If all I’ve done is preach progress, and progress was tangible, why do I still come away so destressed and depressed from Saturday’s 25-19 loss against South Florida?
Is it that South Florida worked so hard to give the game away and Illinois still wasn’t up to accepting the gift? Is it that Illinois was missing so many pieces through suspension and injury that I feel they shot themselves in the foot for what was most likely the largest swing game of the year? Or is it that I’ve been full of it, asking for progress but incapable of finding joy in just that?
I’ve obviously got a lot of questions, so in a column that’s meant to provide answers we’re off to a rocky start, but such is life with the Illini. The injuries and suspensions already have program evaluation in murky waters, but then you get a wickedly twisted game at Solider Field and I’m sorting out my manic fan feelings from an analytical approach to the rebuild. What’s fairly obvious to me is that South Florida played its D game, and while a degree of appreciation for Illinois’ offensive and defensive approaches is due, I attribute most of their poor performance to coming out flat against an opponent they brought to the woodshed last year.
South Florida did manage to gain a ridiculous 626 yards on the day, so the 25 points might be misleading when judging Illinois’ defensive grade. Is “Bend Don’t Break” feasible when letting a team march up and down the field so easily? I don’t think so. Even after Illinois adds back its injured and suspended players, the pass rush isn’t going to take a much needed leap. As we watch this year’s recruiting, this is something that needs to be addressed for future classes. You don’t need the 5-star line recruits, but you need to stack them so we stop playing our freshman and sophomores against your juniors and seniors and then wondering why Blake Barnett has all day to throw.
But, while Illinois is still fighting an uphill battle, and the one-score game against a quality South Florida team might be a statistical smoke-and-mirrors mirage, there is obvious progress that all Illini fans should be happy about.
Illinois is finding its Lovie Smith identity, something Illini football has lacked for so long. The maturity of the offensive line is allowing Mike Epstein and Reggie Corbin to find holes and wiggle through for explosive and consistent plays. Despite giving up a half mile of yardage, the players’ experience with the defensive system is forcing turnovers or downs when it matters most on the Illini side of the 50. And perhaps most Lovie of all, the special teams group is becoming a weapon. Blake Hayes is the best player on the team, and it’s really not even close.
So, what’s the real story?! Is this thing headed for a bowl game next season and Illinois settles into a decade of consistent competence? Or, are we going to spike the ball on 3rd and short, or let 11 seconds roll off the clock before calling a timeout on a final drive? I feel like Jack Skellington in his room yanking on his skull to figure out the secret of Christmas. There is so much left to reveal itself in the next couple months, but at least for the first time since Lovie was hired, I’m excited with a hint of confidence.
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