Happy Sunday, Illinois Land!
As is always the case after an embarrassing Illinois loss, I have entered the mental crossroads and where my mindset should be moving forward. It is a constant battle between logical pragmatism, objective analysis and Illinois fandom.
This triumvirate of intellectual schools of thought kept me up at night, not only on this particular Friday night, but countless nights over the span of my athletic interest in the University of Illinois.
Cyclical emotional glidepaths of positivity and optimism, intertwined with instability, inconsolability and disbelief.
We love no other.
Here’s one example of the cycle of Illinois football.
Football is bad. Football hires another coach. That coach is bad. Football fires a coach. Decades go by. No progress is made.
Bret Bielema came to town after The Lovie Smith Project failed miserably. It was supposed to take a while to rebuild and restore the program, maybe half a decade. Maybe more.
No one knew, because it hadn’t been done in so long, and the bar set so low, it could be walked over by a toddler with a modicum of balance and dexterity.
The cyclical nature of most sports fans is not only expected, but embraced. It’s what makes sports, sports. It is intensified, magnified and illuminated tenfold when you root for the Illini.
Is it really happening again...this quickly?
Before I get into the specifics of what “it” is, let’s take a look at the trajectory of this game, prior to kick.
Comparing the short careers of each head coach at their current schools. With some back story.
This game was ill conceived and worse in execution when it was scheduled probably a decade in the past. It was a throw away. Some chicken bones. A used coupon.
No one paid any attention.
Until both schools hired new ADs and new coaches to reset their poorly performing revenue sport. I don’t think Bielema was in the mix at Kansas, but Lance Leipold was certainly a top candidate for the Illini.
Both head coaches were hired in the same cycle. Let’s take a look at each one:
- Leipold: 10-17 (.370) overall, 4-14 (.222) in the Big 12
- Bielema: 14-13 (.519) overall, 9-9 (.500) in the Big 10
It seems like Kansas was behind Illinois at the time. Although short lived, indeed, Les Miles did a decent job accruing talent in Lawrence before his departure. Lovie didn’t necessarily leave the cupboard bare, but it was overflowing with obvious talent and depth.
For context let’s look at the three years before each coach.
- Kansas 6-27 (.181) overall and 2-24 (.077) in the Big 12:
- Illinois: 12-21 (.363) overall and 8-18 (.308) in the Big Ten.
Leipold has increased the winning 104% overall and 188% in conference play.
Bielema has increased the winning 42.9% overall and 62.3% in conference play.
I put the above breakdown in print today to highlight how marvelous both coaches have been for their current programs. They have both excelled, likely smashing expectations in the process.
Either coach would have been a fantastic hire for either school.
Examining the game against Kansas in Week 2. Let’s define what “it” really means. We touched on this earlier.
I try to let Lovie Smith just be gone from Illinois. It’s nearly an impossible task, if you realize the ineptitude of his teams, in all three phases. Lovie’s legacy was unfulfilled promises.
Let’s get back to what “it” is. The concept is an Illinois fan staple. Here “it” is, in a nutshell.
High expectations built up over time. Team does not meet expectations.
If you have followed Illinois for more than 90 seconds, you’ll recognize this pattern immediately. In fact, “it” happened for the game overall, and even happened inside of the game, if you compare the first half (putrid) to the second half (pretty good).
The Vegas experts though this game would be tight, and decided by a field goal. It was decided by touchdowns. Four of them in the first half, to be exact.
When you watched the first half, it seemed like Illinois was overmatched, outcoached and in over its head. The game was non-competitive.
In the blink of an eye, Illinois was down 28-7 at the half, and could not come back, despite a valiant effort in the second half. Altmyer did some great things. Johnny Newton had a couple of sacks.
The second half look like a role reversal. Herein lies the problem. I’ll explain below.
Here is one of the multitude of bright spots in the second half for Illinois. Somehow, Altmyer ran over 70 yards without anyone being with a school bus length of him the entirety of the scamper. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that.
Luke Altmyer 72-yards to the house. pic.twitter.com/vPljLV9Zk3— Illinois Football Focus (@IlliniFB) September 9, 2023
The second half against Kansas is not the identification of a solution, it’s the glaring discovery of the problem.
The previous sentence sounds counterintuitive.
I’ll tell you why it’s not.
For the second time in two weeks, Bielema’s Illini have come out flat on both sides of the ball. Dead ball personal fouls on the defense continued to extend drives for the opposition and make it easy to score.
Pathetically bad angles utilized on the rush to the quarterback inside the pocket, losing backside contain along the way. Jalon Daniels (Big 12 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year) took full advantage and made it look like he was taking a walk in the park, rather than an excruciating grind on the gridiron.
The Front Seven for the Illini was lauded and hyped in the preseason. Yours truly was likewise complimentary. The jury is still out on this unit, and it’s not looking like a favorable verdict.
After dominating performances by the offensive line and defensive line in 2022, the first two weeks of this season do not inspire hope moving forward.
Why in the hell does it take so long for Bielema’s squad to show up in 2023?
For the game, the Illini defense allowed:
- 7.6 yards per play
- 277 passing yards
- 262 rushing yards
- Kansas was 9/13 (69.2%) on third down
- Only sacked Daniels twice (both by Newton)
Bielema minced no words in his postgame press conference, even calling a specific personal foul on a defensive player “moronic” (after pausing to reflect).
I have confidence he will get the major issues fixed, and the rest of the Big Ten West doesn’t exactly wow you with offensive capabilities. The season is not lost.
At one point, Illinois went for it on 4th-and-4.
I’m not sure what the play call was, but the receiver literally ran a two-yard route and fell down as he caught it for a turnover on downs.
So many questions.
It doesn’t get any easier with Penn State coming to town on Saturday, despite Big Noon Kickoff deciding to remain in Boulder and suckle the teat of Deion Sanders for another week.
Here are a few problems to watch moving forward:
- Isaiah Williams was not targeted until late in the second quarter.
- Illinois runs seemingly every play with at least half the receivers running a route within 2 yards of the line of scrimmage.
- Lack of first half effort and execution of a gameplan on either side of the ball.
- Poor defensive fundamentals, particularly tackling.
- Right Tackle and Left Guard. Yikes.
Please take my scientific poll.
What is the most concerning trend for Illinois football in 2023?
This poll is closed
Play calling on offense (Barry Lunney, Jr.)
Play calling on defense (Aaron Henry)
First half effort and execution (Bielema)
They’re not very good.
It’s only two games and a lot of new faces. It will be figured out.
On to Penn State and on to Big Ten Play.
This is 1-1. This is turning back the clock. This is what it is.
This is Illinois football.