Things And Reasons

Sep 09, 2018

Believe me, you're so glad I didn't publish what I wrote last night. It was {insert trash emoticon}. I think I even used the phrase "in my feelings". This morning, my head is clear. Ran into a blog reader here at this coffeeshop and he helped me center my thoughts.

As I said in the From The Stands from the field, I just didn't "get" last night. I feel like I can always figure out what's going on. As in, "they're clearly doing {thing} because {reason}". But these first two games, there have been so many {things} happening on the field that I don't understand. Which puts me in my feelings.

But then, when I step back, we're 2-0 as we were supposed to be, we started both games horrifically and yet turned it around (remember when we went something like five full seasons without winning ANY game where we trailed at some point during the game?), and now the season begins. It wasn't pretty, but with 7 suspensions and maybe a dozen injuries, we checked both win boxes and are 2-0 while Purdue is about to move to 0-3 and will have to go 6-3 in the Big Ten just to get to a bowl game. North Carolina, Arizona - there are many programs staring into a giant void this morning.

On the flipside, we're almost certainly going to lose the next two weeks. After these performances, I'm guessing we'll be a 17-point underdog against South Florida and perhaps a 25-point underdog at home to Penn State. When you basically match Western Illinois yard for yard (376-361), you're staring at something like 535-310 next weekend. We needed to force three turnovers to make this one a 20-point win - with the same performance against South Florida, we'll likely need to be +5 to keep it close.

But then again, this is more or less what I expected, right? I can't write that many words in the offseason saying "people, remember, we're STILL the youngest team in college football" and then object when we do youngest-team-in-college-football things. Youngest team in college football + 7 suspensions (5 behavioral, 2 academic) + top three wide receivers all injured + only one member of the starting secondary currently on the field = needing three turnovers to punch past Western Illinois.

I think that's where I get lost in "what's the plan?" land. I believe I've written the exact words "they're not trying to win yet" recently. And if I apply that {reason}, it all makes a lot more sense. If I'm Lovie Smith, and my mindset is "I'm going to do just enough to win these first two games" - perhaps a better way to put that is to say "we should be able to do all of these things and still win those two games" - then that list would look like this:

  1. Keep the playbook a little light. I referenced a lot of scheme things that I "refused to publish" because I didn?'t want some Kent State coach to stumble upon it. Well, that still applies to South Florida. We haven't really used much of it yet. Things have been very vanilla, in my estimation. Maybe they were just trying some things in camp and then they tossed it in the trash, but they practiced a_ lot_ of stuff that we just haven't seen yet.
  2. Discipline players to set the standards for the program. Sitting at home watching the game on television can be a great motivator. Nate Hobbs and Bennett Williams have to be dying to get back out there with their teammates. That 50-yard bomb for a touchdown from WIU? Had to be killing them. They're the top two guys in the secondary, and they probably prevent that play from happening. But this is how you set a standard. Banged-up secondary (and then two guys ejected during the game) - sit the starters and let them know how much they're hurting their team.
  3. Play everyone. And I mean everyone. There are 59 players on the participation chart from last night. Doing some quick math here, I believe there are 12 players injured and 7 suspended. So, 83 scholarship players, 19 not playing, that's 64 scholarship players available (plus walkons). We played 59 players last night. When you play everyone, you're going to have 14 penalties for 153 yards. When you play everyone, you're going to have freshmen ejected for fighting. When you play everyone, you're going to give up 50-yard bombs to Western Illinois.

So if that's all part of a "plan", I get it. That's a {reason}. If the approach was "we can do all three and still win these games", then that's smart. They now have a clean playbook, a better team culture (hopefully), and wet feet.

But there's still part of me that doesn't see the long-term development plan (which is what I was rambling on about in the From The Stands post). Yes, we're still technically in the middle of my "the next 25 games we learn nothing" (four remaining), but it feels like that will expire and we'll continue to just start whoever plays the best in practice that week. Remember the Rutgers game last year where walkon Jimmy Marchese suddenly went from third string to first string at linebacker? And then it was something completely different the next week? That's what I was referring to when talking about a "plan". The whole reason I'm on board with "tear it down and build a program" was that consistency would be everything. If Jimmy Marchese is the future, give him 10 starts, not one. But this coaching staff seems to change its mind weekly (based on practice grade-outs, I'd assume).

That's a very NFL thing to do. And I don't think that works in college football. Winning college football games in the Big Ten is about long-term player development (see: Wisconsin, Iowa, etc), and I currently feel like we're going to head into October 12, 2019 with three true freshmen starting their first game that week because they had the best week of practice. And then they'll all go back to the bench the next week.

I hope you can see why I'm so conflicted. I don't really understand the things, and I'm trying to find the reasons.

Yes, I still stand by my evaluation of the timing for turning around Illinois football. Once we started to play the true freshmen after the Purdue game in 2016 (and with 24 seniors set to graduate and Lovie's first class coming in the next year), I stand by "25 games before we really learn anything. That 25th game is the Purdue game next month. And yes, I still stand by October 12, 2019 being the breakout moment for Illinois football. I'll never let go of either of those two things.

But when we had that 11-play drive that crossed over from the first quarter to the second quarter, while trailing FCS Western Illinois 7-0, and at the end of that 11 play drive we have to punt (which suggests it was a drive of barely converting first downs, which it was), my steadfastness begins to waver. I mean, just the words "11 play drive, then a punt, against an FCS team" is enough to push me over the edge. As is the sentence "Mike Epstein had 105 yards on 8 carries yet the head coach insisted after the game that they're not taking it easy on his carries due to last year's injuries - they had a plan for which tailbacks would get which carries and they executed that plan". Want me to waver? Suggest that your single best offensive weapon (by a factor of 12) only got eight carries by choice.

Maybe that all sorts itself out by the end of the 25th game or by October 12, 2019. Maybe it's exactly what I've been describing all along. Don't try to win for a long time - build the foundation we've never had - and then Epstein gets 26 of the 44 rushing attempts against Michigan on 10/12/19. Maybe when Lovie says that it was a conscious decision that's because this is still a preseason game and they want as many carries for Bonner and Corbin and Norwood as possible before the real season begins. Lovie suggested that Ricky Smalling was "very close" to playing, and you can read into that to see that he meant "we held him out because it was Western Illinois", so maybe they're doing that with every decision.

If THAT'S what's happening here, I'm good. Lovie might have honestly implemented NFL preseason game protocols here. Before Stan Kroenke lied and screwed over my amazing city, I never really cared what the Rams did in the preseason. Everyone on the roster is playing and starters with even the tiniest injury are being held out? I'm good with that. The real season doesn't start for a month.

Well, the real season for us starts next week. And because Lovie didn't say anything like "the suspended players will be back practicing with the first string on Monday", I'm guessing they're still "indefinitely suspended". Which means that we'd be looking at the South Florida game as another preseason game. Which leaves me confused.

So all I can do is go back to my {reasons}. We're going to be so young until 10/13/18 that we won't learn much at all. We won't have our Moment until 10/12/19. When you rebuild this way, it takes time, and then the payoff comes quickly and violently.

Come quickly, better football.

+ I think I need to change my thinking about what the Rod Smith offense will be. After watching RichRod's offenses at West Virginia, Michigan, and Arizona, I figured that running the football would requirement #1. It's why Jeff George Jr. transferred. There was no chance he could run this offense. It's why I had my QB depth chart of Bush/Thomas/Robinson. He has to be able to run. Then he has to be able to execute the offense and make the reads (and by "reads" I don't mean safeties, I mean defensive ends). Then he has to be able to run. And then he has to be able to pass.

Now I'm not so sure. I had Rivers fifth of the five QB's because he was the worst runner of the five. His arm looked like an asset, but so did Jeff George Jr's arm. Best runner wins the job, second best runner will be the backup. (Wrong.)

AJ Bush goes down with an ankle injury and MJ Rivers is the choice. They turned to the best thrower. I know it sounds insane to say "the starting quarterback got injured and they turned to the freshman who throws the best ball" as if it's a big surprise, but for me, it was a big surprise.

Yes, it was an FCS opponent. No, he will not have that much time in the pocket again. If he becomes our future starter, honestly, this might be the game with the most pocket time of any game the next four years (but it also might be the game with the least-ready WR corps due to the injuries). He found a rhythm with fellow freshman Edwin Carter (until Carter's season likely ended after his second touchdown catch - ugh). He made good decisions, he didn't turn the ball over (thankfully his knee had just touched the turf before the fumble), and he generally looked like a Big Ten quarterback.

So now I need to rethink everything. Well, two things:

  1. Is MJ Rivers a better runner than I give him credit for?
  2. Is Rod Smith's offense going to rely on a thrower more than a runner?

+ I'm a walkon guy. And man, what a night for walkons.

  • Michael Marchese gets the start at safety (!) and comes up with a huge interception. Nearly two interceptions, really. He read another play but unfortunately collided with his own guy as they both went for the INT. And man, did he want the TD on that return.
  • Nolan Bernat left College Of Dupage to walk on at Illinois and compete for a cornerback spot in 2017. He got in his first game (as a junior) last night and grabbed his first interception.
  • Jordan Holmes, a true freshman walkon from Columbia, Illinois, had a very nice punt return (which was unfortunately called back because of a penalty) and a 14-yard catch. I interviewed him on Illini Media Day because he had caught my eye at camp - to see him out there on that punt return was rather stunning. Yes, he probably made the receiver rotation because Carter went down with an injury. But he knew going into this game that he'd be back there for the punt return. Just crazy for a freshman walkon. I mean, it took Fej nearly two years to get on the field consistently.
  • Christian Bobak was consistently rotating in with the nickels. Made a great play on that wind-shortened kickoff. Here's a guy who walked on at tailback, got some carries last year, and then switched to defense and is in the rotation already.

Yes, it was WIU and there are a dozen injuries. But I can't remember a more walkon-y game.

+ Overall, I'm just ready to see the full team. A secondary of Martin, Bernat, Machese, and Green with Dylan Wyatt and Kendall Smith as the primary backups is one thing; a secondary of Hobbs, Adams/Watkins, B. Williams, and Green with Martin and Ware/Joseph rotating in is quite another. There's no coming back from these wide receiver injuries, so that will be a thing all season, but other positions (Dorsey at tight end, Oladipo on the defensive line) could sure use a boost from a few of these guys returning.

Also, I'm ready to see 26 carries from Mike Epstein. That's part of the plan, right?



ATOillini on September 09 @ 12:57 PM CDT

Love when you can

Cry when you have to

Be who you must

That's a part of the plan

Await your arrival

With simple survival

And one day we'll all understand

Dan Fogelberg - "Part of the Plan"

San Joaquin on September 09 @ 12:59 PM CDT

Excellent post. Welcome back.

jdapisa on September 09 @ 01:15 PM CDT

This is fair. Thanks for reassessing a bit.

neale stoner on September 09 @ 02:58 PM CDT

Don’t understand your bewilderment. Seems to me Josh and Lovie are following the 21 point plan with great patience, and you have become impatient.

uilaw71 on September 09 @ 04:07 PM CDT


And we might even surprise next week.

jdapisa on September 09 @ 08:01 PM CDT

We are not going to surprise next week unless the suspensions are lifted.

HiggsBoson on September 10 @ 06:38 PM CDT

Suspending and/or running off enough players to keep surprises from happening may actually be part of Lovie's plan.

HiggsBoson on September 10 @ 06:45 PM CDT

Thus far there's not much evidence that Lovie's plan involves much more than cashing in for the first five years of his retirement. Seems to me like he's coaching to get a higher draft pick a lot of the time. His ability to run off players who could contribute and suspend a bunch of the rest combined with disappointing recruiting may also be part of his plan, I guess.

jfinsocal on September 09 @ 03:25 PM CDT

The kicking/punting combination is one of the best in Illini history. Both have a solid shot at the NFL. Could be worth 7 points a game if their performance continues.

Robert on September 09 @ 05:46 PM CDT

Just remembered that Purdue started with a Big Ten game. So that changed the math in my head a little bit. If they go 1-2 in the non-con they can go 5-4 in the Big Ten and go bowling.

And THEN I looked it up and saw that their final non-conference game (after Missouri) is Boston College. So they might start 0-1 in the Big Ten and then 0-3 in the non-conference?

They’ll probably win one of those two. I can’t see them starting 0-4. But maybe?

mrozny on September 09 @ 09:21 PM CDT

I think the more I have assessed it myself the more I comeback to I get the plan of play everyone. Modern day college football is 4 years or less of playing with a team as the norm. Like your son's friend who played for Duke for 4 years, saw the depth chart and said I am going to go somewhere to PLAY the sport I love one more year. Lovie is not banking on having player for 5 years, these are 4 year commitments from the schools prospective and apparently from Lovie's. Also the players that traditionally need the seasoning are in the Trenches and that is an area that we are getting the redshirts(last year). Lere, Kendrick and Deon are your three redshirts from last year and we have 2 players this year that are being forced redshirts in Boyd and Verdis.

Also I would have to say think back to the 19 point plan with the suspensions. We as fans are short term minded(get to a bowl this year(and repeat next year)) and Lovie and the staff and Whitman have to be focused on the long term. Showing your star players that they are not going to get special treatment will pay off, and when this program is where we want it we won't feel these suspensions as much because we will have solid depth to come in when a college kid does college kid things.

Lastly what is making this so hard for me is that I was so pumped when Lovie came on board and thought we have a real coach. That maniac state of Josh Whitman just made us relevant overnight is making this "depression" seem soooooo much lower. When in reality we all know what Lovie is tasked with and the challenges but we choose to ignore them because the high is making the low.

Smell the Aroma

Sweetchuck13 on September 10 @ 09:18 AM CDT

I'm not claiming "All is well", but I'm glad you're backing off the ledge just a bit. We still haven't played anywhere near crisp and there's plenty to fix, but I think the analogy to NFL preseason applies here. I think Lovie looked at the schedule and figured he could survive through these two games by barely doing anything, and we survived. Now the real games start.

And on the topic - why does everyone seem convinced that the suspensions will continue through South Florida? As soon as the rumor started, I basically assumed they'd miss the first two games and be back this week. "Indefinitely" is only indefinite until Lovie announces that they're back - which he could do Saturday at kickoff. Again going back to the NFL mindset - he's not going to give anything away to the other team if he doesn't have to. So he could simply wait until kickoff and then let them on the field. That's my guess - and my hope.

Alaskan Illini on September 11 @ 04:11 PM CDT

Robert, instead of complaining about "not getting the plan", why not go to the man and ask - you're a journalist, right?

Seriously, we all want better football, and I'm willing to be patient to see the program to grow back to what I remember from the early 80's. That having been said, I'm watching every game a) because I can thanks to BTN (I missed more than 25 years of games being in glamorous places around the world) and b) I have this delusion that we're going to win every Saturday.

Thanks for keeping the blog going Robert - get a 1 on 1 with Lovie and it'll really bring some 'pop' to the site.

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