When we last took a reading of the Illini Football Anxiety Meter, it was reading about halfway between Ideal and Not Ideal, with a lot of nervous anticipation.
Oh God No, Not Again!
As far as I’m concerned, Lovie Smith is a lame duck at this point. It’s not just that they lost to EMU, it’s how familiar that loss looked. It didn’t look like an aberration. It wasn’t a coach or a team having an anomaly of a bad game. Instead, it featured all the hallmarks of a Lovie Smith Illini game, especially on defense.
With a decided advantage in talent and experience (by game reps at least), Illinois’ ineptitude can only be explained by poor coaching. It’s the same mistakes that have rendered the Illini defense so impotent over the years, especially against the pass. This defense might be effective against a team that lined up in the I formation and tried to run between the tackles. Unfortunately for Lovie Smith, NOBODY DOES THAT ANYMORE.
It was infuriating watching Eastern Michigan run read-option plays and seeing the tackle made on someone without the ball, only for the ballcarrier to get first-down yardage unimpeded. At no point in Lovie’s time at Illinois has the read option been a fringe movement or a niche offense: everyone’s been using this concept for years, and yet the Illini still can’t defend it. This is especially confusing since we run an offense that liberally employs read-option, so it should be a very familiar concept to our coaching staff.
The defense was just as porous as ever against the pass. I don’t know why we all decided that Hobbs and Martin, who were described last year as “promising prospects with high upside,” had officially become “solid Big Ten starters,” though they shoulder very little blame. The safety play is abysmal and the linebackers are awful in coverage despite the tutelage of lifelong linebacker guru Miles Smith, and worst of all, the team continues to commit awful penalties. At this point, this isn’t an experience thing, this is Lovie’s identity: the most penalized team in the Big Ten. This is who we are and how we play. It’s staggering.
So, perhaps Lovie retires and hands it over to Rod Smith. NOT SO FAST, MY FRIEND.
There is no excuse for Brandon Peters taking six sacks against that EMU defense, and there’s no excuse for abandoning the run in the second half. The whole point of having uniquely huge, strong offensive linemen is to muscle smaller defensive fronts like EMU’s out of the way and open running lanes. It’s a big problem when we’re not doing that against one of the weaker defenses we’ll see all year.
Nobody believed me when I suggested the running game might be less effective without a running threat at quarterback.
The only reason Illinois even rallied to tie the game was because we had bigger, stronger, faster athletes on offense and finally got them the ball effectively. With no depth in the defense, it’s no surprise that it was nonexistent late in the fourth quarter.
It was just excruciating to see Eastern Michigan basically running our defense better than any Lovie Smith unit has ever executed it, especially considering they graduated 13 senior starters. Unless you want to imply that our players are less intelligent or less coachable than Eastern’s, the only possible explanation is that our coaching has been ineffective.
Frankly, the only reason this isn’t pinging the end of the meter at Not Ideal is because there’s enough talent on the 2020 team that a good coach could take over the program immediately after the Northwestern game, scrape out a solid 2020 class, minimize attrition and make a big splash with a bowl season his first year. There would be a step back in 2021, but there doesn’t have to be a 2017-like roster crater.
The places where we lack depth aren’t going to get filled with this 2020 class because the team is failing to inspire confidence. In an earlier meter reading, I said the following:
But more importantly, it feels like we’re at an inflection point with the program right now. The Fighting Illini are going to have to change a lot of minds fast this season to even salvage a full recruiting class. Recruits will be the judge of whether or not this season is good enough to keep Lovie Smith around. If we reach December with three commits, the ship is sinking.
Ron Zook went to two bowl games after the recruiting dried up because everyone lost faith, but ultimately this put the program in a precarious position with some big holes in the roster. If we make that mistake again, we could be looking at a decade without a bowl game.
You’d be hard pressed to convince me Lovie’s not done after this season.