I Care About Us
Northwestern won the Big Ten West, but I don't really care. Minnesota won two of their last three after losing to Illinois to make it to 6-6 and a bowl (with a young team), but again, don't care. Twitter is full of "but look at what Syracuse did in year three", but I honestly don't care.
OK, I "care". I hate that Northwestern is the better football program in this state (and has been for the better part of 20 years), and I hate that PJ Fleck took one of the youngest teams in college football to a bowl while we took one of the youngest teams in college football to 4-8, and I hate that Dino Babers - the guy who would have been the head coach at Illinois had Mike Thomas not been fired - is now 9-3 in his third year at Syracuse. I care that there are programs and coaches who can be lined up next to ours and compared. And I care that we finish last every time we do that. I want to win.
But really, I don't care how they're going about it or what they're accomplishing. It hit me today that I've been sucked into that game and I hate myself for it. In the ten years I've been doing this, I've had one rule - I take a deep dive into Illini land and pretty much ignore everything else. I hate all things butwhatabout, and there I've been, butwhatabouting.
I went on the radio last week and talked about possible coaching hires across the country and now I'm mad at myself for answering the question instead of declining. Seriously, what would I know about coaching hires? I barely watch any college football. I'm an Illinois football fan, not a college football fan. Why would I care about coaching hires? I only care about us.
I mean, as a fan, of course I have "even KENTUCKY is good now?" feelings, so I'm aware of what else is happening elsewhere and how everyone seems to be having fun while we're miserable. It's not that the current situation doesn't bother me. This is the first time since Gary Moeller that a coach has gone through his first three years without a bowl. Believe me - it bothers me.
But I feel like I've been lost in "so how come Purdue can do it and we can't?" land. And I've found myself wondering how Zook got to where he did in three years while Lovie did not. I feel like I've been lost in the land of comps this fall when I should simply be evaluating us.
What do I see when I peel away comps and butwhatabout? A few things.
- The crater after Cubit is a very real thing. People hate it, and when you're 4-8 in year three, no one wants to hear anything resembling an excuse, but that's #1 on this list. It just is. Three head coaches in eight months, a lost recruiting class, a roster set to fall off a cliff in 2017 - it's a giant hole.
- That doesn't mean 4-8 with losses like 63-0 and 46-3 can be explained away by that hole. This team went 4-8 because it was the worst defense of the last three years, and when your worst defense is not the first year, not the second year, but the third year, then there are major structural deficiencies within your rebuild.
- I predicted 4-8, and Vegas put the over/under at 3.5 wins. We won four games, but that doesn't mean we met expectations. Far from it. This was the worst Illini defense of my lifetime, and while inexperience and injuries played a part in that, when the numbers are this bad, the defense clearly isn't working.
- Regardless of your frustration or my frustration right now, 2020 still sets up as one of the more experienced college football teams this decade. Illinois was the youngest team of the decade in 2017 and still the youngest team in the country this season (back-to-back). And once those players are all seniors, they'll all have Allegretti-like start charts and Illinois will be the most experienced team in the country.
- But no, that doesn't mean we will win. It's about player development, not just "he has 31 starts under his belt", and we haven't seen enough of that to expect it across the board in the future. If we're going to win, we'll have to see it across the board.
That's my focus these next ten months. Will getting older produce more games like Minnesota (where we dominated our opponent) or games like Northwestern (where we won most statistics but penalty'd and FG-instead-of-TD'd our way to a loss) or games like Nebraska (out-schemed + killer turnovers)? I need to stop thinking about everyone else and only concentrate on us. The crater was unique, the chosen rebuild method is unique, and it must be evaluated that way.
My takeaway after three years? I agree with the methodology (don't rebuild with the upperclassmen or by recruiting jucos/fifth-years - rebuild from the ground-up with true freshmen and take your lumps in years two and three), but I'm stunned by the lumps (I was expecting bruises, not compound fractures).
I really think that's my takeaway from 2018: stunned by the lumps. Yes, there's wisdom in a "take your lumps - it will pay off later" rebuild scenario. But man - have you seen these lumps?
+ I think this needs to be a complete defensive overhaul. I'm a consistency guy (I mean, look at what Northwestern has done with their dinosaur staff), but I'm not sure Austin Clark or Gil Byrd did anything that means they deserve to return. Byrd could return as a position coach maybe (and not pass defensive coordinator), but the whole defense needs a coaching reboot.
+ This game was death by footballing. Win the total yards battle, win the time of possession battle, put up more first downs, put up more average yards per play, but lose because 1) they turned their drives into seven while you turned your drives into three, 2) you committed penalties and they didn't, and 3) you turned the ball over and they didn't.
That's a massive concern for the future. Sure, the roster will get older and older players make less mistakes. But will they clean it up enough to not get football'd in a game like today?
+ Positives today:
- AJ Bush had his best game. Unfortunately, it was his last game.
- Chase McLaughlin finishes the season 20-25 on field goals with all of those FG's made from 50+. He'd better be first team All Big Ten.
- Welcome back Ricky Smalling. That's the sophomore receiver we all expected to see this season.
- The offensive line continues to show signs that it might be dominant next season. Replace Allegretti with Boyd and keep on rollin'.
+ Negatives today:
- We lost our fourth straight to Northwestern.
- Our coach is now 9-27 in three years.
- This defense was the worst defense of my lifetime.
- Northwestern getting their longest running play of the season on their very first play against us was a fitting end to the 2018 defensive disaster.
Really, that's the whole thing, right? Defensive head coach has disastrous defense his third year. He has enough coming back on offense to put up even bigger numbers next year, but it will all be moot if he doesn't fix his defense. In the next 280 days, he fixes the D or we'll have to start over again.
And I'm ready to obsess over it. It's all I care about.