Postscript, Iowa

Nov 19, 2018

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.


jfinsocal on November 19 @ 01:02 PM CST

There is something seriously wrong with the team psychology. The players aren't that much smaller or slower compared to other B1G West or lower level East teams. Somebody on the inside has to know what's going on and whether this can be fixed. I'm all for keeping things "in the family" but it shouldn't be that difficult for the AD to meet with key players etc and figure out what's wrong. One thing that blew my mind on Saturday is that they kept the starting OL in until the very end or very close to the very end. I could maybe see keeping Allegretti in because he's a senior by why Kendrick Green (great talent BTW)? He's getting seriously worked and is at risk of injury in meaningless garbage time. If I were a second string OL who busted my ass in practice all year why would I want to stay? Makes no sense at all - no wonder players are bailing and transferring out. I usually advocate keeping the head coach but right now I'm in the clean house camp - the current program seems terminally ill.

1970 John on November 19 @ 02:18 PM CST

I heard Whitman give alumni a peptalk before the Maryland game. He talked about a guy hitting a rock with a hammer every day when he came home from work. And nothing ever happened to the rock. But he kept hitting it.

Then one day, he hit the rock...and the rock broke. He encouraged we alumni to keep hitting the rock, by coming to games, flying the "I" flag in front of our houses, Illini bumper stickers on our cars and wearing Illini-themed clothes.

Of course, we know what happened at Maryland. The rock hit back.

Then Minnesota. Man did we hit the rock, and the rock shattered. But then, someone put the rock back together again.

Can we keep hitting the rock? Of course we will. We're Illini. It's all we've got. But Josh, really, what now? That rock just seems to be getting harder. That 63-0 score. Is there any hope of that rock ever breaking? How many more hits?

IlliniLE on November 19 @ 02:32 PM CST

He told that same story before the UNLV basketball game in Vegas almost a full year ago. Does he really think he can keep selling the same story to a group of donors, many of which are probably not hearing it for the first time, year after year? Eventually you need a new story.

Plus, rocks chip and scratch as you hit them. No one hits the same rock day after day, with no gradual signs of progress, and thinks "This is definitely going to pay off!"

I guess the theme of all my complaining today is that I don't want to be TOLD that things will change. I want to be SHOWN. And it's well past time to show at least a little progress.

Illinimac68 on November 19 @ 02:51 PM CST

Let's not overthink the analogy. John Cribbet told his "big picture" story to every 1L Property class since a couple of years after I was born with maybe a few years off to be Chancellor and he had a damn fine career. I also Josh's story about Professor Scanlon even though it's been a few years since he first gave that lecture. Whitman's big gamble with Lovie will probably come up snake-eyes but he's going to get 2019 to see. The most common prediction for this year's team was 4-8. If Minnesota was an outlier, I hope Iowa was as well. This year, youth and our DC failure may be an excuse. Next year is the no excuses year.

IlliniLE on November 19 @ 02:26 PM CST

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?

This is the question I keep coming back to. I understand that we're young. I understand this year wasn't going to be great. But it seems to be getting worse as the season (and years) go on. If that's the case, what are we getting here? It's not that we're improving, but more slowly than we'd like. We seem to genuinely be getting worse as Lovie gets to choose his players and get more time as their coach.

On top of that, he's had to fire (or accept the "resignation" of) his two coordinators and it's not like people sing Lig's praises. What is one tangible example of a benefit that we're getting from this HC? The defense is bad, the offense WAS bad, the ST can't catch a punt and we haven't even seen a competency for hiring assistants. I guess I'm waiting for a single sign that things CAN get better if we let Lovie keep trying. Not a sign that things ARE getting better, because that doesn't currently exist, but just a reason to think that they could.

But maybe I'm missing something. Can anyone list a single aspect of football that has gotten better since the days of "not ideal"? I don't think we were better off back then. But I think we should be better off by now, if we're ever going to be under this coach.

illiniranger on November 19 @ 04:02 PM CST

2017 recruiting class was better than it would have been under Cubit. Overall recruiting is a little better, but still bad relative to the rest of the league.

i can't imagine we would be worse off had we followed the "not ideal" path.

illiniranger on November 19 @ 03:54 PM CST

few points:

one, i don't think the "scheme" is bad so much as i think we cannot coach our players to execute it. too many missed assignments, too many obviously wrong reads. OK, we're young. And that doesn't help. But #15 didn't know if they were running or throwing all game and he ended up alternately pancaked or blown past for TDs because the coaches didn't get him to the point that he could figure it out. and he's had about 20 weeks of official practices at this point. Somewhere along the way i just don't think we are coaching how to play the game that well. JMO.

to the Rod Smith thing. You can love this or hate this, but what OCs are trying to do in the first 15 plays of the game is show different personnel groupings and plays to see how the other defense reacts to it. Now of course they will change the play calls based on the situation, but they are trying to figure out how their opponent is going to try and defend them. if you watched Iowa, they did the same thing, and they threw an INT on the 2nd or 3rd play of the game as a result.

neale stoner on November 19 @ 07:19 PM CST

Entirely different year with Pat Nelson and Bennett Williams at safeties. Lovie has run off players without depth. Going to be hard to recover for 2019

CapitalCityOutlaw50 on November 19 @ 08:59 PM CST

Pat Nelson- fair assessment. But no one should be accused of "running off a guy" you gave three chances to follow the rules to.

IBFan on November 19 @ 09:33 PM CST

Mrs. Smith here- Actually just not a fan of snowflake needs for instant gratification. The scheme works and is proven. It has also been proven this year that when you don't have the right athletes, not coached right(?), you get slaughtered. If any knowledgeable person was told we would lose Dudek, Dorsey, Williams, etc and plus have games without most of our other receivers, backs coupled with injuries to CBs, DL and we would still win 4 games you'd be laughed off the page. We won our first road BT game in years and won against Minnesota. We hung with Penn St and whether because of turnovers or what not almost notched 3 wins OOC. I think the drama is way overblown. I hate losing but man calling for the coach to be fired and a reboot is short-sighted. If this happens in year 5 I'll kick Lovie out of our house and file for divorce. Look back at Roberts preseason diatribe and subtract what's missing...he would have said 0 wins.

illiniranger on November 19 @ 10:07 PM CST

In our HC’s 35th game at Illinois we lost 63-0 when we were a 14 point home dog.

Norcal Illini on November 19 @ 10:44 PM CST

I hate getting blown out, but what's really most disappointing to me are the mistakes week after week. With experienced coaches like Lovie and Nickerson, I would have expected the young players to struggle against stronger and more experienced opponents, but I thought they would at least play sound football.

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