J. Thomas McNamara
Has Lovie Smith lost his Illinois 2020 football team?
I’m not the first to ask that as Illinois beat writers are starting to write that, too.
In his post-game conference he was a little edgy when the writers, who were doing their jobs, asked “What’s wrong” type questions. To me, that indicates things are not going well for the head coach. That’s what three losses can do to coaches, who went into the season with his most experienced team.
It was perfect football weather. It would have been an ideal Saturday afternoon for prep football playoff action. Unfortunately, COVID-19 had other ideas.
I’ve had time to digest what happened Saturday afternoon/evening in Memorial Stadium where the Golden Gophers of Minnesota left Champaign-Urbana after completely embarrassing Lovie Smith and his Illini to the tune of a 41-14 pounding.
It was a pounding both on the ground and through the air where once again Illinois illustrated it does not have a pass defense. And I don’t want to hear excuses they were missing players in the defensive secondary and had another ejected in the game for targeting.
Illinois couldn’t stop the pass at Wisconsin Oct. 23 (20 of 21, remember) or against Purdue Oct. 31. During Saturday’s game-long collapse, the Illini couldn’t stop anything as the Gophers carved out 30 first downs for 556 yards.
Big Ten rushing leader Mohamed Ibrahim rammed for 224 yards on 30 carries, and QB Tanner Morgan inserted 17 completions, 10 of them to star receiver Rashod Bateman.
Illinois chipped in by contributing 12 penalties covering 120 yards, a clear display of faltering discipline in the 41-14 result. The head coach is responsible for teaching his athletes to be disciplined which the Illini obviously aren’t.
Lovie blamed the loss on Illinois’ lack of physicality, citing the Gophers winning the lines of scrimmages on both sides of the ball. Excuse me, but isn’t it the responsibility of the head coach and strength and conditioning coach to get their players in condition to play physical.
Illinois is 0-3 and it has not had any pass defense in any of the three.
After three games, Illinois has scored three touchdowns offensively and one of the two Illinois scored last Saturday night came with Minnesota having the game well-in-hand.
So, it was meaningless.
They scored one touchdown offensively the week before and none in their conference and season opener against the Wisconsin Badgers as the defense scored their only points on a fumble recovery.
Lovie is in his fifth season as head coach and enthusiastically said often that this would be his best team because of the experienced senior class he had returning, plus a good receiving corps that welcomed tight end Luke Ford, the transfer who had to sit out last year when the NCAA did not approve his hardship transfer, returning quarterback Brandon Peters, a healthy running back Mike Epstein, and four of the five offensive linemen returning as well.
The tight ends are missing in action as evidenced by the following from Saturday afternoon’s debacle: Southern Cal transfer Daniel Imatorbhebhe and Daniel Barker had one catch each. Ford didn’t have a catch.
Lovie is the head coach and is the defensive coordinator as well which means he has to shoulder all the blame and responsibility for the failure of his defense to perform as he expected.
And offensive coordinator Rod Smith has to accept his share of responsibility for the Illini’s woes offensively.
Here’s how bad it was:
This drive illustrates my point. On the team’s first possession of the second half, it had a first and goal at the Minnesota 10-yard line. The Illini trailed 28-7, but was in position to cut into the deficit.
A personal foul for tripping cost the Illini 15 yards. Then, new starting quarterback Coran Taylor lost 23 yards on a run and fumbled. Teammate Casey Washington recovered. Now the Illini were all the way back to the Minnesota 48, setting up third-and-goal. From the 48. Illinois punted after an incomplete pass.
Afterwards, Smith said that was the way the day went.
Something is obviously wrong there.
I expect Athletic Director Josh Whitman and Smith to have a chat this week about what has gone wrong with the Illinois football team. Illinois will play better in Piscataway, New Jersey against Greg Schiano’s Rutgers team. He used three quarterbacks and trick plays in their loss last Saturday to Ohio State.
And I don’t want to hear any excuses about them not getting to play their non-conference schedule because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Each team they played experienced the same thing, so that doesn’t hold water.
However, I don’t think Whitman will make a head coaching change for multiple reasons, the principal one financial because university athletic departments already are hurting from the loss of revenue brought on by the pandemic. But I do think staff changes will come at the end of this considerably disappointing season.
By the way, I predicted a 3-6 Illini season at the start, but I’m not sure they win a game this year. It’s a good thing fans aren’t allowed in the stadium because boos would have been ringing down from the stands with many of them exiting early for their cars to head home since tailgating is not allowed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.