Lovie Smith and his staff decided enough was enough - Chayce Crouch wasn’t cutting it at the quarterback spot. Jeff George, Jr. would be the starter for the Illini in their first conference road game on Saturday.
George fumbled on the first play, and threw three interceptions during the game en route to a 45-16 bludgeoning. Not exactly what Lovie had in mind.
But was it really all that bad? In the second half, yes. Losing by nearly 30 points is not enjoyable in the least, even for Illinois fans who realize a team with 54 freshmen in “rebuild mode” can only do so much. But it’s not fun to watch your team lose a game like that, especially when winnable Big Ten games on the schedule seem few and far between, and this was potentially one of them.
Granted, we probably should’ve known how this game would go from the beginning when each team fumbled on its first possession. But let’s look at what went well, and what didn’t go so well in the loss to the Hawkeyes:
Okay, so with each of these I need to make a qualification that for the most part, I am referring to the first half. The second half was painful to watch. What impressed me the most about the offense in the first half was that they actually moved the ball. After recovering an Iowa fumble, Jeff George marched the Illini right now the field. They couldn’t punch it in, but a 40 yard connection from George to Louis Dorsey over the middle seemed like a breath of fresh air. Mike Epstein got involved in the run game too, and although he left the game with a lower body injury, had 83 yards on seven carries. Reggie Corbin was back, and he also showed some good burst on the field. Illinois actually edged out Iowa in total yards - 446 to 441. This doesn’t mean much when you lose by 30, but it’s improvement considering Nebraska held Illinois to 199 yards of total offense the week before.
Jeff George, Jr.
For all his imperfections, we know what Jeff George can do. It’s not always pretty, but he showed that he can move the ball better than Chayce Crouch. The receiving corps badly needed more attention, and George was able to give them that. I’m not convinced he is the answer to this offense, at all, but I think he gives Illinois a better chance to score points than does Crouch.
Until the second half really got underway, I was impressed with how the Illini defense showed up on the field. Jaylen Dunlap was able to jar the ball loose from Iowa’s Ivory Kelly-Martin after the George fumble on the first play, saving what could’ve been an early 7-0 deficit. Bennett Williams also picked off a pass from Nate Stanley late in the half, which led to a field goal and a 13-10 lead for the Illini. Even though the Hawkeyes were putting up yards, it seemed like the defense was holding its own.
Jeff George, Jr.
George can throw the ball better than Crouch, but he’s got his own issues. His first interception of the game came in the red zone, resulting in an Iowa touchback, and eventually a Hawkeyes field goal. His second interception was also in the red zone, this time returned for an Iowa touchdown and a 24-13 lead. This is when things got out of hand, and Illinois looked like they lost any momentum they might’ve had in the first half. As my friend aptly put it as we were watching the game, “That’s what you’re going to get with Jeff George.” He’s right. That second interception was just a bad ball - not much else to say about it. Four turnovers on the day wasn’t exactly a stat George was hoping to read next to his name, either.
Although the secondary looked competent in the first half, that all seemed to fall apart in the second half. Iowa receivers were getting quite a bit of separation, and that was probably best seen with Stanley’s 39 yard touchdown completion to Matt VandeBerg to put the Hawkeyes up two scores. Stanley finished the day with 247 yards through the air. Oh, and Akrum Wadley? He had a modest day of 23 carries for 115 yards.
That timeout call at the end of the first half...I didn’t realize exactly how that could’ve worked against the Illini at the time, but stopping the clock let Kirk Ferentz take that risk and it worked - Iowa got the first down off the fake punt and were able to score with the extra time left on the clock. I’m not sure if Lovie thought Jeff George could march the team downfield in a minute to extend the Illini lead, but it worked against him and allowed Iowa a four point advantage at halftime (and a huge momentum swing).
Where the heck is Mike Dudek?
There is a problem when arguably the best player on your team ends the day with 20 receiving yards. In fact, I don’t think he’s gotten the ball enough most of this young season. It could certainly be due to a combination of Crouch’s inability to make things work through the air and play calling, but it needs to get better. Lovie and Garrick McGee need to find ways to put the ball in his hands, because Dudek can make things happen.
Honestly, I didn’t think Illinois would lose by this large of a margin to a pretty subpar Iowa team. But when you lose the turnover game in the fashion Illinois did, it becomes quite difficult to come out on top.
I said this earlier, and I’ll say it for the rest of the season. Illinois has 54 freshman on the team. That’s insane. A lot of them are starters, and a lot of them are getting better each game. In the Iowa game, Carmoni Green nabbed four passes for 28 yards, and Ricky Smalling had three for 44. Louis Dorsey led the team in receiving with 75 yards. Again, save that last second touchdown in the first half, which can be chalked up to a poor decision by Lovie to take a timeout, Illinois had the lead for a good portion of the first half with those freshman making some solid plays.
Last time (today) I promise. Freshman, freshman, freshman, freshman, freshman, freshman, freshman, sophomore, sophomore, sophomore, junior. pic.twitter.com/KYxL7qS6fM— Robert (@ALionEye) October 7, 2017
Now, that’s not to say the freshmen aren’t making plenty of mistakes. Vederian Lowe got called twice for being an ineligible receiver downfield , one of which negated a touchdown. And that was just the most noticeable of many mistakes in Iowa City. But as so many fans are saying, this team could be really special in a couple of years.
Being patient isn’t easy, especially for Illini fans. The Beckman era didn’t amount to much at all except some lawsuits for the University. My former supervisor at the University of Illinois, who is a member of administration, probably put it best: Beckman didn’t leave much for Lovie to work with. “The cupboard is bare,” she said shortly after Lovie was hired - referring of course to the players and recruits Beckman left for Lovie.
It’s a difficult thing to do, but I’m going to trust Josh Whitman and the man he put in charge of Illini football. Illini fans should, too. It might take until 2019, but I believe this team can be something special.