It's not faith in a system. It's not really faith in a coach. It's faith in a concept. The concept: tear everything down, rebuild from the ground up. While every home in the neighborhood redoes the kitchen, we'll demolish the whole house and start over. They'll have a party when the kitchen is done and everyone in the neighborhood will be jealous (including us) while our house is behind schedule and hasn't even begun framing yet but still we hold out hope that our finished product will be better.
When I look at the big picture, that's what's happening right now. Lovie's first year was a trial (and error) on every player on the roster. He started that season with nine senior starters on defense and ended with three. He picked through the Bill Cubit recruiting class and found players that fit the system (your Dele Hardings and your Kenyon Jacksons), and he picked through the Tim Beckman players to find more scheme fits.
Year two has been about his own guys. He's had a full year to find the Beckman/Cubit players he feels he can run with, and this fall he has added 21 of his 24 freshmen to the mix. This is the core going forward. It's probably a bit unfair to some of those Beckman/Cubit recruits who have already been passed over, but this is the direction Lovie has gone.
The plan seems clear: a complete and total overhaul. The most true freshman starts in University of Illinois history before this season: 33 in 1977. Right now we're at 76 with two games to go. I don't think there's any question that Lovie Smith has more or less said "I'm only using the other guy's guys where necessary - if it's possible to play my guys, I'm going with the recruits immediately."
Which is very rare. As we discussed last week, Baylor is more or less doing the same thing (scandal gets the former coach fired, interim coach takes over for a year, then the new coach takes over and plays most of his true freshmen immediately), but it's a rare thing in college football.
Will it work? At Baylor or Illinois (or even Ball State which is trying a similar approach)? I don't think anyone knows. It's faith in a concept. "Overhaul everything and in a few years, hopefully, there's a really solid foundation". It's more Astros/Cubs than anything. Play the kids, lose a hundred games, eventually you'll keep adding more pieces and get to where you want to go. Again, not saying it will BE Astros/Cubs - just that this is the concept. These are the players we've identified as our future, and we're going to run with them before they're "ready".
I trust that concept. I think it's the way to rebuild a program like ours. I've asked for something like this for a long time. Find the right players for YOUR scheme, play them as soon as you can, and their upperclassman years become your launching pad. I like that we're going with the concept.
But good gosh almighty is it hard to see it going anywhere sometimes. This was the game I had circled for months, and then Indiana more or less played the way I thought they'd play (3.3 yards per carry, so they'd have to throw to win), and we just couldn't make the plays when we needed to make the plays. Yes, youth. Yes, 20 injured players. But it felt like it was right there and we couldn't grab it.
That blindside forced fumble by James Crawford and then we try to pick it up and run with it only to leave it on the turf for Indiana to recover? That connection with Trenard Davis at the Indiana 20 only to be brought back past midfield with a 15 yard personal foul because of a facemask on one of our offensive linemen? Wasting a timeout late because we had 12 men on the field for the punt return AGAIN? Not taking a timeout on those two big fourth-down attempts by Indiana in the second quarter? A quarterback who probably isn't ever going to not turn it over three times per game? Hitting the Indiana tight end five yards short of the first down, only to have him squirm away and get to within a yard of the first down, leading to IU going for it on fourth down (and getting it) to continue the drive that put the game away?
How do you explain these things away? You can't. Which means that the faith in the concept must be blind. One must say "76 scholarship players, 20 are injured, 21 true freshmen have played, youngest team in the country, all part of a complete overhaul" over and over and over to yourself until you trust it enough. Because if you watch the football, you won't see it.
I have a good friend who, I think, has it easier than me. He's a huge Cam Thomas guy - thinks he's the future - so all he does is talk about the failures of Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr. He puts everything this season on them. "Beckman never recruited a quarterback, and right now we're seeing what college football looks like without a quarterback - none of that is Lovie's fault". He thinks that as Cam Thomas matures, this team will mature.
And I have to say, I did think a lot about Cam Thomas today. How nice would it have been to mix in some QB runs? I know a lot of people hate the QB rotation, but I was itching for it today. If I'm thinking with that mindset, yes, none of these offensive struggles are really Lovie's "fault" - this was his first chance to recruit a quarterback, he's getting him ready to start next year, and today we were without him due to the horsecollar tackle last week (what is it with Purdue injuring our quarterbacks?).
But it's really hard to stay in that mindset. Maryland was down to their third string QB and found a way to go to Minnesota and win. Other coaches are finding ways to win with the guys they inherited. At some point, "coaching" must come in to play when trying to get JGjr. to stop fumbling and throwing interceptions. What we're seeing isn't showing much progress.
YET, 76 scholarship players, 20 are injured, 21 true freshmen have played, youngest team in the country, all part of a complete overhaul. 76 scholarship players, 20 are injured, 21 true freshmen have played, youngest team in the country, all part of a complete overhaul. All I can do is blindly hold to that.
Because it does have merit. Young teams rarely ever win - ever. Young teams make tons of mistakes. Add in Epstein and Echard, Turner and Dudek, Thomas and Green, and I think the offense would look much better. The defense has shown progress this year and returns 95% of the depth chart next season. Young players gain experience now and then they will make the plays we failed to make this year. There's a rebuild concept here that makes sense and has merit. If I'm Lovie, this is nearly exactly how I'd go about it.
But after a game like today, I have to acknowledge that my faith in this concept is completely blind. There's just not much I can point to. We had opportunities to win this game and we didn't take them. Same as the Minnesota game and even the Wisconsin game. It's just so hard to watch sometimes.
Yet, 76 scholarship players, 20 are injured, 21 true freshmen have played, youngest team in the country, all part of a complete overhaul....