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Lovie’s plan becoming visible

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How the Illini coach’s system is slowly coming together

NCAA Football: Illinois at Purdue Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

I feel like a broken record writing these columns a day after another loss for Illinois football — yesterday its seventh-consecutive defeat.

I try to focus on the positives, justify bad football with the age of the players and look to the next few years for positivity. What’s different now (after a 19-point loss to Purdue)? Not a whole lot. But a little bit of progress.

What I am noticing as the weeks go on is that things are getting slightly better, although not significantly enough for impatient fans. But I think we are seeing Lovie’s plan slowly but surely coming together.

I don’t need to explain that this year is really year one of the Lovie Smith Illini Football Team. After being hired in March 2016 and inheriting a hapless program, his first batch of recruits came in this fall. So finally, 21 games after he began coaching at Illinois, I think we are finally starting to see glimpses of where things are going.

Cam Thomas at QB

While I wasn’t thrilled to see Jeff George come into the game yesterday, I was happy that Cam Thomas got the majority of the playing time. Purdue’s defense doesn’t hold a candle to the likes of Wisconsin, and I was pleased watching Thomas run the offense. On the day, he was 10-for-20 throwing the ball with 159 yards AND NO INTERCEPTIONS.

Considering all the players that were out of the game (Mike Epstein, Mike Dudek, Ra’Von Bonner), he did a nice job with what he had to work with. The offensive line has looked better, and Purdue’s five sacks definitely affected Thomas’ ability to run the offense. He looked much more comfortable in the pocket on the day. In the first quarter he had an absolute dime to Ricky Smalling, which gave Smalling his fifth-straight game with a reception of 20 yards or more.

As Thomas gets more reps, we’ll see more of this kind of performance.

It’s been nice to have a quarterback that can run, too — Thomas is averaging over five yards per carry. There were several runs against Purdue where we saw his deceptive speed and vision upfield. He’s only going to get better from here.

All Lovie needs to do now is stop putting Jeff George Jr. in the game.

Defensive Improvements

Last week, Jonathan Taylor had a season-low 73 yards on the ground. Wisconsin took him out of the game as a precaution, but Illinois still did a nice job holding the Badgers to under 4 yards per carry and just over 300 total yards of offense on the day.

Statistically, the game against Purdue was not significant. But again, there were flashes of “what could be” for the defense. Tymir Oliver was blowing up the backfield left and right, and it finally looked like the defensive line was actually getting some leverage up front.

The defense held Purdue to a field goal after they drove 69 yards down the field early in the second quarter. The defense in the red zone actually looks pretty stout. Bobby Roundtree and Jamal Woods added another nice quarterback pressure with 3:50 left in the third quarter, forcing David Blough to throw the ball away. Jamal Milan looks like he is coming into his own, too.

Now, all this being said, the team still deserves its fair share of criticism. Mental errors are expected with so much youth on the field.

Penalties (nine for Illinois) were abound on Saturday. Many of them were untimely, leading to long-yardage situations on third down that killed drives.

I can’t tell you when Illinois is going to win seven, eight or nine games consistently. But what I can say is that I am much more at ease about what the future looks like. I’ll leave it to Dave Wischnowsky, an Illinois alum, to explain my final thoughts on this week:

Oh, and I’m going to stop trying to use the word “patient” when I write about Illini football this year. I promise.