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Thoughts on a Feckless Illinois Homecoming Performance

Fans deserve better.

NCAA Football: Purdue at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

I was supposed to write a post-game grades article after the Purdue game, but I don’t want to do that. And I don’t think anyone else wants me to do it either. Everyone gets Ds and Fs. There. That’s the grades article.

Yeah, I wouldn’t read that either.

Instead, let’s just do a late-night thought session here. It’s 12:46 AM CT as I type (I always have trouble falling asleep, but not because I’m thinking of this crappy team, don’t you worry). If the football team isn’t going to put thought and effort into their offensive and defensive formations, I’m not going to take the time to put together an organized column. This team doesn’t deserve it.

  1. This is the worst defense I’ve seen at Illinois. We are giving up 504 yards per game and 31.5 points per game after 6 games. Three teams have had over 590 yards of offense against us. The turnover luck that Illinois was having in early games like USF masked the deep issues in this team, but to the keen observer it was obvious they were playing poorly. I thought it could possibly improve with Bennett Williams and Nate Hobbs returning, but nope. Williams got himself kicked off the team, and our defense is worse since the return of the suspended players. There is nothing the defense can do well. Nothing. They can’t stop the run. They can’t stop the pass. They can’t rush the passer. We let Art Sitkowski complete over 60 percent of his passes against us and at times made him look serviceable. Sitkowski went 2-for-16 for 8 yards and 4 interceptions against Maryland today.
  2. Yeah, Hardy Nickerson should probably be fired, but he won’t, and even if he is, nothing will change. This is Lovie Smith’s defense, and it is a terrible one both in terms of talent and scheme. Oh god, this scheme. Lovie Smith’s ideas were outdated for the NFL when he was fired from the Bears in 2012 and even more so when the Bucs canned him in 2015. And the problem is that college football is well ahead of the NFL schematically on both sides of the ball — the NFL steals almost all its stuff from college. So if Lovie was behind in NFL terms in 2015, it’s really not much of a wonder that he and his staff full of NFL coaches has no idea how to design and run a successful modern college defense. Firing Nickerson would at least be a signal from Lovie that he understands change is needed, but the firing wouldn’t provide the catalyst for that change.
  3. Jeff Brohm is awesome. Illinois lost to a better Purdue team last year on the road by 19. Brohm went on the road this year with a much less experienced squad and beat Illinois by 39. He outcoached Illinois in every facet of the game. He was a real home-run hire. His offense gained 611 yards, dominating on both the ground and in the air. He’s going to be a star head coach at Louisville soon.
  4. This was the first bad play-calling game from Rod Smith, but it really isn’t all his fault. There just isn’t enough there for him to use.
  5. Purdue basically ignored the passing attack. They blitzed constantly, which served two purposes: they forced AJ Bush to keep the ball, and they kept Bush from escaping and making any big runs. That’s all they had to do to shut down the Illini. Blitz.
  6. Mike Epstein only had one carry. Only one lousy carry. WTF. Purdue was forcing Bush to keep most plays — but AJ Bush made some very bad keep reads — and Rod Smith cannot run a play unless there are options involved. There is never a hand it off up the middle and don’t think about keeping play, but at some point there needed to be. Epstein only had one carry. Reggie Corbin only had 6. Ra’von Bonner, one. Bush had 20. The QB will always run the most in this system, but that is egregious.
  7. Please don’t be hurt, Reggie Corbin. If he is hurt, we may not score more than 14 points in any remaining game.
  8. Rod Smith could have — and did — try to throw screen passes and even some quick hitting “stop” routes and slants to combat the blitzing. It’s a big part of the system, but Bush doesn’t have the quick release or even accuracy to make those throws, and the blocking on these screen passes is, frankly, disgusting.
  9. MJ Rivers should have played in the second half. He can’t run as well, no doubt, but he can at least complete a damn screen pass with some regularity. Instead we had Matt Robinson make another pointless cameo, burning yet another one of his redshirt games. This staff has no plan on redshirts. None.
  10. But Even if MJ Rivers played, what would change? Sure, Illinois may have completed some shorter passes and screens, but Purdue would have stopped blitzing as much and focused on shutting that down, and they would have. Let’s not pretend that MJ Rivers has exactly been lighting it up. He can’t throw down the field that well due to lack of receiving options and poor pass blocking.
  11. I feel this was a, “well, there really isn’t anything we can do” game on offense. We just sucked. The offense of last year reared its ugly head yet again.
  12. Illinois scored a TD on the second drive of the game. The rest of the drives went as follows: Punt, Punt, Missed FG, Punt, Punt, Half, Punt, Punt, Punt, Interception, and Punt. Let’s take out the one-play drive before half for two yards. That’s 9 drives where Illinois ran 46 plays and gained only 136 yards. That’s 2.96 yards per play. Pathetic.
  13. This is a real quote from Lovie Smith after the game: “We have a sound defense. We have a sound offense. Sometimes execution doesn’t happen.” Sometimes execution doesn’t happen? You mean like for an entire damn game? Stop lying to my face and insulting our intelligence. This is much worse than any Beckman, “we were only a few plays away” bs. This is either arrogance or delusions of grandeur from Lovie. Probably both.
  14. Illinois wins coming into this game were against a now 2-4 Western Illinois FCS team, and the 119th and 121st ranked teams in S&P. I remember fans saying after Illinois struggled against Kent State in the first game — a game Illinois could have easily lost — that Kent State was going to be better than everyone thought because of Woody Barrett. That Kent State team fell to 1-6 today with a 31-6 loss to Miami (OH). Its sole win was against Howard.
  15. At least Rutgers exists so we don’t have to live down being the worst team in the Big Ten, even though we are probably going to lose the rest of our games.
  16. We could lose the rest of our games 40-0 and Lovie Smith won’t be fired. His buyout is too high ($12.6 Million) and Josh Whitman is too deep into this rebuild plan. This rest of the season seems pointless.
  17. Sure, we can play the young guys, but I am starting to lose any faith that these young guys will ever be good enough. These sophomores will be juniors next season. Is there any secret stuff that Bugs Bunny can bring out to make them average Big Ten players by then? I doubt it.
  18. Too often we buy into the idea of players having potential just because they are freshman or sophomores, but quite frankly most players are either always good or always bad. Besides positions like offensive line where players need to put on weight, players usually are what they are. They can improve a bit with coaching — not from this staff — but there isn’t a jump from being a below average, unremarkable player to being great or even good, or even just solid. It can happen for one or two guys, but it can’t happen for an entire roster, and this roster just isn’t there, and I don’t think it will ever be under Lovie.
  19. This tweet:

20. And this one:

21. Isaiah Williams better be a poor man’s Kyler Murray or this will be much of the same next year.

22. We wore gray to “honor” Red Grange and only ran for 48 yards in the game. Cancel this dumb crap now, Josh Whitman and Nike. You don’t have to do it. No one wants you to.

23. I’ve lost almost all confidence in the Lovie Smith coaching regime, but even if he is fired after 2019, the coach after him should be left with a better roster situation than Beckman or Lovie inherited, so maybe there is at last some hope in the future?

24. It may not happen. Ever. Illinois may be fated to be awful at football forever after the damage that has been done to the program in the 2010s. But it still can, and I’ll still be here waiting to see if it does.

25. It’s now, 1:44 AM, so let’s just end it here. This is the worst loss of the Lovie Smith era. I’m not even angry at this. I’m just numb to it at this point. I watch the games and I can’t even fake getting upset when Purdue scores 46 unanswered against us. Hopefully, one day, I can again get angry when my beloved team gets embarrassed at home on Homecoming wearing gray uniforms, instead of expecting it.