Sometimes these Top Takeaways come off quite negative, and despite being 0-5 in conference, that’s not the goal. The goal is to stay even-keeled and highlight some in-season trends. So before diagnosing what’s wrong and needs to be fixed, let’s celebrate what’s right.
1. The kids are playing hard!
Winning begets more winning, both from momentum and the effects of a positive aura around the facility. Few sports are as impacted by momentum and confidence as football. When you’ve won a few games and you’ve got the juices flowing, it’s easy to go to practice every day, buzz around and keep a laser focus. When you haven’t won a game since early September, and a chill is in the air, this football thing can lose its mojo. So the fact that Illinois is still showing up every day and taking a big swing at the plate is impressive.
You’ve seen the pictures from the stadium; they’re depressing. And if it’s deflating for a fan who’s seeing the student section from Twitter, imagine the feeling when you’re running out of the tunnel waiting for a deafening roar that never comes? These players are creating their own energy and feeding off the coaching staff and generated enthusiasm. That won’t show up in the stat sheet or win column (yet), but it’s an impressive step forward heading into future season and it’s becoming ingrained in the culture.
2. The offensive line is continuing to mature and giving this team a future offensive identity.
Defensively it’s clear this team has listened to its head coach and prioritizes turnovers. It’s awesome to see defenders punching and tugging at the ball, trying to Peanut Punch it loose and win the ridiculously important turnover battle. They’re going to be semi-conservative outside of that turnover push, but that’s the identity and we know what to expect from the defense.
Offensively, and partly because of the quarterback shortcomings, it’s tough to understand what the offense is going to be. This year resembles a really bad Madden player — just randomly selecting plays and shuffling in players without reason — but in the future, this offensive line should mature into the strength of the game plan. Recruiting and practice talk tells us that Garrick McGee wants to dominate on the ground, both with his running backs and with a mobile quarterback. To do this they’ll need a Iowa/Wisconsin-type line that can push defenders out of the way, while also having the ability to block longer than usual in play-action-type protections that allow the quarterback to fake a handoff, reestablish footing and then scan the reads deep downfield. For a rebuilding program, the offensive line is probably the most promising unit to hang a hat on.
And now, the bad...
3. There needs to be some coaching soul-searching done this offseason.
I don’t anticipate all the assistants retaining their jobs, and the replacements need to be strong recruiters with established ties (Cory Patterson?). But, the weekly head scratchers continue to pile up, and those decisions aren’t being made at the defensive backs coach level -- they’re coming from the head guy and the offensive coordinator, and those two aren’t going anywhere. Lovie Smith needs to take a holistic look at how the NFL game differs from the college game, and then figure out where he needs to bend his approach. Kicking 50-yard field goals into the wind when you’re down to Wisconsin is not only a terrible decision, it feels like just mailing it in, spurring the national media to consider how invested Lovie is to this rebuild. Shuffling passing and running quarterbacks in the red zone, and then asking them to specifically do the opposite of their forte isn’t a good coaching decision. Bringing a freshman in on 3rd and 10 to throw a deep out route is a bad coaching decision. On and on and on we can list sophomoric mistakes being made at the highest level of decision making, and it needs to stop before the team matures enough to make these decisions count for wins and losses.