A (small amount) of progress
I was pleasantly surprised by the non-blowout that was the Illinois game on Saturday. But I was still disappointed.
Things started about how I had expected them to. The defense looked doomed after an opening 72-yard touchdown drive by the Gophers, in which they rushed for 64 yards and gave me flashbacks to an 11-point loss to Rutgers.
Then, the Illini got a turnover (thank you, Bennett Williams). And Cam Thomas came in to lead the Illini to an offensive touchdown.
This was big news. But later in the first half, Jeff George came back in, and I was a little confused. Were Lovie and co. really trying to do the dual-QB system?
Despite my emotional uncertainty, I was impressed that Illinois was tied 7-7 at the half.
In the second half, things regressed back to the mean. Minnesota ran pretty much the same exact running play over and over and punished Illinois at the line of scrimmage. Miraculously, on their first drive of the half, the Gophers only came away with a field goal. In retrospect, this was a huge victory for the Illinois defense. I remember as a young Chicago Bears fan hearing about the “bend but don’t break” mentality that Lovie Smith was known for with his defenses. I’m not sure giving up that many rush yards (the Gophers finished the game with 292 yards on the ground) qualifies completely for that philosophy, but it at least gave me something positive to talk about.
The defense took advantage of Minnesota’s youth as well. Demry Croft, the newly-minted starting quarterback for Minnesota, threw a pair of interceptions in the second half to Stanley Green and Cameron Watkins, respectively. Watkins’ pick was particularly impressive.
The three takeaways for the defense were a positive, but the offense couldn’t capitalize enough to overcome Minnesota’s run game.
Minnesota scored late in the game to go up by seven, and Thomas threw a pick-six to seal the deal with 4:11 left on the clock.
So, what’s next?
Honestly, I think it’s time that Lovie and the coaching staff go all in. There’s really no saving this season. An 0-4 start to Big Ten play is impossible for a team like this to come back from, especially since two winnable games (Rutgers and Minnesota) have already been lost. We’re not going to a bowl, so let’s just accept that. In fact, with the likes of Wisconsin and Ohio State still looming, I don’t see a win as a likely scenario for the rest of the season.
Sure, there’s a chance that Illinois could pull something off against Purdue, but I’m not going to bet my paycheck on it. It’s time to put all the cards on the table.
Illinois has already played 21 true freshmen this year, and 14 of them have moved into starting roles.
All of you know where I’m going with this.
Cam Thomas needs to start. You and I probably saw the same things during the game. Thomas showed promise, but it didn’t look like he could really get in a rhythm. I don’t want this flimsy and non-committal dual-QB system. It won’t work because it has never worked at a high level. You are automatically giving the defense an advantage by putting one quarterback in the game over the other; the ability for the opposing defense to guess the play call increases exponentially based on whether Jeff George or Cam Thomas is in the game.
And I should give Jeff George some credit - because he actually didn’t play poorly on Saturday - but he isn’t going to help Illinois win any games this year. Even if he could (does the career 49.5% completion with eight TDs and 12 INTs not speak for itself?), I would prefer Cam Thomas get reps.
George can't take care of the ball, and the #illini passing game isn't doing much. Stick with Cam at this point.— Jeremy Werner (@JWernerScout) October 21, 2017
Thomas didn’t throw the ball much (just 2/4 for 33 yards) on Saturday, but he did have some flashes of brilliance. His first pass was a completion, where he was rolling to his right and threw an absolute dart to Dominic Thieman for 25 yards. He also was the leading rusher for Illinois, gaining 79 yards on just 10 carries.
I’m not going to pretend like Cam Thomas is going to put up Lamar Jackson-esque numbers or help Illinois make a bowl game. He won’t. But Lovie should put him in now, and only him. He gives the team a better chance to win next season if he gets experience, just like the 21 other freshmen that Lovie has played so far this season.
Why should the quarterback position be treated any differently?