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Writing about the frustrations of a loss in a game coached by a guy whose days were likely numbered, after said coach has lost his job and the proverbial page has been turned, feels a little like beating a dead horse. It's the, "Stop, stop! He's already dead!" Simpsons GIF of game recaps.
It's fitting that it was a lopsided loss to rival Northwestern that was the final nail in the coffin. "Little brother," as Milo Eifler thought it was wise to call them this week, has built a consistently competitive program whose success has provided a stark contrast to what Illinois has done in recent years. Every victory earned by Pat Fitzgerald's club, metaphorical or on the field, has been a reminder of how wide the gap has gotten between the two in-state programs.
Now, Illinois will look for its own Fitzgerald to return the program to a level of stability and competitiveness. One who can make six wins and a bowl a regular occurrence, not a one-off occasion worth celebrating twice a decade.
One who can bring the Land of Lincoln Trophy back to Champaign, and soon.
-There are plenty of fascinating decisions the next coach will face at the outset of his tenure, but Saturday's performance brings one to the forefront: who starts at quarterback in his coaching debut at Illinois?
If Brandon Peters had followed up on his impressive 2019 season with another strong campaign, it's a question that would only exist if Peters was leaving for the NFL or decided he wanted to move on from his college career. And while he likely won't be declaring for performance reasons, it's possible he'll still choose to move on after this season.
If he does decide to return for a final senior season in 2021, though, it shouldn't be to an unquestioned starting job like he did in 2020. It's worth wondering if he was playing hurt Saturday with how awful he looked, finishing 3-for-14 for 21 yards and rushing twice for eight yards. Often, the incomplete passes weren't remotely catchable; the times they were, like on back-to-back throws to Daniel Barker, the player on the receiving end didn't help him out.
Isaiah Williams was only 4-for-8 as a passer, but the redshirt freshman looked head and shoulders ahead of Peters on this day. Williams threw for 86 yards, including a beautiful dime to Brian Hightower for the team's only touchdown on the afternoon, and he was his usual slippery self as a rusher, running seven times for 38 yards.
From the outset, the hope has been that the one they call One would take over as the Illinois starting quarterback sooner than later. Had Peters played at a high level, a move to Williams or someone else -- let's not forget about Robert's guy Deuce Spann -- would have been something other than a meritocracy.
Now, it seems as though everything is in play for the new coach heading into 2021.
-Blake Hayes: Stay.
(A line in the song: "You say ... I don't listen hard, I don't pay attention to the distance that you're running to anyone, anywhere." Neither does Nebraska and Northwestern, apparently.)
You've got the rest of your life to be a seventh-round draft pick and punt in the NFL for a decade. No reason to start that clock prematurely. Enjoy the perks of being a student-athlete for one more year.
-Defense has been a pain point for most of the Lovie Smith era, and it will be a high priority for the new defensive coordinator. (Hire a defensive coordinator, plz, new guy.)
On a day when it was presumed that both teams would lean heavily on the running game, Northwestern still somehow put up 411 rushing yards against an Illini defense admittedly missing numerous starters. That's almost incomprehensible, and certainly inexcusable.
Opposing offenses are now averaging 226.9 rushing yards per game and 451.1 total yards per game this season. Tough to rectify with a defensive-minded head coach who also hired himself as the defensive coordinator.
-One of the big questions that will face the program in the coming days, regardless of who's eventually named the new head coach, will be how many guys are still around when the dust settles.
It's a hard topic to gauge. The departure of a popular coach in any year usually leads to defections. Combine that with the fact that the one-time transfer rule is expected to go into effect in a few weeks, and that seniors can either move on or stay to play another year because of this COVID-impacted 2020 season, and it's almost impossible to guess what this roster will look like in spring ball. (If, ya know, there's spring ball.)
One guy that will hopefully stick around is Chase Brown, who's consistently been a rare bright spot on the Illini offense this season. Brown was good again Saturday, leading the team with 70 yards on 14 carries. Between the Western Michigan transfer, veteran Mike Epstein and good-looking freshman Reggie Love, the running back room is one that an incoming coach should appreciate.
-If we try to pinpoint one exact moment when Lovie Smith's fate was sealed, the 53-yard field goal attempt in the second quarter was probably it.
Even if the kick wasn't so obviously ill-fated, fourth-and-five from the opponent's 35-yard line is a spot to go for it on a day when offense might be at a premium. That the decision was first-guessed by everyone except the head coach just cements that he and the rest of Illini nation weren't really on the same page by the end of his tenure.
-I'll end with this: I was very excited when Lovie Smith was hired.
I remember it being spring 2016, around my birthday, when the hire was made. Don't ask me why I so distinctly remember where I was, but I still recall sitting outside the Century House in Irving, across the street from where my wife grew up, looking at my phone and seeing that we'd hired Lovie Smith to be our next head coach. It was an out-of-the-box hire, a welcome departure from the mid-major failure that was the Tim Beckman era. Everyone I knew was excited to see where it might lead.
It didn't work out, and by the end I wish I could say that I had the same good feelings that some have expressed since the news was announced, but I think it's safe to say there were few people anywhere who were rooting against Lovie, up until and including Saturday's game. In another welcome departure from the previous regime, Lovie always carried himself with class, and represented the university well. It's a shame he couldn't end on his terms, but it was a needed change.
Best wishes, Lovie. We'll always have Wisconsin.