Illinois. But this? Letting a Rutgers team that hadn’t won a Big Ten game in years come into Champaign and run the football like Wisconsin? That was an embarrassing step in the wrong direction.
The youth is going to gain experience regardless (I think it’s possible Lovie just constantly shuffles in the newest players and nobody ever actually gains experience), and these 18-19-year-olds will get bigger, faster, and stronger with time in the weight room. But there are systematic problems within the program that are contributing to some of the failures on the field, and those need to get rectified through both recruiting but also honest reflection.
2. The first systematic change for Lovie to consider is derived from how awful this defense is at tackling. Lovie Smith and his Illini team don’t tackle much, if at all, in practice. That’s not too unique in the NFL ranks, where players have perfected the art and injuries are too common to take the risk, but Lovie has taken that concept with him to the college ranks, and it’s hurting the development of this defense. Bad tackling was noticeable in the games against South Florida and Iowa, but it was glaring against Rutgers. Because the athletic advantage wasn’t as tilted toward the Scarlet Knights, it highlighted just how terrible the Illinois defense was at fundamental tackling. I’ll borrow a thought from Illinois linebacker great J Leman: “Tackling is a skill, and to get better at any skill you must practice it, and practice it live.”
3. I was wrong weeks ago when I said Illinois shouldn’t play Cam Thomas. Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr. have been given enough chances to prove they were the guy for this offense, and it’s evident they’re either too one-dimensional or too mistake-prone to lead Illinois to wins. I don’t know that Cam Thomas will be any better, but I know that it can’t be much worse, and tie goes to the freshman in this case. From all reports, Cam Thomas is talented, and the evaluation made by Garrick McGee early on was correct. While the Illinois football narrative is now completely about gaining experience for next season, it’s time to make Hail Mary change and hope that Cam Thomas can inject this team with a little life.
4. The injuries are adding up, and some major ones are hurting my soul. I don’t want to name anyone by name and jinx them, but please let some certain someone’s be healthy after last weekend.