For those still watching Illinois football on Nov. 11, 2017, I applaud you.
After a 24-14 loss to Indiana at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, the Illini (2-8, 0-7 Big Ten) have lost eight consecutive games after starting the season with consecutive wins. Illinois hasn’t won since early September.
Indiana (4-6, 1-6) was able to pick up its first conference win of the year — the fourth time this season that a team has earned its first Big Ten win against Illinois.
Jeff George Jr. was his usual self by throwing for 261 yards on 13 of 26 passing with two touchdowns, two interceptions and two fumbles (one lost). The sophomore took eight sacks, losing nearly 60 yards which killed many drives before they even got started.
Illinois punted every possession it had the ball in the first half and found itself down 14-0 at the break. The Illini showed signs of life on the first play of the second half with a 77-yard connection from George Jr. to freshman tight end Louis Dorsey.
George Jr. and Co. would get even closer to start the fourth quarter as Caleb Reams shrugged off a pair of tacklers to find the end zone and make the score 17-14 with just over 12 minutes to play.
The Illini defense forced a stop but Illinois’ offense couldn’t get out of the shadow of its own end zone and gave Indiana great field position to score a touchdown and put the game out of reach.
Any fake rallies were stuffed as George Jr. gave away turnovers on the Illini’s final two drives.
Here are a few takeaways from Saturday’s loss:
Louis Dorsey needs to be a consistent part of the game plan
Anyone who reads these recaps regularly knows how big of a fan I am of Dorsey, and he showed why I think he can be a elite receiving tight end later in his career.
Dorsey caught the long touchdown pass and finished with three catches for 107 yards on the day. The problem for Dorsey has been consistency, and Illinois’ constantly rotating cast of quarterbacks haven’t been able to get him enough touches.
Case in point: In three games this season (at South Florida, at Iowa, vs. Indiana) Dorsey has nine catches for 244 yards. In the other seven games of the season, Dorsey has just nine catches for 88 yards.
He’s a home run threat on an offense starved for playmakers. Get him the ball more please.
Something needs to change with Illinois’ special teams
There are certainly much bigger problems with this Illinois team than its special teams, but most of those issues have to be solved by 1) Getting older players. 2) Getting better players, or 3) Getting better players with more experience.
But even bad teams can have great special teams, and Illinois has struggled in this area, particularly when it comes to the coaching aspect. Blake Hayes is the team MVP because he has a monster leg and positions punts well. You don’t need too much coaching for that.
Entering Saturday, Illinois is 90th in kickoff returns. The Illini have 69 punt return yards on the season, and 52 of those came on a single return from Mike Dudek in the season opener.
In the second half against Indiana, the Illini had to burn a timeout to keep from getting a penalty for too many men on the field on a punt return — at least the second time this season that has happened. That’s inexcusable, easy stuff that good teams don’t do.