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Illinois is a disaster and there may not be an end in sight

Illinois football is right back at the bottom.

Brad Repplinger // TCR

One inch.

Illinois couldn’t gain one inch. At the goal line. At home. Against a program in the first year of a rebuild. IN TWO TRIES.

If you ever needed an encapsulation of how 2023 has gone for Illinois, the end of its game-opening drive on Friday night was it. Two attempts. One inch. Stonewalled.

And that was just one on a long list of embarrassing developments against the Cornhuskers in a performance that felt like rock bottom, a place frequented by Illini fans for decades.

For starters, Barry Lunney and the Illini offense were completely broken. Every single positive play was a struggle. We’ve heard at every media availability about how they’re trying to find their identity. We’re halfway through the season and I think the identity is actually pretty clear: it’s a disaster.

Illinois ran 19 times for 21 yards on Friday night. Yes, that’s right, a Bret Bielema team — a head coach who’s made a career off strong run games and physical offensive line play — averaged 1.1 yards per carry at home against a 2-3 football team.

For yet another week, sloppiness and turnovers played a major role. It’s Week 6 and we’re all still writing about that.

Illinois failed to recover a kickoff, leading directly to one of Nebraska’s two touchdowns. Failed. To. Recover. A. Kickoff. That’s a mistake you probably don’t expect your former high school team to make. Illinois is making it in game six of year three of its new coaching staff.

In addition, Griffin Moore’s fumble deep in Illinois territory to give away what should’ve been an impressive third-down conversion by Luke Altmyer; Kaden Feagin gets blown up on a separate fourth down; and Altmyer throws another costly interception on a gotta-have-it drive.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge a strong defensive effort. Just 20 points allowed — half coming on short fields and 14 of those in 10 seconds — on just 3.2 yards per carry and a 50% completion percentage. Aaron Henry’s unit also forced a season-high three turnovers.

Speaking of those turnovers, however, just take a look at how the offense responded to each of those desperate efforts to keep the team in the game in the second half. I’ll even throw in the missed Nebraska field goal that preceded the turnovers, because that’s effectively a turnover as well.

  • Missed Field Goal: Nebraska kicker Tristan Alvano misses 36-yard field goal attempt with 5:44 to play in the third quarter.
  • Ensuing Offensive Drive: 6 plays, 30 yards, Illinois is stuffed on 4th-and-1.
  • Turnover #1: Kenenna Odeluga recovers a fumble at the Illinois 12-yard-line with 11:41 to play.
  • Ensuing Offensive Drive: 3 plays, 5 yards. Illinois punts.
  • Turnover #2: Xavier Scott intercepts Heinrich Haarberg’s pass at the Illinois 26-yard-line with 10:16 to play.
  • Ensuing Offensive Drive: 5 plays, 5 yards, one penalty, Luke Altmyer intercepted.
  • Turnover #3: James Kreutz recovers a fumble at the Illinois 15-yard-line with 4:02 to play.
  • Ensuing Offensive Drive: 12 plays, 67 yards. Illinois turns it over on downs.
Brad Repplinger // TCR

The complementary football that showed up so often in 2022? Completely nonexistent. The Illini defense — with help from Nebraska — literally begged its counterpart to go win the game. They didn’t even come close.

The Huskers walked into Memorial Stadium with its brand-new coach, missing its two biggest defensive producers, facing quarterback issues and profiling as one of the only teams just as mistake-prone as the Illini. Somehow, none of it mattered and Memorial Stadium had more red than orange lining its stands when the final whistle sounded.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Coming off an 8-win season and the program’s first real momentum in 15 years, this was supposed to be a year that continued to build it and began a line of sustained success under a head coach that preaches consistency and dependability.

That momentum is utterly and completely gone. A year later, Illinois is right back among the Big Ten’s bottom feeders — a bottom that’s only getting deeper as the conference expands.

In its last nine games against Power 5 opponents, Illinois is 1-8. The lone win is against a Northwestern team who didn’t win a game in the western hemisphere that season.

This year, they’ve played four of them.

They’ve scored an average of 15.5 points.

They’ve allowed an average of 32 points.

That means they’ve lost by an average of 16.5 points, or three scores.

Poorly coached. Poorly schemed. Poorly played. Flat out uncompetitive.

Whatever way you want to describe it, it’s completely unacceptable and the reality is, there’s almost no light at the end of the tunnel. The problems that exist aren’t solvable this season. In 2024, the likes of Johnny Newton, Keith Randolph, Isaiah Williams, and Julian Pearl will be practicing with NFL teams. The uptick in recruiting that was seemingly on the precipice after last season? Not going to happen.

Welcome USC, UCLA, Oregon and Washington. Stop by Champaign, grab yourselves a couple slices of Papa Del’s, hit up a few establishments, take a nice, leisurely stroll to a four-score victory on the turf and head on back out west. Enjoy the scenery every few years because there won’t be a football game to cause you an ounce of concern.

“Changes” is what Bret Bielema said Friday night when asked how he approaches this crossroads with the rest of his program. It’s one thing to hear it, it’s another to see it. When it comes to changing things within the program at this point, everything needs to be on the table.

Six games left to see a single sign of urgency and improvement. Six games left to see a glimmer of light to keep fans invested in a program sinking to the bottom of a changing landscape.

Unlike the one inch that separated the Illini offense and the endzone on Friday night, the distance between Illinois football and the majority of its peers is becoming extremely wide.

Because this? This is an abject failure that needs a heck of a lot of fixing.