I don’t know if people in general are smart enough to absorb content in 140 characters. It tends to bring out the most partisan emotions, and I’m not even talking politics, simply sports. Illini fans are trending toward one of two polar opposites -- 1) the football youth are making tremendous progress and a bright future is inevitable, or 2) the continuous blowouts are signs that this is never going to work out. After a 45-16 loss to Iowa, I’m burning the candle on both ends. The amount of freshmen playing huge roles (and playing well) bodes well for 2018 and 2019, while the coaching miscues and lopsided final scores deserve criticism and should be corrected one way or another.
1. I’m a casual college football historian, but not a database, so I can’t tell you for sure that four freshmen offensive linemen have never started a Big Ten game before, but what’s currently developing on the Illinois offensive front is ridiculous. Larry Boyd, Vederian Lowe and Alex Palczewski are all true freshmen, all less than six months since being billed 3-star prospects across the board, and all starting. Doug Kramer, a walk-on, is starting at center. And here’s the kicker: they were Illinois’s strongest group this past weekend. Together with Nick Allegretti, the group allowed one sack and powered a running game that pushed around Iowa to 200+ yards on the ground. With a couple off-seasons in the weight room and mental reps on the field, this group
should be special, and is reason enough to keep watching despite the scarcity of likely wins left on the schedule.
2. Jeff George Jr. is a measurably better option at quarterback for Illinois, but is still going to struggle putting points on the board if his decision making doesn’t speed up and improve. In comparison to Chayce Crouch, and despite a strange hitch in his release, he’s a better pure thrower and allows for Garrick McGee to spread the ball around to playmakers at receiver and tight end. Additionally, the threat to pass takes defenders out of the box and gives the young offensive line a chance to gain a numbers advantage and move people out of the way. So, he’s cemented his depth-chart advantage on Crouch. Obviously turning the ball over four times puts Illinois in a precarious position to win, but, the game was competitive into the third quarter because JGJ opened up the offense enough to score. Now, something else to consider as Lovie goes with his youth at mostly every other position is George Jr. keeping the position warm until Cam Thomas has absorbed enough of the playbook to take over and complete the freshmen-ification of the 2017 Illini.
3. Lovie Smith coached in the NFL, right? The same place that OCD geniuses like Bill Belichick make an art of clock management and special teams advantages? Well, he needs help. Smith might well be picking this program up by the bootstraps and upgrading talent at every position, but, his weekly coaching bumbles are going to put a strict ceiling on where this football team could end up in two years (the payoff year). Even when the 18- and 19-year old offensive linemen I touted earlier become full-grown monsters, calling timeouts to preserve an opponent's drive before half is going to lose games. Not being able to look at the clock, the down-and-distance, and make an educated guess about the opponent's next move is going to hurt. And don’t even put the special teams under a microscope, which is where the game was lost in the Iowa film room. At some point Kirk Ferentz and his staff had a good laugh watching Bob Ligashesky’s alignment on returns.
Beyond finding a new special teams or tight end coach in the offseason, Lovie should take some of that big football budget and find an Assistant to the Head Coach who does nothing but pour over data during the week and spit back correctly processed data during the game. I don’t think selecting when to call a timeout or when to go for it on 4th and 3 is that tough (so maybe I’m the correct hire), but, there are too many incorrect decisions to ignore that it’s a problem in Champaign.