The existence of Lovie Smith, Illinois Head Coach is beginning to become something of a mystery.
By virtue, especially in this day and age, football coaches are specialized to the point that they aren't responsible for every facet of the operation. If a coach is a former defensive back and he cut his teeth on the defensive side of the ball, starting out as a secondary coach and then moving up to defensive coordinator before finally getting a head coaching gig, he's a Defense-First Guy. If he was a quarterback and led a high-powered offense as an OC, he's a Brilliant Offensive Mind.
As a result, parts of the game are delegated. Defense-First Guy as a head coach? He'll likely, if not hand the playcalling over entirely, allow a Brilliant Offensive Mind to run the offense. That's not his forte, after all. Brilliant Offensive Minds, on the other hand, want to run the show on offense and will allow Defense-First Guys to handle the defense.
Being the guy credited with the popularity of the Tampa 2 defense, Lovie is a Defense-First Guy. As such, he seems to let Rod Smith -- and perhaps Garrick McGee before him, although the playcalling was boring enough that I would believe Lovie had a say in it -- run the show on offense. Lovie likely makes the big decisions, but it appears most of the plays come from Rod Smith in the booth.
So now, after a 63-0 drubbing at home against Iowa, a team that had lost three straight, the Illini are 4-7, will miss a bowl for the fourth consecutive year and just suffered one of the worst losses in the program's storied history. And the defense, on a team with a Defense-First Guy at the helm, is the problem.
Admitting that the defensive scheme that Lovie et al tried to install is problematic for a few reasons. One is, part of the argument, Robert's big argument, for keeping a coach in place for five years is that he is given the chance to full install his system, instead of the constant switching of systems and the growing pains that come with it. If we've settled on the defensive scheme being the problem, what is accomplished by keeping the head coach in place?
Which brings us to the bigger issue: If the highly-regarded coach, who led the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl on the back of his defense, changes schemes, what is his place? If he hands the offense over to a Brilliant Offensive Mind in Rod Smith and hires a hotshot defensive coordinator to revamp the defense, what does Lovie do?
It's not recruit -- his name carries some cache, but it's not winning him many battles for big-time recruits. It may be to provide guidance on big in-game decisions, but that's not comforting, either -- his conservative nature flies in the face of what a lot of research says about the benefit of taking risks, and it's very NFL in a landscape that is still very much college football.
So he's a highly paid figurehead who will have a small hand in running the defense, no hand in running the offense and who will be in charge of making important decisions, many times choosing the wrong one? That's what we're resigned to at this point?
That's a hard pill to swallow, and there's no easy answer. But man, something's gotta give.
-AJ Bush had a big hand in the four games the Illini have won and played a part in keeping the offense moving in a handful of others, but it's become clear that he's limited as a quarterback. His running ability adds another dimension to the offense, but the decision-making is hit or miss and the accuracy is a huge issue. It's a moot point with one game left in his college career, but the point is, the quarterback play has to be better next year if the team is going to take a step forward.
-Another thing that will need to be better -- has to, truthfully, because it can't get much worse -- is the receiving corps. Bush has given many guys a chance to make plays, but how much of the passing game's struggles is on the receivers' inability to get separation and, when they do, catch the ball?
I say it can't get worse because it's really hard to envision a scenario where it doesn't improve, even if marginally. Sam Mays has been a present part of the offense, but that's about as nice as I can put it. And he's the only one leaving.
Do I expect Casey Washington to be a revelation, or Carmoni Green to finally click, or Edwin Carter to make a miraculous recovery? No, but another year in the system for Green, and Ricky Smalling, and Trenard Davis, and Dom Stampley, and Carlos Sandy can't hurt. I'm not expecting the passing game to be a revelation, with whoever is throwing the passes, but it would legitimately be hard to get worse. That's all I'm saying.
-If I have a criticism of Rod Smith, it's that sometimes I think the playcalling gets too far from the team's established identity.
I said this in a previous post: If you do something well, who cares if the other team thinks it's coming? Why, after getting a takeaway two plays into the game, do you get a big chunk on first down and then run a receiver screen and a speed option, two things that aren't your bread and butter?
It's ticky tacky in a game where they lost by 63 points, but I made a mental note after that first drive to talk about how much I hated it. Run your offense.
-Speaking of which, Ra'Von Bonner continues to acquit himself well. He may still be third in line next year if Reggie Corbin and Mike Epstein are both healthy, but he can move this offense.
-I've got nothing good to say about the defense, and there's no use recounting all the bad. Whether personnel or scheme or playcalling, something's wrong.
-I desperately wanted a sweat in the Northwestern game, just a hope that the postseason was in play.
The game is one I associate with family, given its proximity to Thanksgiving. We have traditionally always done my wife's Thanksgiving on the Saturday after the holiday, so in recent years I've watched the game at my in-laws' house.
I remember a few years ago walking about with my infant son, watching most of the game while bouncing him as he napped. Last year, I remember having so much hope as Illinois hung in early, only to have it dashed as both teams remembered who they are.
Circumstances have dictated that we won't have Thanksgiving at my wife's parents' house on Saturday this year, for the first time in as long as I can remember. Plans change, it seems.
We'll see if any other changes are in store for this Illini club, Saturday and beyond.