The good news is as the calendar flips to October, the Illinois football team is undefeated on Saturdays.
The bad news is that the Illini have played half of their games on Friday this season and sit at 2-2, 0-1 Big Ten after a 28-6 loss to Nebraska in Champaign on Friday night.
Chayce Crouch was the sole quarterback under center for Illinois on the night, and he had an up-and-down game. Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee played to Crouch’s strength’s for much of the night by giving the junior an opportunity to run the ball (Crouch carried a team-high 18 times for 37 yards, including sacks) but his deficiencies in the passing game couldn’t be hidden as Crouch finished the game 9-15 passing the ball for 99 yards with an interception.
It makes calling plays extremely difficult when there isn’t trust in your quarterback to complete even simple passes. Based on Garrick McGee’s conservative playcalling much of the game, it’s clear that Crouch isn’t able to execute basic pass plays to move the chains and keep drives alive. There are only so many draws, screens, read options, etc., that you can run in order to cover up for a quarterback that can’t throw.
What was also disappointing was the Illini’s pass defense, which couldn’t generate a pass rush, nor tight coverage against Nebraska (3-2, 2-0) quarterback Tanner Lee. Lee led the FBS with nine interceptions coming into the game, but he was efficient Friday night.
Lee finished 17-of-24 for 246 yards and three touchdowns and avoided the turnover bug that has plagued the Cornhuskers in a pair of losses this season.
In the Illini’s Big Ten opener, there was only one thing that we learned (and it was something many of us already knew):
It’s really, really, really, really, really hard to win by playing 18-year-olds against 21- and 22-year-olds
This probably doesn’t need to be stated, but I’ve seen enough vitriol on Twitter to address this issue.
Illinois has played 19 different true freshmen this season and already set the program record (twice) for number of freshmen starting in a single game. On Friday, * only * eight freshmen started for Illinois, which was down from 10 two weeks ago against South Florida.
This season, Illinois is already third on the all-time program list for starts by freshmen in a season. It’s been only four games!
In 1977, Illinois started a grand total of 34 freshmen for the season. In 2017, the Illini are at 28 through four games. Very crudely, based on the current rate, Illinois will start nearly 120 starts by freshmen for the year. Which is plainly absurd.
Look, I don’t mean to beat a dead horse, but this is going to be a long rebuild. Possibly the longest in the Big Ten as peer programs like Purdue show signs of life in the first year of a new head coach.
Not only does it take time for the physical payoff of older players to take effect, the mental aspect of the game needs time to develop as well. Obviously, a player who has been on a college strength and conditioning program for three years is going to be significantly stronger than his true freshman counterpart.
But being able to see a play, make your reads, react, and then go make a play is a lot to put on the plate of someone who has never played in the Big Ten before, and this conference is ruthless enough that a fraction’s hesitation while discerning the play could make the difference between success and failure.
Yes, there are things to gripe about with Lovie Smith, Garrick McGee, Hardy Nickerson, and the staff. But they’re not the reason that Illinois will win 3-4 games this season once again. Coaches will tell you that they’re only as good as their players, and that’s certainly true.
Illinois is lucky to have some really talented players that project well in the future. Right now, the Illini’s young players are taking their lumps.