Postscript, Wisconsin

Oct 26, 2020

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Editor's note: This is one more reminder to check those bylines when you open a post. Every Monday we'll post Nathan's column, "Postscript". But because all of the offseason words have been mine, everyone will think it's me writing it. And then in the comments someone will say "Robert you said X on Saturday and now you're saying Y?" I'm not. Nathan is. Over the years I've tried to figure out ways to get people to look at the bylines (giant, flashing "THIS IS WRITTEN BY NATHAN" byline?), but the only way to do it is a bunch of editor's notes. So consider this an editor's note. And now consider these words - written by Nathan.

As I stood at a gas pump Friday morning, freezing and woefully underprepared for the rapid drop in temperature, I thought about how this is virtually a no-win year for Lovie Smith.

I mean, there's a way he wins, in that he literally wins seven or eight games and is the talk of college football. But if we put the chances of that happening at, say, 5 percent, that means there's a 95 percent chance that at best it's a break-even year and at worst he's looking for a new job in a few months.

Consider: If the Illini win three or fewer games, there's almost no redeeming this season. Perhaps Lovie stays by the grace of Josh Whitman -- we still don't know what his breaking point is with a coach that he's hired -- but he will have zero job security heading into 2021. If nothing else, that will create a situation where he's swimming upstream in recruiting. Some might call the situation #NotIdeal.

If the Illini win four games, it's a push. That's about where most people who pay attention to the Illini expect them to finish.

But if they win five or six games, that's a win, right? That's progress, yeah? Maybe. It could also be viewed by detractors as a strange byproduct of the year 2020, what with truncated, haphazard schedules and COVID-related DNPs affecting quality of competition. If Illinois goes 6-3 in 2020, I'm willing to bet few outside of Champaign-Urbana will view it as legitimate.

Which makes this year a fairly high-risk, low-reward season for Lovie and his staff. Friday night didn't help that, even in a game they were supposed to lose by three touchdowns.

It hasn't been easy to be Lovie Smith, in a purely football sense, for a handful of years now, save for a few fleeting moments in 2019. But it's really hard to be Lovie Smith in 2020.

-I love fantasy baseball.

It's a great game. It requires patience and attention, and although some tweaks along the way are integral to winning championships, it's the team that's best for six months that almost always takes home the title.

A few years ago I quit season-long fantasy football because it's the opposite of fantasy baseball. The head-to-head, volatile nature of the game too often left me feeling cheated for having the second-best team in a given week only to get beaten by the person who happened to field the best team that week. There's no skill in that; the cream isn't rising to the top. You might as well put it all on red at the roulette table.

One of the most frustrating parts about fantasy football is its reliance on game script. In baseball, a guy is almost certain to get at least three at-bats. What he does with them contains a good amount of chance, but we're at least guaranteed he'll get them.

In football, a dramatic change to the expected game script -- Kirk Cousins randomly throwing three first-half interceptions last weekend -- can drastically alter the entire fabric of the game. Alexander Mattison, a virtual chalk DFS play coming into the game, was rendered useless because another guy made three mistakes. That's not skill.

All of which is to say, 45-7 is bad on paper, and it was bad in reality, but 45-7 was also the product of game script. The game wasn't terribly competitive with the Illinois offense stuck in neutral, but it was a 14-7 game with 3:22 left in the first half and a 28-7 game at the end of the third quarter.

The things that happened in the second half -- two turnovers on downs and a forced interception were how three of their four drives ended -- were the result of playing from behind, and exacerbated the disparity in the final score. I'm not trying to defend most of the performance, especially from the offense, but we perhaps think about this game differently if the final score was 28-10. That's all.

-It's overly simplistic, but it's hard not to notice that the game was a meeting of one team making a lot of mistakes versus the other making virtually none.

The Mike Epstein fumble. A Josh Imatorbhebhe drop on third down to stall a drive. Countless off-target throws from Brandon Peters. Multiple personal fouls on the defense to give Wisconsin first downs. Blown coverages. The list goes on.

There's a talent gap, and Wisconsin was supposed to win that game. You never shock the world, like the Illini did a year ago in Champaign, making that many unforced errors, though.

-If we're looking for positives from Friday's game, especially on offense, one has to be that Brandon Peters continued to show that he can be a running threat.

I wasn't alone in calling for it, and I might not have even been the first to call for it -- though I can't say for certain I wasn't not the first to call for it -- but after he showed his wheels in the Akron game I was fully on board the "Brandon Peters should run more" train. From my Postscript almost a year ago today:

"I keep hammering this point, but Brandon Peters' running is, I think, the key to this offense.

It's not the runs themselves -- although he's been able to pick up some nice chunks the past two weeks -- but rather, it's the threat of him pulling it and running, which sows doubt in a defensive end's mind on the read-option, or maybe makes a defensive back freeze for a half-second as a receiver darts past him, that makes a difference.

If the defense isn't sure whether this is one of the handful of times that Peters is going to keep it in a given game, they're suddenly forced to think instead of just reacting. He's likely not going to break a big one any time soon, but Peters' runs have been some of my favorite plays in recent weeks."

That was true again Friday, when he did break a few big runs that doubled as the most explosive plays the offense could muster this week. Of course, that can't be the heart of the Illini offense, but the more he runs, the better this offense should function in theory.

-That was legitimately about the only positive that could be drawn from the offense, but the biggest bright spot on either side of the ball was the play of Tarique Barnes.

Barnes was, of course, part of that 2019 recruiting class that was headlined by Marquez Beason and Isaiah Williams. If there was a third headliner it was Shammond Cooper, a linebacker like Barnes.

Dating back to last year, though, it's been Barnes, and not the more heralded Cooper, who's gotten more run in game action. That's not to detract from Cooper, who will hopefully be great in his own right; it's more a testament to Barnes' talent and the fact that he was a nice diamond-in-the-rough find by the staff. The Miles Smith haters will say it's fake.

Despite not starting or really making an impact until near the end of the first quarter, Barnes led the Illini with 11 tackles and had a sack, 1.5 tackles for loss and forced the fumble he later recovered and ran back for the only Illinois touchdown of the game. Even if only using the eye test, Barnes was everywhere for the Illini defense.

It's not yet clear how long Hansen might be out -- the Lovie Smith quote after the game sounded optimistic, but he doesn't give much away before game day -- but even if Hansen is back, we've seen the future at middle linebacker. And if Friday was any indication, it's bright.

-The other notable bright spot was Roderick Perry. Barnes was Pro Football Focus' highest-graded Illini player in Friday's game with a score of 88.1, and Perry was the second-highest at 80.1.

Like Barnes, Perry was all over for the Illini defense, constantly crashing through the offensive line and causing disruption. He finished off a sack started by Khalan Tolson (who also had a good game), and although he had just three tackles in the box score, Perry wreaked havoc early and often. The Illini got a good one from South Carolina State, it seems.

-Last thing: this is weird to say in the second week of the season, but this weekend's game against Purdue is a classic trap game.

Illinois just went to Wisconsin and got bodied. Purdue hosted Iowa, sans Rondale Moore, and pulled the upset.

Now, Purdue, riding high, travels to Champaign-Urbana on Halloween as a nearly touchdown favorite. Trick, or treat? We'll find out soon enough.


Dr. Chim Richalds on October 26, 2020 @ 01:15 PM

Genuine question - not trying to get written off as taking a #stance - to what extent are you saying you think it's hard to be Lovie Smith because of circumstances outside his control? While I understand that this is the team he's been building towards, and having a pandemic wipe away 3 easy wins and throw everything off-kilter isn't what he would prefer, I'm not sure I see it as a worthy excuse if this team wins 3 or less games. You mention a lot about all the miscues Friday, and there were many, but shouldn't we expect a senior-laden team with a wealth of prior starting experience to be able to manage a chaotic situation better than most? If you were to draw up a team that would survive less practice time, no spring ball, and limited ability to install new packages and evaluate players, it would be a team bringing back the same players and running the same systems.

Note that this isn't me saying this team will win 3 or less games, or that all those miscues will continue this season. But if this season does continue to look like Friday night, I would think of the handling of this situation as more of an indictment of the coaches, rather than less.

Dr. Chim Richalds on October 26, 2020 @ 01:17 PM

Also great to have you back writing this year, Nathan

Sean on October 26, 2020 @ 01:50 PM

One way to help differentiate the writers is to have a byline photobox inserted into the text. The best example I can show you is

On author John Scalzi's site he has his photo/name on his posts and his daughter's on hers. This might help and has the added bonus of getting cool headshots for everybody.

IlliniA.J. on October 26, 2020 @ 04:40 PM

I've seen Nathan in real life. He's eye candy for sure. Might make the other writers a little jealous.

neale stoner on October 26, 2020 @ 03:45 PM

Highly unlikely any coaching changes after this year. It’s an odd year, and they are broke—no money for buyouts.

estraug2 on October 27, 2020 @ 09:32 PM

I know this shouldn't be the key takeaway from the article, but I totally agree with you on frustrations of fantasy football. That's why I switched my league to an "all-play" league instead of H2H. Our league is 10 teams and you "play" everybody each week. So if you have the highest point total for the week, you beat everybody and go 9-0. Second to lowest points? You're 1-8 for the week. Then you just accumulate the records each week. Made the change about 6 years ago, and we are all quite pleased with how it has played out.

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