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What did we learn from a lopsided loss to start conference play?

Nebraska v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

It’s a gift and a curse for an Illini fan. You know, there really aren’t too many disappointing losses to gather in your craw. Sure, depending on who your neighbor is, anytime you lose to Northwestern or Purdue it suck and be embarrassing. But there has been so little on the line for so long, that those biting losses that stick with you (North Carolina 2005) don’t hold their sting.

I don’t want to imagine there was much on the line Friday night against Nebraska - I’ve long been a proponent for patience, and kept a pretty low ceiling on this Illinois team. But, this loss did a number on me. And I think we learned a lot, just not on the right side of the ledger.

1. What kind of culture is being set? And is it aimed at the future without now in mind? Throughout this season I’ve looked at the senior/freshman ratio and understood this was a long rebuilding process. That isn’t going to change from game-to-game, that changes from year-to-year. What is happening now though, is a foundation is being set and culture for future years is building its habits. Both good and bad. And what kind of example can you set for 54 freshman when you trot out a quarterback that can’t pass (sorry, but Chayce Crouch can’t pass) with under two minutes left in the first half of a game you’re already trailing by multiple scores? Sure, I’ll give Lovie Smith that the line was struggling. I’d even let Lovie Smith present his case that he felt Illinois was still in this game and therefore didn’t want to bring in his “relief”. But, then I’d also suggest that by not even trying Jeff George Jr. at quarterback that he conceded the game to Nebraska in the first half.

And then, when it was obvious you couldn’t move the ball and score touchdowns with Crouch at quarterback, but you were also losing in a football game that needed your offense to quickly drive the ball and score touchdowns - why didn’t you even try to hurry up and score touchdowns? Under no circumstance can you coach football as long as Lovie and the rest of the staff, and truly believe you can catch up to a team by simply running the football. So, the question remains, why didn’t Illinois try to throw and make it interesting?

Of all things, that virtual white flag makes me double back on patience and question whether this is going to work. Is the coaching staff being offensively conservative enough to choke the fight out of these kids? How can Lovie and Garrick McGee seriously look at where the veteran talent lies on this offense (Malik Turner, Mike Dudek) and continue to think the best way to attack a defense is by running their freshman tailback behind a disjointed offensive line and then asking their lollipop armed quarterback to try and come from behind when that didn’t work?

It’s pompous for fans and bloggers to assume their way is better than the paid professionals. So I have to assume there are good reasons for going directly against common sense here - but I still haven’t thought of any.

2. Cam Thomas is suspended. For what? And why does this seem to be a pattern? I’m asking a lot of questions. But seriously, Lovie, after three players were dismissed for home invasion and robbery arrests, maybe giving a thoughtful and honest answer as to why someone was suspended wouldn’t be a bad idea. While Chayce Crouch is struggling to move the football and put points on the board, and the staff obviously is hesitant to put Jeff George behind center, the eyes of Illini Nation quickly started scanning the sideline for the next most popular person on campus - the third string quarterback. But Cam Thomas was nowhere to be scene, and rumors of him even being dismissed from the team started making the rounds.

I’ve never met him, but by all accounts, Thomas was a good kid. But so was Howard Watkins. And so was Darta Lee. And while I care about these kids becoming graduates and growing into young men, I’m also concerned about how this rebuild works if talented kids are coming to Champaign and ending up suspended for varying degrees of “violating team rules”.

3. The defense is starting to wear down with frustration. The South Florida game was a microcosm of what happens to a defense when they realize there is absolutely no chance of winning the game. A defense will only withstand so much before it’s 14-3 and already it’s too bleak to conceivably find a path to victory.

And already, that microcosm is starting to become applicable to the season as a whole. Eventually this defense, as young as it may be, is going to lose hope after the opposition scores a couple touchdowns - and then it’s stampede time. Like it or not the offense inspires energy and confidence by putting points on the board, and without that feeling, the defense loses momentum and falls apart. Also, Nebraska isn’t very good - and that happened. Just imagine what a game against Wisconsin is going to look like?

Illinois needs to find a way to be a threat to score points. If Jeff George Jr. throws two interceptions a game, at least there is the threat to also put the ball in Mike Dudek’s hands and excite the team. As long as Chayce and a cloud of dust is the Illinois offense, we’re going to see frustration and missed tackles earlier and earlier.