I Just Don't Understand
I've been sitting here staring at a blinking cursor for what seems like 20 minutes now. I've already written out my disappointment (after Purdue). And then I melted down (after Wisconsin). What's left? We just gave up 712 yards to the #100 offense. A Maryland offense that only put up 115 yards last week and was shut out. We've now played three times since winning at Rutgers (Purdue, Wisconsin, Maryland) and I've done a little research on those three games.
Our defense has allowed:
- 623 yards per game
- 8.3 yards per play
- 22 of 38 third down conversions
- 16.4 yards per pass completion
- 7.0 yards per carry
- Points per game in Big Ten play: 46.7
Here's the thing. The offense is doing what we need. They're not great, they're not top five in the Big Ten or anything, but they're significantly improved, even with the injuries and the passing game issues. If we're sticking with the five year rebuild narrative and the whole "4-8 is acceptable as long as it's competitive and 2019 is a big leap forward" thing, the offense, through eight games, is there. Not there yet, but there.
The defense is the worst in school history. I just don't understand.
This is the 93rd time I've written about this, but as a St. Louis guy, when Lovie was hired, I was excited about Guy Who Fixed The Defense And Put The Rams In The Super Bowl Lovie Smith, not Chicago Bears Lovie Smith. The Greatest Show On Turf was useless in 2000 because the defense was horrific. The Rams hired Lovie to be the DC, he fixed it in a year, and the Rams went back to the Super Bowl.
And now, in his third year in Champaign, this coach who was hired to build an Illini team on the foundation of "running game and defense" has produced the statistics above. I just don't understand. 4-8 or 5-7 would be fine. Having the 83rd-best defense, given the youth on that side of the ball, would be fine. 623 yards per game over three conference games? Not fine in any way.
I seriously don't understand. 87 starts from true freshmen last year (or whatever the number was), we return almost everyone, and the defense is the worst of any major conference team? How does it get so much worse?
Well, that one I can answer. I think it's clear that Mike Phair's departure is a big part of this. He was more or less co-coordinator the last two years (official title was "run defense coordinator"), and if the defense gets that much worse from one year to the next, I think you have to point to the departure of Phair. Same coordinator, same defensive head coach, same scheme, almost all the players return, and it gets this much worse? Phair is the only answer that makes sense.
I mean, look at the scores. Last year against Purdue, we lost 29-10. This year, 46-7. Last year against Wisconsin we lost 24-10. This year, 49-20. We swapped out Indiana for Maryland on the schedule this year. Indiana scored 24 last year. Maryland scored 63 this year. New defensive line coach or not, how does a defense get that much worse?
I picked us to win 28-27. The offense would take a step forward and the defense would have a "that's more like it" game against the weakest offense left on the schedule. The offense did their part and the defense... did that.
Honestly, I don't really feel bad about making that prediction. In the same circumstances, I'd probably do it again. If you wanted to bet me that Maryland's offense would put up 700+ yards today, I would have given you such insane odds. 115 yards last week and then 700 this week? Simply not possible.
Like, I guarantee you that Maryland's 597-yard improvement from last week to this week (!!!!!) is a record. Has to be. No way it's not. No team in the history of football has improved their offensive output by 597 yards from one game to the next. But we made that possible.
What do we do now? I really have no idea. With The Worst Defense In Illini History we're obviously not going to win again. There's a $12 million buyout, so I think it's obvious there won't be a coaching change. There will likely be a defensive staff overhaul, much like we saw with the offense this offseason, but how do you even do that? Bring in someone else to call Lovie's defense? Would Lovie agree to a different defense? No way, right?
The worst three defensive performances of the Lovie era? October of his third year. The worst defense in Illini history? It belongs to a coach who went to the Super Bowl because of his defense. Today's game? Maryland improved by 597 yards over last week.
It's all just so impossible to understand.
+ One plus sign this week, and it's just going to be a list of positives I saw from certain players because I'm already too depressed and broken to dissect anything else.
- Dre Brown returned two kickoffs to the 35 and one to the 50 (plus he had one rush for 14 yards). Get the ball in this kids hands. I don't care how - just do it.
- Dominic Stampley finally got a chance to show off his speed (granted, against Maryland's backups). 4 catches for 153 yards and two touchdowns. More please.
- AJ Bush finally looked like Training Camp AJ Bush that I was raving about. Those relaxed throws in the fourth quarter when the pressure was off and they were just playing out the fourth quarter - those are the throws he made at camp. None of this hesitation stuff, no happy feet. No half-arming. Just make the read and release the ball.
- Freshman walkon Jordan Holmes had that nice 14 yard punt return early in the first quarter. I'd like to see him be the full-time punt returner (you know, if we ever force another punt). (Sorry.)
- Chase McLaughlin would have made all four field goals if the goalposts were only six feet wide. Maybe they should put a post in the middle and if you hit it, it's worth five or something. That would be a positive development for Illinois football.
- Reggie Corbin is going to clear 1,000 yards.
Ok I'm going to bed. Probably. When the realization sinks in that you might not see a bowl until 2022 at the earliest, and then you realize you turn 50 that year, man, sleep seems impossible. The thing I love might never (like, seriously, not again in my lifetime) love me back.
I just don't understand.