This season was ostensibly the sound check for the long-awaited show that is 2019 Illinois Fighting Illini Football. After 2015 (Interim), 2016 (Purgatory), 2017 (Darkness) and 2018 (Sound Check), 2019 finally promises to show us whether or not Illinois can build a football program that can win six games on a consistent basis.
If the sound check was any indication, they still have a lot of work to get done before showtime.
The 2017 season was brutal even by Fighting Illini standards and took me to a really dark place, but adding reinforcements to a young team and bringing in a new offensive coordinator should, in theory, have set the stage for improvement. I predicted 3-9 with a conference win; the consensus was right around there. The caveat was of course that anything on top of that was gravy and I’d be pretty content with a result like 4-8.
Somehow, the Fighting Illini proved me wrong by finishing 4-8 and generating more questions than answers.
I. Get Those Expectations Nice & Low
With hopes high for a three or four win season, the Fighting Illini headed into their game against the lowly Kent State Golden Flashes with the following conditions in place:
- WR Shaedon Meadors out for the season
- WR Jalen Greene not admitted as a grad transfer; instead went to Utah State
- TE Lou Dorsey, DB Nate Hobbs, S Bennett Williams (2017 Freshman All-American), WR Carmoni Green, DE Deon Pate suspended for three games
- OL Larry Boyd, the best freshman starter from 2017’s young offensive line, taking an academic redshirt along with freshman DL Verdis Brown
Illinois came out looking totally lost on both sides of the ball en route to a 17-3 halftime deficit. The running game rallied the team in the second half, with AJ Bush, Reggie Corbin, Ra’Von Bonner and Mike Epstein scoring, and Jake Hansen led the defense to clamp down a bit, but the Fighting Illini needed senior WR Mikey Dudek to step up. He did just that, catching a deep ball over the middle for a first down in Kent State territory, taking a helmet to the knee in the process that would end his season with an ACL tear. Dudek’s sacrifice was not in vain as Illinois won 31-24, but just like the near-loss to a moribund Ball State program to kick off 2017, this win shook Illini fans to the core.
With Dudek and WR Ricky Smalling out, Illinois had a welcome FCS game against a retooled Western Illinois program. Keep things simple and focus on fundamentals.
As I, among with a hilariously small number of fans, watched, Illinois was dominated in the trenches by a middling Missouri Valley Football Conference team, going three and out and surrendering a methodical touchdown drive to start the game. On the next drive, starting QB Bush went down. Illinois wouldn’t respond until midway through the second quarter with a touchdown by freshman WR Edwin Carter from a promising MJ Rivers. Late in the half, emerging star Carter caught another touchdown, only to have his knee destroyed by a defender during the catch.
Illinois couldn’t have been a more shaky 2-0.
II. Emergence of the Rod Smith Offense
Rich Rodriguez disciple Rod Smith was brought in to totally revamp the offense, and after the early hiccups, some promise was showing in the run game. Speedy backs Corbin and Epstein were able to break off long touchdown runs, and the offensive line started to round into form in run blocking. The pass game was still a liability, but with success running the ball in early downs, the pass game could be minimized.
This is not without risk, however. With a lack of playmaking receivers and deficiencies in the passers, throwing the ball was not a dependable proposition. When the Illini fell behind the sticks early, there was little they could do to advance the ball. Second and long became a death sentence, and when Purdue schemed to force Bush to pass, the offense was limited to seven points.
However, having one thing they do well is a big step up from 2017, where they had no things they did well. This strength allowed them to hang around with the top-10 Penn State Nittany Lions even as the defense surrendered long drives. Penn State clung to a narrow 28-24 advantage heading to the fourth quarter.
III. Oh My God, Why Is The Defense So Bad?
Close game, right?
Nope. Illinois gave up 35 points, and while two fumbles didn’t help, neither did surrendering 591 total yards for 8.3 yards per play.
Basically, the answer to the question in the subheader is “everything.” Backers Hansen and Del’Shawn Philips played admirably, but outside of Bobby Roundtree, the defensive line was thoroughly manhandled by every offensive front they played. Of course, when only a single defensive end is winning matchups, it’s easy to just run to where he isn’t, and teams did this with impunity.
The secondary was an absolute mess in both the run game and the pass game. Youth and inexperience contributed, but it was discouraging to see how little improvement was made over the course of the year. The secondary missed tackles, took poor pursuit angles, failed to read plays and lost receivers in zone coverage.
I’m not going to say this is rock bottom, because that assumes there is a bottom, but the Maryland game was awful. And yes, I do think that’s why Hardy Nickerson is no longer on staff. Here, Illini drop 7 in base Cover 2. And Sydney Brown is…wait, what? pic.twitter.com/2wsZcMKqE9— Illinois Football Breakdown (@ILLFBBreakdown) October 29, 2018
This Illini defense ranked among the ten worst in the country in most statistical categories and was by miles the worst ever fielded by the Illinois football program. They came seven points shy of tying a Big Ten record for most total points scored against in conference play, surrendering 63, 17, 46, 49, 63, 31, 54, 63 and 24 points. The 17 and 24 were to Rutgers and Northwestern, so they might as well have been 63 for an average offense.
When your median defensive performance in conference play is a 49 point bloodbath, you’re not going to win a lot.
IV: Answers: Things We Can Count On
Among the biggest questions going into the season was if Illinois would finally establish an identity on offense, and it’s safe to say Rod Smith worked some magic. This resulted in the 9th best rushing offense in the nation per S&P+; however, adding the 100th-best passing offense resulted in merely the 79th best overall offense. “Just-below-median,” however, is a huge step up from “Lou Tepper would be proud of how awful this offense is,” which was where 2017 lived.
The offensive line will return most of its starters, losing senior Nick Allegretti to graduation but replacing him with Alabama transfer Richie Petitbon. Doug Kramer was solid at center, while Alex Palczewski and Kendrick Green showed the ability to generate push if they hit their assignments. This didn’t happen all the time, but they fared better than “Ineligible Downfield” Vederian Lowe in that regard. Petitbon should add a lot to this group; he was a former top-100 recruit who was passed up on the Tide depth chart after tearing his ACL in 2016.
Petitbon’s high school teammate was Reggie Corbin, who was the first 1000-yard rusher for Illinois since Mikel Leshoure. Despite generating some NFL interest with his elite change-of-direction ability, Corbin will return for his senior year to lead what might be a deep group of speed backs with solid hands featuring Ra’Von Bonner, Mike Epstein, Dre Brown and freshman speed freak Kyron Cumby. Corbin led the Illini in punishing Minnesota’s aggressive defensive strategy to the tune of 213 yards on 13 carries in a 55-31 win that saw PJ Fleck fire his defensive coordinator the next day.
The last thing we can say for certain is that Blake Hayes will continue to do solid work as a punter and Chase McLaughlin will be sorely missed as a placekicker
V. Raising Even More Questions
So, even with two 63-point defensive performances under their belt, the Illini smashed the Minnesota Golden Gophers to double 2017’s win total. The defense is awful, but things aren’t all that bad, right? They hung tough with Nebraska before turnovers caused things to get out of hand, but this program is trending up!
That’s what we thought before a thoroughly unremarkable Iowa Hawkeyes team, fresh off pissing away the Big Ten West, gave Illinois, playing its 129th season of football, its worst loss of all time by the score of 63-0.
A nine touchdown shutout by a fairly good but by no means spectacular Iowa team coached by Kirk Ferentz. The worst defense in school history, yes, but not the worst overall team.
Illinois’ first season was in 1890. Amos Alonzo “destroy Northwestern 76-0” Stagg hung a 63-0 score on the Fighting Illini in 1906. This was the high water mark for destroying Illinois. The Fighting Illini shared a conference with the “I beat Iowa 107-0 but at least it wasn’t as bad as the 119-0 I laid on Michigan State” Fielding H. Yost Michigan Wolverines. That 63-0 mark survived all kinds of ridiculous wild-west early barnstorming football without being equaled. It endured Woody “couldn’t go for three” Hayes’ Ohio State Buckeyes; it held up through Jim Valek and the slush fund fallout. It weathered the repeated attempts by Bo Schembechler to destroy it in hopes of teaching us a lesson about firing shitty coaches that happen to be his friend. Absolutely dreadful Illini teams took on Joe Paterno, Lloyd Carr and Jim Tressel in the mid-2000’s; Paterno came within ten but couldn’t bear to do it. That mark wasn’t matched by Bret Bielema’s card nor Urban Meyer’s NFL team. Yet it was equaled by an Iowa team in which their own fans were sorely disappointed.
That left us with more questions than answers. Questions such as:
- Who will we hire to fill the two vacant spots on the defensive coaching staff? Donnie Abraham left near the beginning of the 2018 season and Hardy Nickerson stepped down in late October and the positions have yet to be filled. Are we just going to roll with the penalty kill unit?
- What will the quarterback play be like? Bush was athletic but shaky at best as a thrower. MJ Rivers had good mechanics but made poor reads; commanded the offense well but had deficiencies as a runner. Isaiah Williams will be a true freshman, Coran Taylor and Matt Robinson are on the depth chart and there are graduate transfer options available
- How does this defense get fixed? Philips is the only graduating senior, but Marquez Beason is the only freshman that should start. Lovie appears to want to call the defense himself as he did after Nickerson stepped down. This worked alright for Minnesota, but not so much for Iowa, as covered above. It would take a huge leap for this defense to be merely bad.
- Who’s next to leave and why so much attrition? Since the start of the 2018 season, Bennett Williams, Lou Dorsey, Cam Thomas, Carmoni Green, Cameron Watkins and Larry Boyd have all left from Lovie’s 2017 class, with OL Ruben Unije joining them from the 2018 class. Watkins, Dorsey, Thomas and Unije left voluntarily, while Boyd, Williams and Green could not stay with the team. 2019 recruiting wasn’t quite intensive enough to plug all the holes that opened up in the 2018 season and its aftermath.
- Who will catch the ball when we have to pass? Smalling struggled big time last year, but will need to return to the form he showed in November because with Jeff Thomas spurning the Illini, Oklahoma transfer A.D. Miller is the next closest thing they have to a proven receiver. Dudek and Sam Mays are gone, Trenard Davis doesn’t have overpowering size or speed and also was a quarterback and Edwin Carter’s knee will be an even bigger concern than former walk-on Dominic Stampley’s hands. Georgia transfer Luke Ford will join the fold at tight end, but it’s not yet known if he’ll be able to play immediately.
- What happens if an offensive lineman goes down? There are currently only ten O linemen on scholarship thanks to recruiting a total of two in the last two years and having one of those two leave. At this point, true freshman Evan Kirts is on the two deep. In year 4, we need to be redshirting the freshman linemen!
- How’s our kicking game? Did we just get lucky with Chase McLaughlin?
- Does anybody even care that we’re playing the 2019 season?
- Seriously, how in the hell could we have lost 63-0 to Iowa?
- Under what circumstances do we find a new head coach after 2019?
- I suppose let’s worry about filling our current staff first. Can we do that?
- Will Illinois finally have a season that matters, or will we go 4-8 and kick the can down the road?
- Will Illinois Football be the least bit fun?
At the end of the day, Illinois will probably do what it usually does: battle rutger for last place and “we won a conference game!” bragging rights.
I didn’t have to write anywhere near this many words.
I could easily have just written “Illinois sucked in a different manner than expected and nobody cares because it didn’t matter; this is likely to continue” and had that be the entire body of the article.
See ya in the fall fall when I try to self-ban from this site after we lose to Akron.
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