Nov 10, 2018

How many times have I written a "this is just so frustrating" post? 25 times? And now I'm supposed to write it a 26th time? Interceptions, fumbles, muffed punts (two!), drops, a blocked punt, and a fairly balanced game becomes a blowout. This is just so frustrating.

Yes, I'm on the record with two things:

1. We were going to lose this game by 20.
2. After our crazy turnover luck the first four games, a correction was coming.

This was (more of) that correction. And we lost by 19. So by tomorrow morning, I'll calm down and see that things are more or less aligned with my expectations. But when you get a defense that only allows Nebraska to be 4-12 on third down, and you pick up 509 yards on offense, and it doesn't come anywhere close to mattering because of two interceptions, a fumble, four drops, two muffed punts, and a blocked punt... it's just so incredibly frustrating.

And in the midst of my frustration meltdown in the second half, what happens? Bobby Roundtree gets a strip sack, Jake Hansen falls on it, it squirts out of his grasp and squibs out of bounds - Nebraska ball. I don't care what you say, that's turnover #6 for the game. That's a fumbled fumble.

You know what - I need to pause for a wind rant. I don't think I've had a single wind rant the entire year.

HOW IS IT POSSIBLE THAT WE STILL DON'T UNDERSTAND THE WIND??? It's been my pet issue for nine (NINE!) years. We play our football games in CHAMPAIGN, ILLINOIS, where the closest hill to disrupt the wind is in Beardstown, and we're in the Big Ten, the windiest wind conference in all of Windville, we practice in the wind every day, and we still don't know what we're doing.

The punt to Carlos Sandy was into the wind. He should have been spending two hours every week practicing with the backup punter, understanding how quickly that ball is going to hit a wall of wind and just die. Does he know that? No. Because we apparently don't address the wind with our punt returners.

So freshman walkon Jordan Holmes gets a shot after Sandy's fumble. And his punt return is with the wind. What does it do? It does what every Big Ten punt with the wind in history has done - drifts high on him. Was he prepared for that very regular occurence? No. I can only assume punt return practice is "go catch that ball - it will just drop out of the sky at the same rate every time since we're in the midwest in the fall and there's no winds". And kickoffs, too. Dre Brown - who was so good today it makes me angry that he's not more of the offense (his heads-up play on the blocked punt saved 7 points) - let a kickoff drift too high on him (WIND!) and fumbled it. He picked it up and returned it... to the six.

There's no way we're prepared for the wind. We play football IN CHAMPAIGN ILLINOIS and we're not prepared for the wind. How is that even possible?

I mean, I've even gone Inception with this issue. I got to interview Lovie Smith and Tim Beckman right after they were hired and I loaded up the question: "Big Ten stadiums are Wind Tunnel USA in the fall - what will you do to teach your players to play in the wind since it's going to be really windy with all the wind?".

It drives me insane where we place our returners. I cannot stand that we don't let the wind direction factor into fourth-down go-for-it decisions. It drives me nuts that the wind is a constant issue, game after game, and everyone acts surprised when it affects us.

I mean, sure, maybe we do emphasize it. Maybe Carlos Sandy and Jordan Holmes are just freshmen and even when you're told "this ball is going to drift on you further than you can possibly imagine", you get out there in front of 80,000 fans and forget everything you're taught.

But it's just so frustrating to see progress (the whole game last week, the offense today) completely undone by mistakes (especially wind-aided mistakes). If this is a hard-fought game, back and forth, and Nebraska wins because they put up 600 yards to our 500 and it's basically a Big 12 game that ends 52-48, fine - we fought hard on the road and lost. But to lose with 5 turnovers and a blocked punt (and all those drops!) - it's just so frustrating.

+ Let's talk about the drops for a second. First, I was worried about drops with Stampley before the season. Here's what I wrote in the big preview:

What about junior college transfer Dominic Stampley? Stampley, who is from Champaign, joined the team just this summer (meaning he didn't sign in February and was a "blueshirt" recruit who joins the team once fall camp starts). Stampley certainly has the quicks (very fast in and out of his cuts), but after several dropped balls during training camp, can the coaching staff count on his hands?

Answer: no, unfortunately. It's something you can correct, and this is just his first year of Big Ten football, but for now, with all these drops, it's hard to count on him.

Which makes me long for Dude K. Do you know what I would give for this offense with Dude K right now? Heck, add Shaedon Meadors to that list. The plan this year was Dudek, Smalling, and Appalachian State's leading receiver from two years ago who transferred here to give Big Ten football a shot (Meadors). He got injured before training camp even began, and Dudek was injured in the first game, and here we are, without receivers we can really trust.

What can you do with that? Honestly, I have no idea. You just have to accept it, I guess. I'm fairly impressed with what Rod Smith has been able to do with the offense given that there's no go-to receivers emerging. It's been done with the run game (even with Epstein out), so it's impressive.

But with two games left, I just don't think there's anything that can be done with the passing game. It's broken and won't be fixed until the offseason.

+ We really do need to pause and talk about the offensive line. I've questioned a lot of things about Luke Butkus over the past few years, but props need to be given. These big runs are constant. RB1 and RB2 are injured and his line produces a big run from Dre Brown and a big run from Ra'Von Bonner. 7.8 yards per rush today a week after 12.3 against Minnesota a week after 6.6 against Maryland a week after 5.8 against Wisconsin. Do it for the fourth game in a row (this time with your third and fourth running back) and props must be given. We can run the damn ball.

If Corbin is out for the rest of the year (let's face it - running back, ankle injury, two games left - he's probably done for the year), and if Epstein does not return, then I don't think we have home run potential anymore. Iowa and Northwestern can both stop the run, so I feel like the running game will grind to a halt these last two games (which means we aren't winning again). But everyone returns next year besides Bush and Allegretti, and I'm excited to see where this running game goes.

+ So, that defense...

Here's what I'll say. These next two games give the opportunity for defensive hope next year. Neither the Iowa offense nor the Northwestern offense are all that explosive. This Nebraska offense was always going to be a challenge, and 5 turnovers basically gives you no chance at all (short fields, "hey defense get back out there we screwed up again"), so let's just burn this film.

Now, Iowa and Northwestern. They're playing right now, as I type this, and the score is 3-0 in the third quarter. Yes, they both have solid defenses. But the both have methodical, the-opposite-of-explosive offenses. Can our defense, designed to stop the more methodical offense, take two big steps the next two weeks?

Because let's face it - those crazy thoughts we had after last week's blowout win (the ones about doing something crazy and making a bowl) are completely gone now. It was just a one week hiatus and now we're back to "oh, right, a defense that needs to be completely overhauled in the offseason". We're going to finish somewhere between 120th and 130th in most defensive statistics, and that's the story of the entire season. A defensive head coach with his worst defense ever.

But the next two weeks, an opportunity. The offense is there and will probably only get better the next two seasons. Now - give us some hope that the defense is going to get somewhere.


Joe Edge on November 11 @ 05:20 PM CST

With all due respect Robert, I don't understand you sometimes.... When the season started the pro's were saying 3.5 wins.... Nearly everyone in Illini-country/Nation (whatever) were saying 4 wins... Including you (I think). It's what I expected... Guess what... We have 4 wins... We have achieved exactly what most expected. ... So how can I justify being upset (in any form) about this loss .... I don't get it.... Seriously... and honestly...

JimmyTheLayup on November 12 @ 08:59 AM CST

Not everything is black and white. There are shades of gray.

Robert on November 12 @ 11:21 AM CST

So how can I justify being upset (in any form) about this loss .... I don't get it.... Seriously... and honestly...

It's fairly simple to me. We handed them the game with mistakes. We don't even have to get into all five turnovers to see that - just look at the two muffed punts. Take those two drives and make them Illinois moving the ball the other way (and getting, let's say, 10 points) instead of Nebraska continuing two drives (and getting 10 points) and that's the game. That's all it takes. This game was won by Nebraska when Ligs didn't teach his punt returners how to handle the wind.

Throwing away two games (Nebraska and Wisconsin) with 5+ turnovers is not what I expected this season. Opponent's clearing 600 yards four times was not what I expected. I was OK with 4-8, but this 4-8 has some alarming undercurrents.

I'm still at five full years, I'm still expecting two bowls the next two seasons, but the way it's playing out is troubling.

Joe Edge on November 12 @ 01:06 PM CST

Yes... You're frustrated.... Well SO AM I... I never said I wasn't...

Mostly my post was kind of 'tongue in cheek'... I wanted to see if we were 'truly expecting' something else - something other that 4 wins... and apparently, we were... that's all...

BigSkyIllini on November 11 @ 10:50 PM CST

What frustrates Robert and so many Illini fans including myself is we are not even competitive in the losses. Yes we have four wins against not very good teams but we’ve been blown out in every other game

Sweetchuck13 on November 12 @ 08:15 AM CST

I don't think any of us expected the defense to take such a big step backwards. I think most were expecting the defense to be about the same or slightly better with mostly everyone back, and the offense to take a solid step back to at least average.

I think our offense has taken more than a solid step as I'd say it's at least average or better. With an average defense, this team could have gotten to 6 wins. But with our defensive struggles, can we even get one of the last two to get to 5? Maybe we can catch NW napping since they're already in the title game (ugh).

Having said all of that, I predicted 4 wins before the season and that's the most likely outcome. I'm not happy with the blowout losses and terrible defense, but we're still making slow progress. Next year is the time for a big leap.

illiniranger on November 12 @ 08:38 AM CST

to me it's not about the Ws and Ls this year, it was about how they looked and if recruiting was improving. Take for example the 2006 Illini. Off the top of my head, i think they were only blown out start to finish one time (by Rutgers) in the first game of the year. They were at least in the rest of the games into the 2nd Half. They lost some games they probably should have won (Ohio and Indiana come to mind) but they were in pretty much every game. Zook also had an outstanding recruiting class coming in (i think it is the highest rated Illini group in the era of recruiting web sites) that would feature multiple impact players and two of our highest rated recruits of all time. Despite going 2-10 in 2006, I felt A LOT better about the future of the program than I do today.

With all of that said, and to give credit to Robert's advocacy for patience, I would point out the 1998 Illinois offense. If you go back and look at the stats that was just a terrible offensive team. They played three consecutive Big Ten games where they did not score an offensive TD. I think there is an argument to be made that the 1998 team was as bad offensively as this team is defensively. Despite that, the 1999 Illinois team was one of the best offensive teams in school history and averaged something like 46 points per game it's last four games of the season in which it played two ranked opponents and a bowl game (so a good opponent.)

So anyway, i guess my point is 4-8 won't really leave me feeling warm and fuzzy given what i think is weak recruiting* and a historically bad defense , but, and it's a capital B but, we've seen remarkable turnarounds from Illinois teams in the past.

  • i think we are recruiting decent prospects, just not nearly enough of them. A team that is weak at WR needed to hang on to the prospect from Phillips and i don't see the depth in the recruiting class that we'd like. They can still save it but it's likely this class ends up in the bottom 3 of the league, and i think they will have difficulty holding off on a few of the kids that are currently committed.

illiniranger on November 12 @ 11:53 AM CST

i'll do everyone one better. Last year Illinois was 118th in S&P+ offense ratings. As of today, we are 59th. That's a pretty remarkable jump. So it is not unprecedented to think we could get much better defensively next year.

This year we are 122nd in S&P defense ratings. Can we find a DC hire that can take us from 122nd to 62? that would be a comparable move and i think it would have us certainly bowling.

Norcal Illini on November 12 @ 05:26 PM CST

That's what we have to hope for. When we look at the change in OCs with basically the same players, hiring a good DC will make a similar difference. We have to remember that Lovie had to scramble to find assistant coaches at a bad time, too. McGee and Nickerson might not have been his choices had he been able to make hires in December.

I've been watching Cal-Berkeley a lot this year. In 2016, their defense was as bad as this year's Illini. Their opponents averaged about 520 yards/game. Then last year they hired Justin Wilcox who was DC at Boise State, Tennessee, Washington and Wisconsin. In his second year, their D has improved a lot. Saturday they held USC to 14 points, and the week before they held Washington to 10 points, with many of the same players they had in 2016. If Lovie makes a similar upgrade at DC as he did at OC, and with the freshman and sophomores getting a year older, it's not unreasonable to expect the same type of improvement Koenning made in 2010 and 2011 (from 91st to 7th in two years).

Chukwuwumba on November 14 @ 10:09 AM CST

You mentioned that Dudek is really missed at the WR position, however, you forgot to mention he was really missed as the punt returner!!! more likely he catches those or no turnover!

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