Did you see what happened between 2017 and 2018? On Saturday, with the running-game bludgeoning of Rutgers, Illinois dug its way out of the basement and put one of its Big Ten brethren in the familiar and unenviable position of looking up at EVERYONE else.
This also wasn’t Lovie’s year one, with a team full of guys that would graduate or transfer: This was the Illini core for years to come, graduating growing and improving with each passing spring/offseason/season.
Finally, the Illini can start competing with the Purdues and Minnesotas of the world for wins, and not be completely delusional in dreaming of a possible 6-win scenario. Likely? Nah. But within the realm of prognostication possibility.
You can credit the arrival of offensive coordinator Rod Smith, and the hard work and changes made by offensive line coach Luke Butkus. The group that was projected as the teams biggest weakness, but now looks like it will pave running lanes for a stable of backs and quarterbacks for the next few years. By running over Rutgers, and at times Penn State and South Florida, the running game has given the Illini offense an identity, and something reliable game-in-and-game-out.
So as we Illini fans look forward to this weekends game against Purdue, and start to play with the “how can we possibly get to six wins” game, what further progression must take place to give the squad a chance?
The Defensive Scheme
Hardy Nickerson and Lovie Smith need to lock themselves in a room and take a hard look at their scheme, and whether or not it’s a legitimate way to attack a team with greater or equal talent. Because I think, if they’re honest, they’ll realize it is not.
The Illinois defensive line hasn’t made the same jump as their offensive counterparts and — with its basic package and four-man rush — aren’t even casting a shadow on opposing quarterbacks. I listened to a Rutgers podcast just to get an idea of their despair, and one thing they called out was how comfortable Art Sitkowski looked throughout the game — and that’s a problem because he stinks. If Sitkowski was comfortable during the game, and still threw those three interceptions, imagine if Illinois could cook up some pass rush?
The opposing quarterback is allowed to drop back, survey the field, and then dump down for an easy 8-12 yards as long as they’re between the 20’s, and that’s not going to work against better teams. Art Sitkowski tripped on his center and fell backwards, or the offensive line held on a sweep, but against Purdue with David Blough dumping off to Rondale Moore or DJ Knox? Illinois is going to lose. And there is only one way this can be fixed, or at least amended. Hardy Nickerson is going to have to get creative, and send more people than the offense can block.
The Passing Game
This might just be the stage of the rebuild that we currently live in, but Illinois is going to have to find ways to get explosive plays in the passing game. There isn’t a ton of separation, but Ricky Smalling is as good as it gets at making plays on 50-50 balls, and he isn’t getting the chance. The same is true for getting Lou Dorsey involved, but that seems to be more of a culture lesson at the moment than anything else.
The Illini running game is for real, and that’s not going away, but against your teams with dudes on the D-line or more aggressive and established linebackers, Illinois is going to find it hard going the length of the field without the threat of a pass downfield.
And that’s it. I’m not asking for the world, because it’s not something that’s attainable this year. But what what I am asking for with those two points is the coaches to help the kids out because they’re deserving of it. Neither of the above changes takes Illinois off the current path; it just is an admission of what’s possible this year, and what isn’t attainable with the current roster — and adjusting to that is what we in the business call coaching.
Purdue is favored by 10 over Illinois on the road, but I don’t know that the talent is that far in front, just the assumption that Jeff Brohm will be. If Illinois is going to continue this program build, the coaching progress will have to match the roster.
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