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Inexperience and injuries: Illinois’ season summed up at Ohio State

I’ll try not to say too much you’ve already heard this year.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Before you go any further, I just need to make sure you’ve read a post written by The Champaign Room’s Steve Braun. If you haven’t read the piece he wrote earlier this week about the Illinois football rebuild, please do so before proceeding.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I can hold off on saying the “p” word because Steve put this season in perspective about as well as anyone can.

Saturday’s Game

Just about everyone I talked to knew this game was going to be a blowout. The discussion was whether or not Ohio State would beat Illinois by 35 or 55. I made my pick of 45-6 as the final score before I knew Chayce Crouch would start at quarterback, but I should haven known better anyways at this point in the season.

When Ohio State scored with about eight minutes left in the first half to go up 38-0, I should’ve just turned it off. But, alas, as an Illinois fan, I revel in self-deprecation, so I continued watching. Obviously, you know that it didn’t get any better (i.e. Urban Meyer essentially called off the dogs by the time the second half started).

Just about every weekend since I joined the Champaign Room, I’ve written a column on what happened during the football game each Saturday. It’s been somewhat the same message every week: criticize the bad, try and identify the good and stay positive as Lovie continues to push this program into the future.

As the season has worn on, it has been difficult to stay positive. I’m sure many of you have become tired of hearing about how many freshman are playing and what this team might look like in two years. I’m with you — but it’s also true. If I were to characterize this season in two words, it would be inexperience and injuries.

Since you read Steve’s post about the future of Illinois football, you are aware that this season was doomed from the start. The game against Western Kentucky gave Illini fans hope, but Illinois was never in a position to win. I had a meeting with one of the associate athletic directors this past spring, and one of the things he told me was that they were careful not to directly advertise the ‘We Will Win’ mantra on football billboards and social media because the athletic department wasn’t sure if the football team was “going to be there yet.” He was more correct than I could have ever realized at the time.

I have a newsflash for you: the team also won’t be there yet next year. The ‘waiting game’ that Illinois football has been in is going to take even longer. I know you might not be ready to hear that.

If Illinois goes 2-10 this year, I would consider it a victory if the team wins four or five games next year.

Anyway, my main point was about inexperience and injuries. I’ve talked about the inexperience at several points this year.

Tim Beckman and Bill Cubit didn’t do this program a lot of favors in the recruitment department — Illinois’ recruiting classes since 2014 haven’t been good. It’s clear to see those two guys didn’t work out. Have you seen Matt Campbell at Iowa State? He’s the actual reason Toledo was good before Illinois hired Beckman away from the Rockets.

This Illinois team is young, perhaps the youngest team the NCAA has ever seen. Lovie brought in the best recruiting class in a while and those guys have gotten the opportunity to play and gain valuable experience. Freshmen mistakes? They will happen. In two years, if this team is still 2-10, I’ll be more concerned. For now, consider them growing pains.

Additionally, I think injuries have been a under-discussed topic on this team. Amidst all the youth of this team, some of the most important players have been lost to injury.

We saw it in Columbus. Chayce Crouch was forced into starting against Ohio State after a season of a quarterback carousel, and even he got hurt, which forced walk-on Cam Miller into the game. (Hey, props to Cam Miller on an awesome running touchdown to preserve the cover and make his dream of playing for the Illini a reality!)

Mike Dudek, Mike Epstein, Ra’Von Bonner, Malik Turner, Cam Thomas and Tony Adams have all been missing for a significant amount of time this season.

What do you get when you combine all these injuries with 79 cumulative freshman starts? A 2-10 record.

Brian Griese was on the call yesterday, and he got into discussions about the situation the football program is in. He spoke to the fact that Lovie is committed to this job and that Whitman has given him a “leash” to where he can be successful. Any national columnists who say otherwise are simply uninformed.

I’ll get off my soapbox now. The good news is we only have one more week of football to endure before we can focus solely on basketball.