Oct 21, 2018

So I just finished watching the volleyball game. Tried to write a post right after the loss, no words were there, needed to see an Illini win, so I tuned in to #7 Illini Volleyball vs. Michigan St. And it made me realize this football thing might never happen.

OK, "never" is too strong of a word, but it just got me thinking about how some things just stay where they are. Like Wisconsin football and Illinois football. What was Aristotle's theory of gravity? That things just return to their natural place? That rock simply wants to be on the ground when you let go of it. That's how this feels right now. Sir Isaac Newton hasn't taken a break under an apple tree yet, and we all just trust Aristotle's ideas about gravity, so we just return to our natural place in the Big Ten basement.

Illini Volleyball's natural place is in the top-15. It seems like we've been there forever. Looking it up, Illini Volleyball has been in the Sweet 16 in eight of the last ten years with a title game appearance in 2011. Illinois came into this one 17-3 (6-3), Michigan State was 15-7 (3-6), so we basically knew the result before the game started. As expected, 25-17, 25-21. 25-21 Illini.

Why such dominance? Because Jordyn Poulter and Ali Bastianelli are really good. We knew that when they picked Illinois (I believe both were top-10 recruits nationally). Why did they pick Illinois? Because we're constantly in the Sweet 16. So the whole thing is basically self-sustaining.

Which is the same as Wisconsin football and Illinois football. What they do endures (and has endured for 25 years), what we don't do endures (and has endured for 25 years), and nothing seems to be changing. Watching Illinois Volleyball vanquish another unranked foe, it just feels like Illini Volleyball will always be ranked and Michigan State Volleyball will never be able to climb to our level.

Or just look at Illini golf. After several fall tournaments the rankings came out this week and Illinois, in this rebuilding year with no seniors, is 9th. I predicted a drop out of the top-25 for the first time in 12 years, but it just hasn't happened. After a 6th place finish at the loaded Fighting Illini Invitational, the young Illini won their last two events and find themselves in the top-10 again. You know, where they belong.

I know this point always leads to the discussion of coaching - "just have to find the right coach" - and of course that's true, but do you think the right coach turns around Rutgers basketball? Do you think Wake Forest football is ever destined for true greatness? Some programs just seem destined to return to their natural place. Illini Golf, now that it's built, might never fade. Illini Football, still unable to be built, might never succeed.

That's how it feels tonight, anyway. Sure, as I type this, Purdue is kicking the crap out of Ohio State, but then Louisville boosters will pay Brohm's buyout to return him to his alma mater and Purdue will fade again. Things just have a way of returning to where they belong.

And I'm accepting that we just belong in the basement. For whatever reason. I've had people tell me this for years (not years - decades) and I've never really believed them. I've always held on to this thing of When Illinois Football Returns To It's Rightful Place At The Top but I think I now see how silly that is. It's never going to really happen. Because when it does happen, someone from one of those top tier programs will just hire the coach away (see: Mackovic, John) and we will drop right back down to our rightful place.

Sorry for spiraling down on you. Seems like a weird time to do it. We lost a game by 29 that we were supposed to lose by 25, and it was that turnover game I've been warning you about (we all knew it was coming), and now that it's out of the way we can focus on these final five games, four of which, in theory at least, are winnable. What I'm discussing in this post really doesn't have much to do with how I see this rebuild. 4-8 is the expectation this year, 5-7 is the goal, and then everyone returns next year and we try to finally leap.

I guess I'm just realizing that whatever climb may happen - with this coach or the next - we're probably always going to return to our natural place. There's something about watching Wisconsin just casually brush you away that makes you realize what they already know: they're always going to be them, and we're always going to be us.

I've always kind of acknowledged this, I guess. I will see Illinois Basketball back to it's natural place at the top if it kills me. With its history and its built-in advantages, it will return. It has to.

Football? I guess gravity will always pull us down.

+ I'm just not sure what the answer is for the defense. I gave all the excuses in the world for the youth in the last 18 games. But the second half of 2018 was supposed to be when the youth is no longer an issue and these players with 18 games of starting experience make huge strides. And that's just not happening.

How has it gotten worse than last year with nearly everyone back? Well, for starters, I think Mike Phair was a huge loss. It's clear that Austin Clark has massively underperformed with this line. You can't get nearly everyone back and get this much worse without pointing at the line coach.

But the problem isn't just on the line. It's the scheme, too. Last year, against a 12-0 Wisconsin team, Illinois held Wisconsin to 303 total yards, 168 on the ground. And that was when we were starting seven true freshmen. We get nearly everyone back (James Crawford and Jaylen Dunlap are the only starters missing from last year's game), everyone gets a year older, we only start one true freshman now (Sydney Brown), we're playing a 4-2 Wisconsin team that struggled to move the ball on BYU, and we give up 545 yards, 357 on the ground? How? Explain to me how that's possible.

The whole point of my "25 games" thing was that youth would rule the day - we'd have very little chance of competing - but after a certain point (now), we'd begin to see serious progress. We're seeing serious decline. And I just don't understand it.

+ Our leading receiver this season is Trenard Davis. He is averaging (ready?) 28.9 receiving yards per game.

That's another thing I don't know how we fix. The plan this season was Meadors (the App State transfer) plus Dudek plus Smalling. Meadors suffered a season-ending injury in the summer, Dudek a season-ending injury in the first game, and Smalling has been ineffective (13 catches for 164 yards through seven games). Sam Mays has filled in admirably, but his numbers have fallen off significantly in Big Ten play. Davis has stepped up big-time and is now our go-to receiver. But there's just no more levers left to pull.

Those sacks that MJ Rivers took? They're mostly because he's not seeing any open receivers. And with Louis Dorsey gone and Dudek and Meadors out, what can you do? I guess we just have to accept that we won't have many open receivers the rest of the season. There's no one, right now, who can get separation and consistently make a play.

+ I'm excited to see what MJ Rivers can do - especially after his blocking performance on Reggie Corbin's touchdown - but I'm sad because I still think that AJ Bush's legs give this offense it's best chance to move the ball. I envisioned Bush consistently gashing the defense for big gains, with Epstein (who limped off injured) and company making this rushing game dangerous. All he needed to do was take care of the ball and make keep-them-honest throws. And those two bad interceptions today were probably the end of that.

Actually the thing that makes me the most sad is... man, I don't even want to say it. The thing that makes me the most sad is that AJ Bush, training camp standout was AJ Bush, training camp standout because he was facing our defense. :(

+ At some point it's going to have to click. I didn't expect it to "click" today per se, but I did expect to cover the spread and we didn't. I expected our defense, better set up to stop Wisconsin's run game than Purdue's passing game, to at least keep Wisconsin to around 200 rushing yards (nope - 357). I expected our offense to be able to take advantage of Wisconsin's banged-up defense, not let them grab five turnovers.

When I wrote that preview in 2017 where I laid out the next six months (Sept-Oct-Nov 2017, Sept-Oct-Nov 2018), October 2018 was, and I quote, "wait, are we sure this is going somewhere? Big Ten football is hard." I wasn't expecting to be "there" at this point. Especially not on a road trip to Wisconsin.

But then November 2018 was this: "it took some time, but THIS is what a Big Ten program looks like." We have the Maryland game and then it's November, which starts with a massive matchup against 0-4 in the Big Ten Minnesota. Will it click? Will we suddenly look like "what a Big Ten program looks like"?

I have serious doubts. Feels like we're settling into our natural place. In the basement.


Douglascountyillinifan on October 21 @ 06:30 AM CDT

85= 5-6 86=3-9 87=3-8 88=1-10 89=2-9 90=1-10 91=5-6 92=5-6 93=10-1-1 This was Wisky football until Alvarez built it. Not saying it will happen for us, but it might. Don't give up the dream, Rob.

uilaw71 on October 21 @ 08:33 AM CDT

Robert needs to check out our pre-Slush Fund scores vs Whisky in the 60s. Might lighten his mood.

taz on October 21 @ 09:02 AM CDT

Why would looking at stats from 70 (SEVENTY!) years ago lighten his mood?

You older fans can talk about the good ole days of the 60's and us (slightly less but still) old fans can talk about the success of the 90's but ABSOLUTELY NONE OF THAT MATTERS now. Period. It's not a sign of our rightful place. It's not an indicator of anything. Recruits definitely do not care about Butkus (and definitely, definitely not Red Grange). Hell, I was surprised to find out that local recruits didn't even care about the cache that lovie should have as a very recent former bears coach. None of that matters at all.

HiggsBoson on October 21 @ 06:40 PM CDT

Of course, it matter, Sonny Boy. Tradition matters in college football.

MuckFichigan92 on October 21 @ 08:58 PM CDT

Hopefully you are spot on. Your affinity for caps signify how a B1G team can overcome their past, i.e. the law of (B1G) gravity. The past that you disregard shows it was done and begs the question, "Why not now?"

A meaningless program such as Wisconsin can hire an athletic director who hires a football coach and a DJ who plays white-rap that results in a program. Prior to Barry Alvarez & "Jump Around", Wisconsin was nothing. Save the misogynist rap, Northwestern was worse yet a great AD made three solid hires. Still, caps-fans such as yourself disregard results older than a week.

HiggsBoson on October 21 @ 08:36 AM CDT

So, what are you saying, Robert? That we should stop paying attention to Illinois football because it will always be less than mediocre due to the nature of things? Or that we should stop paying attention to Illinois football until we get a better coach?

As I noted on the Culture post, we had a wining tradition prior to the slush fund in 1966-67, though that's ancient history to you youngsters. There have been flashes of it since then, but they have mostly had to do with coaches. In football none of the successful coaches have stayed long enough to establish a program. I think that Mackovich, for instance, could have been a consistent winner at Illinois. Basketball is similar in that we had long term successful coaches up through Lou Henson, followed by some occasional short term success and coaching change. All of this leads to cyclic starting over.

It seems pretty well established to me that Lovie Smith is not going to build a successful program at Illinois. His big attraction was supposed to be the NFL connection and enhanced recruiting. That hasn't really happened, though he does seem to enjoy hanging out with cronies and cashing his paychecks. The gutting of the roster and the complete rebuild that is allegedly in progress tells me Lovie is thinking like an NFL guy, where doing this sort of thing is rewarded with high draft choices. Bottom line: I expect Lovie to retire at the end of his contract with an overall losing record and no bowl appearances. Hopefully we can get a good college coach then who can work with, not against the roster.

For this not to happen, recruiting needs to step up, and Nickerson and Lovie's defense need to be replaced. A new DC with some autonomy might be able to make something of the players we've got. The DL line coach needs to be upgrades ASAP.

I'm also not really convinced the Brad Underwood is the right guy either, but that's for another time and topic. Both coaches need to get off the run players off carousel in any case.

Groundhogday on October 22 @ 09:54 PM CDT

"It seems pretty well established to me that Lovie Smith is not going to build a successful program at Illinois."

I'm reluctantly coming to this conclusion. The Lovie regime reminds me of the Moeller era. Lovie would be successful at a place like Michigan, but he will never be successful at Illinois. He just doesn't have the edge - recruiting, scheming, motivating - needed to overcome the inertia at Illinois. But hopefully he upgrades the talent for the next guy.

FlyinIllini22 on October 21 @ 11:23 AM CDT

Robert two parts to my reply. Wisconsin is not Michigan who will always gravitate towards the top. After graduating in ‘90 I moved to Wisconsin and I know first hand that our Illini Football program is better than what the Badgers had back then before their turnaround.

Part 2. The struggle of the football and basketball programs aren’t all in the’s the university culture. We have gone out of our way to exclude Illini alumni from leading our Illini teams. I know first hand how two Illini Legends were being told the University was scared of nepotism and needed to steer clear of former players. And the other was traveling to the interview and the head coach forgot to call him to let him know the position was already filled.

Larger point is the pride of being a true Illini is geographically limited to north of 70, south of 80, and 50 miles away from any state border except for straight east of Champaign. Losing the Chief made this worse too. Therefore it’s harder to recruit or to have sellouts because the fan base is really much smaller than most could realize. We own Springfield, B-N, Decatur, C-U and that’s it. Peoria is an Illini lean, as is Metro East St Louis and some Chicago suburbs. Rockford is WI, Quad Cities are IA, St Louis is MO, Chicago we know isn’t Illini enough. Further im unaware of any community outside of our state lines who favor Illini, while all bordering schools encroach into our side of the state line.

Using your WI example in that state probably every township in every county were Badger fans before Alvarez. And the attraction of that pride extends into Illinois territory.

If it’s possible to turn this around the solution is at a much higher level than a line coach or any head coach. But the number of 4* recruits who grew up in an Illini family isn’t what it used to be...or should be.

ATOillini on October 21 @ 12:28 PM CDT

"And I'm accepting that we just belong in the basement."

Wow. I know you're at all-time emotional low when you say that.

For years we've seen you write the occasional "this has to be the absolute bottom" articles regarding both football and hoops. Suddenly you've come to the conclusion that the bottom is the accepted norm when referencing the former? Harsh, but maybe just the psychologically easier construct to accept. Guess I'm not ready to give up just yet.

Watching that Purdue game last night was eye opening. Their staff completely outcoached Urban & Co. (including the hey let's throw out another half million to Ryan Day). At how many positions does Purdue have a higher rated recruit? So yes, coaching does matter.

The folks that questioned the Lovie hire from day one (including Chicago media) are enjoying the fruits of their original doubt. Easy to pile on at this point. Make fun of his beard. Make fun of his demeanor. Etc.

I have a question for everybody. Rondale Moore 57 receptions for 728 yards in 7 games. If he had played those 7 games in the orange and blue, what would his stats be?

Bear8287 on October 21 @ 10:09 PM CDT

ATO grabbed the same line that I was going to quote, so no need to repeat that.

Robert, do we need an intervention here? Can someone please talk Robert off of the ledge?

I know this point always leads to the discussion of coaching - "just have to find the right coach" - and of course that's true...

Oh, it helps if the administration is behind improving the program too. I believe that one of the reasons why Mackovic left was because he wanted to build a team that could compete for national championships and he felt like the UI administration didn't care (can't say that he was wrong).

It's nice to see though that somewhere deep down that you actually acknowledge the importance of coaching.

Good coaches can win with lesser talent, bad coaches can lose with greater talent. The way to get more talent is to win. Seems pretty clear how that has to be bootstrapped.

Any good program can fall once the coaches that have gotten them there are gone. (Note: Alvarez has been the one constant over the rise of the Badgers' football program).

This quote is interesting: 'NU athletic director Steve Pederson fired Solich before the bowl game, justifying the move with the now-infamous claim that he would not "let Nebraska gravitate into mediocrity"'.

Well, hey, good thing he did that! There's that "gravity" thing too. It takes a lot of work to be really good or great. It's pretty easy to tear something down.

The Cards haven't made it to the post-season for three consecutive seasons and yet the Cubs were there for every one of them. New order? Who belongs where?

You can believe that a team "belongs" at the bottom, but in the end there really isn't any upside in that now, is there?

Cheer up Robert.

illiniranger on October 21 @ 12:47 PM CDT

We need to get better. If Lovie can’t do that, next man up. I don’t think if Lovie fails it means anything more than he wasn’t good enough.

Joe Edge on October 22 @ 03:20 PM CDT

Or it could mean that he just wasn't the 'right' coach for this situation, and this time (moment)... I've seen many great leaders fail (and fail drastically) when placed in situations that were not conducive to producing a winning outcome.

Illinimac68 on October 21 @ 01:52 PM CDT

We're where we are because of Tim Beckman, plain and simple. In 25 years we've won several bowl games, been to two New Year's bowls and have beaten traditional powers on several occasions. We won our last two bowl trips before the Beckman disaster. This is hardly a tradition of being at the bottom of the conference. It's more a tradition of how the heck do you look so good one year and so bad the next two or three.

HiggsBoson on October 21 @ 06:39 PM CDT

Tim Beckman's teams went to a bowl game. It took Lovie Smith three seasons to beat Rutgers. Frankly, Bill Cubit would have gotten to a bowl game that season if he hadn't been replaced by Lovie, who couldn't figure out how to integrate seniors with his system. Lovie has also run off a lot more talent. At the end of the day, Beckman will likely end up being a better college coach than Lovie.

Bear8287 on October 21 @ 10:18 PM CDT

At the end of the day, Beckman will likely end up being a better college coach than Lovie.

Happy Halloween! That's some pretty scary sh!t. :-D

thumpasaurus on October 21 @ 08:19 PM CDT

It is intellectually dishonest to say we’ve been better than awful on average forcthe last 25 years. We had 1999, 2001 and 2007 and that’s it.

Six bowl games in that time. Six of 25. That’s 0.220. You’d be expected to hit a lot of homers if that was your MLB batting average.

A full 20% (FIVE in 25) of those seasons have seen us lose every Big Ten game. No other team in our conference is even close to that mark, not even Indiana.

It’s still in theory possible for us to be better than horrible, but don’t kid yourself; we caught the breaks one time and caught lighting in a bottle twice, and then had two decent seasons and one 6-0 to 6-6 season then we’ve had 19 of 25 seasons just be bad.

Joe Edge on October 22 @ 03:30 PM CDT

And how many times have we torn everything down, fired the coaching staff, and started over? 6 ? 7? ... and with each head coach that we hire how many OC and DC changes have been made ? 2,3? more ? Changing the coaching staff seems to be the only thing we know how to do...

Eagle on October 21 @ 03:22 PM CDT

Chin up Robert. Just because it didn’t happen as you expected, doesn’t mean it won’t. (It likely won’t, but it could).

I like our OC coordinator but he chose AJ for what he could give that MJ can’t - experience and running. However, what MJ gives us (more accurate throwing) will be far more valuable. MJ will be very good once he learns to see the open receivers ( yes we do have them). We’ll see the offense improve over the rest of this season and then we need to make major decisions on D. The DL coach change is the easy decision. Lovie’s Legacy will be determined by whether he can make the tough decision.

NC_OrangeKrush on October 21 @ 04:12 PM CDT

I find this is most always the case... a coach that is willing to change Asst Coaches or Coordinators has opportunity to adapt and change and improve (while hopefully keeping similar schemes). Ones that are loyal, it can be their undoing... (i.e. Bruce Weber, John Groce in BB..)

Seemingly Lovie can make the call (He did on Offense)... but it may be a little more personal on Defense, so I am interested to see...

Hoppy on October 21 @ 04:06 PM CDT


I think you should go back through the top 22 of your 90 Illini and see how many of our top guys haven’t contributed and how many have.

I haven’t done it but am getting ready to. I think it would be a good way to rationalize some of our results. (Besides the coaching)

It could also be an interesting post each year for the entire 90i to check in to see how each player did compared to your prediction. Maybe just highlight the ones that were big surprises? (Good or bad)

HiggsBoson on October 21 @ 06:42 PM CDT

And how many of them Lovie has run off since he's been at Illinois.

IBFan on October 21 @ 09:00 PM CDT

New OC, new QB, very young, new culture, impact players hurt....think it's very understandable what our record is. If anyone has played freshman vs varsity it can be ugly at times....hence some ugly moments this year. We all knew this year would still be rough, ok, it's rough. Suck it up and have faith. If we win one more? Two? We had a game where nothing went right and guys who are smaller, weaker, younger, less experienced than a monster sized Wisconsin team kept playing hard til the end. Give me the guys that want to be student athletes, stay drug free, don't skip walk thrus, and actually study and learn their play books...add the red shirts from this year and a dose of incoming freshmen...I'm excited about next year already. Chin up Robert, programs are built over time, rebuilding a decimated program takes time and then some.

MuckFichigan92 on October 21 @ 09:41 PM CDT

A full 20% (FIVE in 25) of those seasons have seen us lose every Big Ten game. No other team in our conference is even close to that mark, not even Indiana.

No other team in our conference showing such results indicates uniquely bad hires in both coaches and ADs, the latter dictating the former. If IU can avoid such disgrace, anyone including Illinois can. NW shows us how.

thumpasaurus on October 22 @ 01:42 PM CDT

Tepper was a gigantic mistake, but I can't exactly say that Turner and Zook were mistakes.

However, Turner should have been fired during 2003 and Zook should have been fired after 2009. When you can assess the program and find significant impediments to long-term viability, it's time to move on.

In the Zook case, even though games like Michigan showed what that talent on that team was capable of, Zook's hiring of Schultz was a catastrophe and he should have known better than to do that. Compound that with the way his vaunted recruiting had gone completely silent as a result of the underwhelming follow-ups to 2007 and you have a fanbase that was shocked when he wasn't fired.

In the case of Lovie Smith, when I look at this defense as presently assembled, I don't see how the coaching is getting the most out of the talent they've put together, and I don't see anywhere near enough talent coming in next year to make this a respectable defense for the all-important 2019 season.

It's possible that everything comes together at some point in these last 5 games, but man...when you basically play Western Illinois to a draw, I just can't believe with all my heart.

LongLiveTheChief98 on October 25 @ 09:20 AM CDT

Been saying this since mid-2012, when it was apparent Beckman wasn't the's not likely this program will ever be truly resuscitated.

With that said, hearing it come out of Robert's mouth is disheartening, and we've been seeing some dark posts and tweets from him this year. This does not bode well for the Lovie Smith era.

Beat Maryland on Saturday, and we all may be changing our tune a bit. If not Maryland, Minnesota may very well be our last chance before we all start officially hanging it up and accepting our fate as perennial bottom feeders.

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