I Just Don't Understand


Robert
Oct 28, 2018
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29 Comments

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.

Comments

steveinseattle on October 28 @ 01:38 AM CDT

It’s time to reach the conclusion: not only is this not working, it’s not going to work.

Coral Taylor was tweeting during the game. Did he not make the trip? A guy with his athleticism should be able to find his way on the field, in some position, if not WB. But Lovie evidently is leaving him off to the side.

How many players are going to leave after this debacle this season? When you’ve sold hope and playing time to incoming recruits, you have to show progress. We haven’t because there isn’t any. I expect a lot of recruits to start looking around next...and who can blame them?

Maybe the “culture” problems that caused the staff to run off so many kids wasn’t really the kids at all.

I looked up Illini defensive stats going back to the mid 70’s. Not even Gary Moeller’s teams were this bad. A series of tacking dummies spaced at proper intervals could do a better job than what we’re putting on the field.

MuckFichigan92 on October 28 @ 01:41 AM CDT

Blockquote

It’s time to reach the conclusion: not only is this not working, it’s not going to work.

Blockquote

That is the quandry for me: why postpone the inevitable?

illiniranger on October 28 @ 07:45 AM CDT

To #2, the two reasons would be because the buyout is huge and Lovies best recruits aren’t in college yet. Not that I am sold on keeping Lovie, but those would be the reasons.

I think there’s a possibility that they could negotiate a reduced buyout because the buyout drops huge from this year to next. Don’t know if that will happen though.

HiggsBoson on October 28 @ 09:25 AM CDT

The buyout is the problem, along with Whitman. After the mess this season I don't think it's reasonable to expect all, or even most, of those recruits to sign or show up on campus.

MuckFichigan92 on October 28 @ 01:38 AM CDT

I will expand on your tag line.

Lovie Smith, who hadn't been in college football for 20 some years was hired as a head coach? I just don't understand.

Nickerson and Clark, rookies at their position? All that unleashed staff $$$ and those are Lovie's choices? Heck, I'll throw in Butkus > Heistand. I just don't understand.

The choice seemed more of a PR move than a football one. Popular regional coach to fill Club Memorial Stadium. I would have chosen differently and gone with a Jerry Kill, staff and all, selection, e.g. Beau Baldwin. Now, we are past the halfway point and cannot turn back, unless Lovie is let go.

If not, attendance will nosedive. Recruiting should follow, especially with opposing B1G vipers hissing of Lovie's situation. This season is gone, leaving 2019 as the only option. An eight-win bar was set but I don't see that happening; I see five wins. Is there a way to retain a HC who only wins five games with nearly all of his players (attrition has increased that number)? I just don't understand.

illiniranger on October 28 @ 07:51 AM CDT

In hindsight it’s easy to criticize the Lovie hire. I don’t think any of us expected him to do this bad.

We were on de facto probation with Cubit. That team would’ve gone 3-9/4-8 and had historically bad recruiting. When Whitman was hired it was at a bad time to try and find an established coach (I think we hired Lovie in March).

It was a risky move, but I understand why Whitman did it. No way did I think Lovie would coach and recruit as poorly as he has. If Lovie fails, I think it just means he failed.

HiggsBoson on October 28 @ 09:28 AM CDT

Cubit would likely have gotten to a bowl with the upperclassmen that Lovie disdained.

illiniranger on October 28 @ 09:57 AM CDT

I doubt it. Cubit isn’t/wasn’t a very good coach. Look at that staff and several guys are out of coaching, including Cubit. If he was good, he’d be somewhere. Cubit was a dead end.

Alaskan Illini on October 28 @ 02:56 PM CDT

Now, that's not even reasonable . . .

HiggsBoson on October 28 @ 03:52 PM CDT

True, though. Pre Lovie even Robert was touting all of the upperclassmen. Then Lovie ran most of them off or just didn't play while he implemented the worst defensive system in the country and pretty mucvh no offense prior to Rod Smith.

HiggsBoson on October 28 @ 09:30 AM CDT

The whole idea with Lovie was that he could recruit based on NFL/Super Bowl pedigree. Unfortunately, it turns out that he's better at running off talent than he is at recruiting it.

Alaskan Illini on October 28 @ 02:57 PM CDT

We get it, you hate the Lovie hire. Your last 50+ posts confirm that . . . . ;-)

HiggsBoson on October 28 @ 03:53 PM CDT

How about you just f**k off instead of telling your betters what they can say?

Lanta on October 28 @ 06:58 PM CDT

I agree with Alaskan Illini. You going to cuss me out too tough guy? Yawn

grantskoch on October 28 @ 07:03 PM CDT

Haha are you actually scared to type out the word fuck?

Alaskan Illini on October 29 @ 09:38 AM CDT

Betters? that coming from an amateur dickhead? I expect better than that from the pinheads at Purdue . . .

When you have something to contribute to the conversation, let's hear it. Other than that, why don't you just shut the fuck up?

Bear8287 on October 28 @ 02:10 AM CDT

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.

There's this theory about the importance of coaching, that even with the best recruits you can't just throw the ball out on the field and expect them to win...

If you're seriously being out recruited and don't have coaches who can "coach them up"? Well you get the last 3 weeks of Illini football.

If Maryland is the worst offense that the Illini are going to face the rest of this season, what will be the most points the Illini give up in the next 4 games? (Boo! It's almost Halloween. Scared you, didn't I?)

illiniranger on October 28 @ 07:47 AM CDT

Maryland is really athletic and run all that motion, they are a real boom-bust offense. I don’t think Minnesota can peak like MD can. Minny should still beat us, but I don’t think they’ll do that to us.

HiggsBoson on October 28 @ 09:33 AM CDT

Coaching has got to be a lot of it because the players that are run off seem to be solid contributors elsewhere.

Can Lovie's defense give up 800 yards in a game? 900? 1,000? 70? 80? 90? 100 points? Whee!

HiggsBoson on October 28 @ 09:54 AM CDT

Well, Robert. that defense of Lovie's you admire was almost 20 years ago, so other coaches have figured out how to defeat it. I've always thought Lovie Smith was a far better defensive coach than he is a head coach. Now he seems to be neither.

Bottom line, I think, is that Lovie is in first stage retirement with a fat paycheck. He gets to hang out with his cronies and talk football, but there's no pressure to win since he has such a big buyout. I don't expect it to get any better. It may even get worse after the next bunch of transfers leave and the recruiting class falls apart after this horrible season.

Zook had us in the Rose Bowl in year three. Lovie is setting new records for worst defensive numbers. Draw your own conclusions.

Dr. Chim Richalds on October 28 @ 10:46 AM CDT

Feels like there is a bit of a disparity between Saturday Night / Sunday Morning Robert and Wednesday Robert the past month or so. Understanding it's mid-season and for now best to just see how the next month plays out, I'm curious to see if the "five full years no questions asked - rebuilds are best approached blind to the results until you have all of them" philosophy holds.

ill87ini on October 28 @ 11:42 AM CDT

A few notes..... need to give props to Jake Hansen as well, he is a bright spot on that miserable defense. Think Watson would have been an asset too? :)

I disagree with Robert about AJ Bush being a positive, his throws were at garbage time against backups, more like scrimmage or 7on7 throws.

Now on to the blame game! I was very disappointed in Beckmans bad blocking and tackling, play calling, break downs in coverage, dropped passes and giving up the touchdown on the kickoff. I would love to see him give better effort! Lovie apologists where are you now? Can we stop blaming Beckman? Not that Cubit was a long term answer either but he would have been superior to the clown show we have going on right now. I am sure he would not have run off 1/2 of our players either. And from the I told you so department, I wish I could bring up my posts from last year! I think I clearly articulated that this was not going to work, horrible fundamentals and the signs of all the departures were all indicative of a bad situation getting worse..... I hate when I am correct.

As a long time Illini football fan, yes moreso that basketball, I am saddened that we gotten back to this place again. So what to do? Tough position for Whitman. Probably come to agreement with Lovie to leave, find a graceful way (good luck), and hire a young up and comer with low base salary and leverage with high incentives, take a chance with less financial repercussion , what do we have to lose? Do we not have as great a chance at good luck as the chance that this Lovie 'experiment' was going to be bad luck?

Alaskan Illini on October 28 @ 03:07 PM CDT

I'm not sure that Lovie's the answer, the results are certainly sub par - to our expectations . . . . which are usually unreasonable. I do think however, that changing coaches this year will set us back 5 years. We're year 2.5 into a complete overhaul that probably requires the full five years. Another year will give Lovie a chance to show real progress with a team that is not the youngest team in the BIG, or in the nation. It's reasonable to expect significant progress in the third year of a rebuild, and that's 2019.We've seen some nice progress on the O side of the ball, if we can match that on D next year we should have a .500 team or better.

Almost everyone was calling for a 4-8 season to be a demonstration of progress for this year, and we're likely to get that 5-7 or 6-6 was sipping some seriously tainted Orange Kool-Aid.

thumpasaurus on October 28 @ 10:09 PM CDT

Our expectations are unreasonable?

You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.

It’s unreasonable to expect Illinois to not field the worst defense in its 128 year history of playing football?!?!

Holy shit. It’s unbelievable that there are still people that can say with a straight face that Illini football fans have unreasonable expectations.

We have won 9 of our last 62 conference games.

When I say “it’s unbelievable,” I mean I literally don’t believe you’re making a good faith argument. There’s no way you believe that shit.

Alaskan Illini on October 29 @ 09:46 AM CDT

I share the long term expectations that Illinois should have a football program that is competitive on a national stage. I graduated in the mid 80's and experienced what I think Illinois football can be and should be. Admittedly I didn't follow Illinois football in the 70's, which were by all accounts some of the lowest points in Illini football . . until the last 10 years.

I meant "unreasonable" from the perspective that we are in the 2nd (or 3rd, depending on your viewpoint) of a rebuild from the depths of football hell, and a large number of fans have "expectations" that we win 6 or 7 games and go to a bowl. Most knowledgeable football people picked us to in 3 or 4 games, with an outside chance at a 5th victory if we can sneak up on someone - it appears we're on track to meet those predictions. Those same people also held that 4 or 5 wins would show significant improvement from last year. Our defense has regressed horribly, but our offense has shown brief flashes of what we can hopefully expect for next year and the years beyond.

Apologies if I was unclear (and I was) regarding our expectation . . .

thumpasaurus on October 30 @ 06:54 AM CDT

Fair enough. I guess the problem I have is that the defensive has regressed roughly the same amount that the offense has improved, and since they’ve only beaten teams substantially worse than the 2017 illini, I don’t see evidence that the team as a whole is better. We don’t have a win anywhere near as good as Western Kentucky 2017.

ATOillini on October 28 @ 12:35 PM CDT

Yes, the hope of that surprise announcement in March 2016 seems like a decade ago at this point. I agree with Ranger that I completely understand the hire in the context of the program at that time. There were immediate doubters including the Chicago sports press. And right now it obviously doesn't seem to have worked....to say the least. So those people get to snicker and spout off "I told you this was a mistake".

The two most pleasant surprises in the last several years of Illini football were Mikey Dudek and Bennet Williams. Both were unheralded recruits that ended up having freshman All-American years, and then Illini careers that essentially ended there. Just a microcosm of the program. We don't even get to enjoy a massively better than expected player for more than one season.

I have no idea what the answer is at this point. Looks like any chance of ultimate program success given current leadership is highly, highly doubtful (ok...I know I'm stating the obvious), but there's this thing called money that comes into play. Plus who actually would make sense as a replacement?

Norcal Illini on October 29 @ 01:26 AM CDT

Robert, maybe you could help all of us understand by having someone like Craig someone else in your braintrust analyze the defense and opine on the problem. I have to believe it's more than just young players. When I watched the game yesterday, I kept seeing how the single high safety would switch back and forth from the line whenever there was motion, and sometimes they would switch at least twice pre-snap. It's apparent that the opponents are seeing something and adjusting to it. What are they looking for, and how are they adjusting?

On outside runs, the DEs and LBs rarely are able to hold the edge. Is that lack of strength, technique, assignments, or what?

And my biggest frustration is on third and long. Seems like every time, the DBs play cover 4, there's a 4-man rush with no pressure, and the QB finds a wide open receive in a hold in the zone. In the Wisconsin game, on third and long, right after we scored to get it to 28-17, even the announcers pointed out how they were going to cover 4 on one play. Everyone in the stadiums saw it. And sure enough, Hornibrook found a wide open receiver near the sideline between the CB and safety. And a couple plays later, they run 39 yards for a TD. It doesn't seem like the players have a chance.

Illinimac68 on October 29 @ 08:38 AM CDT

I don't blame Whitman for the hire. I'll be watching to see how he transitions to the next coach. 12 million dollars says we have one more year of Lovie but after that I expect a new head coach. Maybe the turnaround we want is beyond anyone but it's obviously beyond Lovie. In term of expectations, I don't think it's unreasonable to expect to be in the game until the end with this year's team when we're playing opponents that maybe will play in early December bowls.

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