Oct 24, 2020

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On a perfect fall Saturday in Champaign, the ball sails between the uprights and I hug every person I've never met as my team beats #6 to end their national title aspirations while the entire college football world does a double-take and says "hey, did you see what Illinois did?".

On a cold, windy Friday night in Madison with no fans hugging anyone, the ball sails towards the turf time after time as my experienced, ready-for-anything team gets absolutely embarrassed while the whole college football world laughs and says "did you see what Illinois did?".

We just kept fighting. Even after the Imatorbhebhe touchdown was brought back for an ineligible man down field - a thing that usually kills any and all Illini hope - we kept punching. Even after we were stuffed on fourth down in the 4th quarter, more punching (literally - Hansen punched the ball out). So much fight.

We just kept folding. Any ounce of momentum on offense - the two big runs from Peters, the nice sideline shots to Hightower and Epstein - we'd just slam on the brakes and do something ridiculous like "3rd and 2 and we get 1 yard and then 0 yards". We just immediately smothered any ounce of momentum we'd acquire.

"A day like this makes all of this worth it."

"Is any of this worth it?"

Tonight felt like the exact opposite of last year. Last year, after waiting and waiting and waiting, finally, a breakthrough. It's a day I'll never forget. Finally, these players get to celebrate a real moment on their home turf. This year, with each "Brandon Peters said he was surprised at how much his backup played" quote I read on Twitter, I couldn't feel any more opposite of that. A warm feeling of "finally the perfect Saturday in Champaign"; the cold feeling of wondering how long I'll have to wait for the next one.

I think we all kinda knew that Wisconsin would get their revenge. Each Jake Ferguson catch felt like "you think you're going to jump my route this year, Tony Adams?". It's like in the 80's when Northwestern would beat us one in basketball and they'd celebrate for months and then we'd be like "come get your 17 consecutive beatdowns now". The universe corrects itself.

But I didn't know it would feel like this. I forgot what the opposite of October 19, 2019 feels like. I'm going to wake up tomorrow morning and when I remember this score I'm going to have... the exact opposite emotion of waking up on October 20, 2019. I don't even want to go to sleep just so I can prevent that awful "oh, right" feeling.

I said last year that going through all the crap makes a moment like McCourt's field goal feel so much better. If Iowa beats #6 Wisconsin 24-23 on a last second field goal, there's not a single Iowa fan who can come anywhere close to feeling what I felt that day. We all endured so much to get there.

It's just that... nobody tells you that when you flip back to "going through all of it again", you immediately (and I mean immediately) believe that there's no payoff coming. Coming face to face with "what if it's five years before I feel that way again?" is not a fun way to start the weekend.

Are we sure we wanted Big Ten football to reverse course and play a season?

+ I said it the entire summer, right? This season couldn't be more simple. There's not even anything to debate. 25 seniors, top-12 nationally in returning production, fifth year, fully overhauled roster - there's not a single reason to not win. If 2017 and "the youngest team in college football in at least 10 years" was 93% "no coach could win right now with what was left behind after Not Ideal" and 7% "things should be so much better by now", 2020 is 99.4% "things should be so much better by now". It's excuse-free college football fandom.

June of 2019, before last season, I wrote that article I called Click. I won't quote a big chunk of it, just the final few lines:

It's simply a click. We, the fanbase, should expect a click. Not "you know, you can kind of see this team improving" - a click.

I've been patient. I've explained the slow motion rebuild as I've seen it the past three seasons. I've said "youngest team in college football" a hundred thousand times. And doing that has earned me my click badge. Which I will now lay on the table and shove towards Lovie.

One click, please.

We got that click in the Wisconsin game. The Michigan State game was more of a turnover-driven comeback, but the Wisconsin game was dead even in the yards-per-play category. Stood toe to toe with Wisconsin and won. A click.

After the click, I can only describe fandom as "easy". You still evaluate things like strength of schedule and injury lists, but for the most part, it's just sit back and see what you have. The coach has his players, the schemes are fully implemented - you can either coach them to wins or you can't. You've either developed something or you haven't.

That doesn't mean a winning season in The Year With All The Seniors declares "this is an excellent coach", of course. You're only about halfway there. I've referenced Mike MacIntyre many times here. He built Colorado up to 10 wins in his fourth year - they're back! But that was the only winning season of six and he was fired two years later. "The coach rebuilt this basement-dwelling program" can't really be declared until somewhere around the seventh season. (At LSU it must be declared by midway through the third season or you're fired.)

So if the first watermark is a click, the second is a peak. Show us what you're capable of building. If this sounds familiar, I've written this post six times over the spring and summer. This is an "easy" season: everything is in place, now win.

Wisconsin 45, Illinois 7.

Illinois offense: 0 points

Time of possession: Wisconsin 43:38, Illinois 16:32.

Yes, I did write last night that Wisconsin was the best defense we will face this season. Yes, I predicted 35-14, saying that we probably weren't ready and that the real test is where we stand next to Purdue. But still, I did not expect the Wisconsin loss to look like that. Year five, 12th-most returning production in college football, coming off a bowl game, 45-7 (with the offense being shut out) should never, ever happen.

The defense? I'm honestly not all that angry. No Gay, Witherspoon, or Eifler (first half), Hansen goes out in the first quarter, new defensive line in their first game (at Wisconsin) - yeah the safeties were really bad but I'm not mad mad given the general parameters of the game. 3.4 yards per rush, 5.7 yards per play allowed - I'm not all that upset when the defense was forced to be out there for as long as they were. Tarique Barnes balled out, Keith Randolph declared to Owen Carney that his starting spot is in jeopardy, Rod Perry looked like the real deal - there's enough there. I'm not mad, I'm just disappointed.

For the offense? My goodness I don't know what to say. I could list a bunch of stats here, but maybe I'll just point to this one and then ask a question:

Imatorbhebhe 10
Barker 3
Hightower 1
Epstein 1
Brown 1
Ford 1
Washington 1
Navarro 1

That's a plan? Like, maybe Peters just panicked and throw-it-to-Josh'd. But this didn't feel like a "Wisconsin shut down everything we tried to do" shutout. This felt more like "what are we even trying to do?". Rarely do I have a "what's the plan here?" feeling (the coaches can do whatever the coaches think will work), but I just couldn't figure it out tonight.

Like, when we did the Aaron Bailey package in 2013 it felt like a very specific thing. Almost too predictable. This Isaiah Williams package tonight - I don't get what the thinking was (when and where it was implemented on the field). I knew what they were trying to do with Bailey in 2013 and I begged for more of it - what were they trying to do with Williams tonight? I'm good with playing him, just... what was the plan?

I need to move on to another topic. Doctor's orders.

+ I hate when we lose so badly that complaining about the refs seems silly. Because:

  • He was half a yard short.
  • Mertz clearly fumbled.
  • Hobbs had his jersey, not his facemask.
  • Four Wisconsin players made Hightower flinch.
  • Beason had hands-to-the-face but they had a hold on the same play.

Dammit refs - this absolutely should have been..... a 38-13 Wisconsin win.

+ Good things: nope, not gonna do it. I'm sure others will write about Barnes and I mentioned Randolph above so that's enough. This drained my fan battery down to 2% and I'm not going to use it just to praise the few bright spots. Need to go find a plug-in because if this thing goes to 0% I'm not sure it will take a charge again.

+ I can't believe I didn't write anything about "first road game" last night. I remember compiling a list before the 2018 Rutgers game saying "I'm scared to death because the last time we played well in our first road game was 2011". It's a longstanding tradition for Illini football. Even the 1983 Rose Bowl team lost their first game on the road (to a 7-5 Missouri team).

I'll just close this post with a list of first road games between 2012 and 2017. Seems like the right way to end it. Really drives "we're Illinois football and we can't be trusted" home.

2012: 45-14 loss at Arizona State
2013: 39-19 loss at Nebraska
2014: 44-19 loss at Washington
2015: 48-14 loss at North Carolina
2016: 31-16 loss at Nebraska
2017: 47-23 loss at South Florida

Then we won two. At Rutgers (that's the game where they played that skinny QB and he should have been picked off at least 9 times) and at UConn (they were driving late down eight but a Dele Harding INT sealed the win). And now, 45-7 at Wisconsin.

Somebody find a way to make the opposite happen.


DB50 on October 24, 2020 @ 07:44 AM

After waiting 10+ months with great anticipation, (because I knew, I mean, I Really Knew, that this year would be different), all the “highly rated transfers, I could rid my mind & soul of last year’s disappointing end. Then thud, reality happens with the question where do we go from here? Your assessment is spot on Robert. Defense not so bad considering being out there sooooo long, offense was really offensive. Rod Smith has some serious questions to answer.

PosterNB12 on October 24, 2020 @ 07:59 AM

No Daniel Bhebe? Was he hurt. 14 snaps for Luke Ford? Rod Smith was bad last year, and awful last night.

PowerGranger on October 24, 2020 @ 08:23 AM

tnovak on October 24, 2020 @ 08:59 AM

My thoughts exactly.

ahamm445 on October 24, 2020 @ 08:35 AM

Rod Smith has to find an identity for the offense. I thought the defense played great and kept us in the game as long as they could, especially considering how long & often they were on the field. Our defense out scored our offense, need I say more?

But the offense? I was hoping to see a lot of 2 TE Barker & Ford sets (with Bhebe&anybody else wide) could you imagine how physical/beastly/dominant those three could be... but they just alternated drives with Ford& Barker. But tbh, the real blame has to be on “4 4year starters” on the Oline. That’s where we really lost game. Our O line got absolutely dominated period. Fire McClain, the o line regressed last year too.

illinizeeman on October 24, 2020 @ 08:42 AM

Rod Smith's game plan was as bad as any I've seen. Shotguns on 4th and 1 should be banned forever.

pbillini70 on October 24, 2020 @ 08:57 AM

Mertz was great. I'm sure his parents(Fred and Ethel?) are proud. Jack Coan is now the "Wally Pipp" of WI football.
Amazing how their red-shirt freshman QB looked like Peyton Manning and our red-shirt freshman QB looked like he had never thrown a pass before. I agree with you, what was our offensive plan: throw to only one receiver all night? And our secondary, supposedly one of the strengths of the team? I've never seen so many blown coverages in one game.

wizardofoz on October 24, 2020 @ 09:20 AM

October 19, 2019 we all woke up thinking that the last nail in Lovie’s coffin would be secure by nightfall. But then the interception, the I-won’t-be-denied-run and the ball straight between the uprights had us believing again. Maybe Lovie was the coach who would lead us to the Promised Land (at least the Big Ten West title). How ironic that one victory could change so many minds. And how ironic that one year later one no-show beat down has changed them all back. Nails anyone?

illinisludge on October 24, 2020 @ 09:34 AM

Yup we need an offensive identity. And the OL didn’t play up to its billing.

edgyinchina@yahoo.com on October 25, 2020 @ 03:23 PM

Seems to me that we have a 'drop-back Pro style' QB, and a 'Spread - RPO style' OC... Sort of like trying to mix water with oil...

uofi08 on October 24, 2020 @ 09:39 AM

The performance last night was inexcusable, but hardly unexpected. When the last 4 years are spent constantly lowering the bar and making excuses and justifications for every clear issue, eventually the bar is so low, you just have to trip over it to clear it, and that’s what we did last year. If his name wasn’t Lovie Smith, he would’ve been replaced before last season. He’s not building a foundation or a program. It’s to the point where I think we’d clearly have a better program with Beckman or Cubit. In baseball terms, Lovie has a negative WAR. Random thought, were Nickerson and McGee really the problems?

ktal on October 24, 2020 @ 09:43 AM

I tried to be optimistic, but I invested zero emotional stock in the game result. I will not allow Lovie's success or failure at coaching dictate my emotional arc for the next two months. I wish he could a team that I could trust to perform, but...Vegas says he already has...GACK!

illinivek23 on October 24, 2020 @ 09:47 AM

I like many of the parts we have in place now. Just that the sum comes up woefully short and that is squarely on the OC and DC. Still surprised that recruiting has to focus so much on diamonds in the rough - it's like the fans are the last one to know the worst kept secret.

Altenberger with cheese on October 24, 2020 @ 10:22 AM

Does Rod Smith = Paul Shudel? No, he’s worse; this is year three for him and he has more weapons than we’ve seen in a while. Un-flippin-believable. I feel the same despondency I felt after the 2015 Northwestern game when Not Ideal was extended.

The Olaf Rules on October 24, 2020 @ 10:28 AM

That effort would have lost to Illinois State, and most of that goes on the coaches. For the players, I respectfully suggest they start focusing more on making a statement with their play rather than their helmet design.

uofi08 on October 24, 2020 @ 11:00 AM

In terms of what to do scheme wise: 88 Randolph should start at 1 de. Perry was the best dt. I guess rotate the other 2 DL spots frequently. At linebacker, I question the coaching decision on moving everyone this year. I think milo and Hansen go back to their spots and 44 Barnes starts in the middle. Rotate tolson with milo. Coverage still way too soft when there’s no pressure.

On offense, nothing worked. Need to see more 2, 3 te sets, that’s our strength. We have quantity at wr, but not really quality. More tes should also theoretically help our struggling oline. I can’t wrap my mind around how bad the offense was.

hollywood on October 24, 2020 @ 12:31 PM

Talent gap is closing. We were simply out coached and schemed. The track record with pro coaches at Illinois has not been positive. We should consider hiring Scheelhause and giving him $ to hire creative OC and proven DC.

uofi08 on October 24, 2020 @ 01:25 PM

I’ve been thinking that as well. It literally can’t be any worse than these past 5 years. He loves the school, is a born leader. Give him the money for good experienced coordinators, maybe with past HC experience, and see what happens. He’d be hungry to succeed and a great recruiter.

carty on October 24, 2020 @ 02:27 PM

Change is coming

hollywood on October 24, 2020 @ 05:21 PM

Jim Leonard that someone else posted is great call too. Cant complain about D yesterday other than blown coverage which I have to believe the D gets figured out. Wisconsin D is really good, so hoping offense proves adequate or will be long year with definite changes needed

hollywood on October 24, 2020 @ 11:45 PM

To the players that may read this board. Everyone on here appreciates you and is behind you for wearing the orange and blue. You battled the entire game and you should be proud of your effort. It’s one game there’s still an opportunity to have great year. To any coaches current or future - this fanbase is way deeper than 17 and anxious to get behind you - give us hope.

hollywood on October 25, 2020 @ 02:54 PM

Unpopular take after 1 game. Give Isaiah his shot and make him QB1. RichRod offense better with running QB. Respect Peters and what he’s done, but #1 gives us best shot to win.

hollywood on October 24, 2020 @ 11:45 PM

To the players that may read this board. Everyone on here appreciates you and is behind you for wearing the orange and blue. You battled the entire game and you should be proud of your effort. It’s one game there’s still an opportunity to have great year. To any coaches current or future - this fanbase is way deeper than 17 and anxious to get behind you - give us hope.

Efremwinters84 on October 24, 2020 @ 04:27 PM

Not much to add. Your collective thoughts have been exquisitely captured above. However, to further pound home the point about our offense, I found this quote earlier from a highly-respected source:

"It used to be that good defense beats good offense. Good defense doesn't beat good offense anymore," Saban told ESPN on Friday. "It's just like last week. Georgia has as good a defense as we do an offense, and we scored 41 points on them [in a 41-24 Alabama win]. That's not the way it used to be. It used to be if you had a good defense, other people weren't going to score. You were always going to be in the game. "I'm telling you. It ain't that way anymore."

And to think that our Illini offense scored 0 points.

After the opening week, it looks like we're the 14th best team in the Big 10 once again. I, too, expected to see Barker and Ford on the field together most of the game with each of them having 6-10 targets.

Urban Meyer, Luke Fickell and Matt Campbell (with Scheelhaase as OC) ---- please step forward.

seanf on October 24, 2020 @ 04:32 PM

Derrick Smith should never play safety again, move him to LB, he blew 3 TDs. If we had Tony Adams back there, game would have been probably 2 TDs closer.

With the offense, I can't tell if we are bad or Wisconsin is super good. But its concerning that we can't run or pass with consistency.

seanf on October 24, 2020 @ 04:34 PM

Oh and I think we should hire Jim Leonhard to be Head Coach if he continues to coach the Wisky defense this well. The work he had done is impressive.

Efremwinters84 on October 24, 2020 @ 04:55 PM

My respect has also grown for the Las Vegas odds makers. (And I'm sure glad I limit my sports betting to the NCAA Basketball tourney at my office.)

thor1974 on October 24, 2020 @ 05:27 PM

Fortunately I didn’t waste my time watching the game last night. This may be unpopular to say, but I have sensed that the team and head coach have been more focused on social justice and political issues instead of football leading up to the season. I have nothing against players wanting to effect positive change in their communities, but there’s a time and place for it., I have completely tuned out the NFL for this as well mainly because It disgusts me to see them disrespect the country and flag. I don’t need to be lectured by multi-millionaires about how bad they have it when they have been given an opportunity to exploit their God-given talents for a very healthy sum of money.

Rafe.thrasher@gmail.com on October 24, 2020 @ 07:17 PM

Rod Smith should be fired along with his buddy

Gary48 on October 24, 2020 @ 10:56 PM

Robert, I’m done. Time for Josh to start the search for a hot, energetic young coach to actually have a plan to return Illinois football to respectability.

GilThorpe on October 25, 2020 @ 09:27 AM

I was so excited to sit down at 7:00 pm and watch the game , only to be banging my head against the wall by the end of the first half .

It’s like nothing really ever changes

WeatherfordForMVP on October 25, 2020 @ 12:59 PM

I am by no means a football scheme guru. Never played at a higher level the intramural flag football (at U of I, thought!). But even I could not miss the ridiculous over-targeting of J. Imatorbhebhe. Obviously Wisconsin didn't. And for goodness sake, how many balls could Peters through into J. Imatorbhebhe's shins? Some of his misses seemed catchable, but very few were good throws.

That was so disappointing. The first few games last year were disappointing, and then they turned the season around. But yeesh...a loss next week feels like it would be crippling.

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