CHAMPAIGN - Was this Lovie Smith's Louisiana Tech game?
Most Illinois football fans remember the Louisiana Tech game -- though they certainly would like to forget about it.
It happened almost exactly four years ago at Memorial Stadium. If you don't remember, here are some of the gory details -- and how it may provide some scary historic parallels to this current 2016 season.
Tim Beckman had just taken over at Illinois. He won his opener (over Western Michigan, actually), which went pretty smoothly. The huge Week 2 game at Arizona State was a disaster (last week's 48-23 loss to UNC didn't go so well either). Players complained at ASU that they didn't know the defensive signals. That was the first sign that something was wrong. But the Illini came back home and crushed FCS cupcake Charleston Southern 44-0 (that 52-3 Murray State Week 1 win two weeks ago felt good until the Week 3 scoreboard showed the Racers lost to Southern Illinois 50-17).
So optimism was still abundant in 2012 when Louisiana Tech came to town that Saturday night. Sure, the Bulldogs were good -- but only WAC good, right? Illinois had some roster issues for sure, but a strong senior class, mostly on defense (sound familiar?). Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase had few weapons around him. But he was an experienced upperclassman (like Wes Lunt) who certainly could cover up some of those flaws, at least some thought.
But before you knew it, Louisiana Tech had 21 points before the first quarter had ended (Western Michigan took a 21-0 lead on Illinois on Saturday). At the end of four quarters of the La. Tech game, the scoreboard read 52-24 in favor of the visitors.
That's when everyone knew the 2012 Illini had real, possibly unfixable issues -- and the team never recovered that season, losing nine straight to end the year with a 2-10 record.
So was Saturday's 34-10 shellacking from Western Michigan the Louisiana Tech game for Lovie's 2016 Illini? We'll find out in October.
"You could look at it as similar situations," said Illinois senior center Joe Spencer, who was a true freshman in 2012. "But the true definition of what this game is going to be is we're going into this bye week (before heading to Nebraska on Oct. 1), and we have to as a team line up and look in the mirror, figuratively. Who do we want to be? Where do we want to go? I don't think this has to define the whole season. It's a letdown. It's a major letdown. We didn't perform today: offense, defense special teams. Now, we have to decide. ...There's games to be won. There's teams we can beat."
Don't mistake the Western Michigan loss as just a bad week against a good opponent. Sure, the Broncos are likely to win the MAC. They may even go undefeated this season. ButWMU has never beat a Big Ten team by so much. Illinois has never lost to a MAC team by so much. The Illini failed in every aspect of the game.
They allowed 287 rushing yards to a MAC team while rushing for three yards against a MAC team. The MAC team dominated the Big Ten team in the trenches.
"We say we're a running football team," Smith said. "With those type of numbers, you can't win football games."
Smith singled out his senior quarterback Wes Lunt, who passed for 312 yards but played too conservatively, passing up high-risk down-field opportunities for low-reward check-down options.
"Our play at the quarterback position has to improve an awful lot, or we don't have a chance to win many games. It's as simple as that," Smith said. "We had receivers open today. We got to be able to hit some of those receivers, shore up our decision-making a little bit. The ball we got to push it down the field on third-and-long situations. I think we had opportunities to do a little bit more in the passing game."
Also, that patented Lovie Smith take-away defense failed to force a turnover, his special teams coverage was leaky and the Illini again shot themselves in the foot with penalties.
Nothing has jelled in the early going, but Smith and players downplayed the impact of newness -- new schemes for players and new personnel for coaching staffs -- as a factor.
"We've been with the guys long enough," Smith said. "It's the same coaching staff that coached the first game of the season. We're not going to use that (as an excuse). We're just not executing the way we need to. We can play better."
Said senior defensive tackle Rob Bain: "Everyone know's what they're doing. I just think always with new schemes or whatever, new assignments, we know what we're doing. I just think with time, we'll start to gel more and become more cohesive. We know what we're doing. We believe in what the coaches' system and everything. It's just we got to work to keep getting better at knowing what everyone else is doing."
Fight or flight?
The truth is that the Illini's 2016 season already is hanging by a thread. Given all that's happened with this program in recent years, this is a fragile bunch -- and not an overly talented one. The players and Lovie know it, which is why they all harped on the team's response to the disconcerting loss.
Will this team fight or flight? Despite losing six of seven last season, Bill Cubit's bunch fought, competing in close games during that final stretch.
"What you can't do is let Western Michigan beat you twice," Smith said. "I'm talking about hanging on to a lot of bad things that happen in this game. What we're going to do is move on. The truth of the matter is that each week we learn more about our football team. Some might just be about who can and can't play. So you have to go through a process, which we're doing. ...You have to have a short memory. We're going to put this to bed as soon as we have a chance to learn from the video."
Said Lunt: "It might be a good thing for the bye. I think we can look each other in the eye this week and kind of see what we need to get better on and really focus on ourselves because I think that's the problem, ourselves."
Like in 2012, the goal for the 2016 season was to make a bowl game to help a new coaching staff gain traction. With all nine games remaining against Big Ten opponents, that seems a daunting task. With a final six-game stretch that includes games against top-15 opponents Michigan (road), Michigan State (home) and Wisconsin (road) -- oh, and Iowa (home) -- the Illini will need to turn it around quickly. A competitive showing at Nebraska (3-0) would at least give them some positive vibes into winnable games against Purdue and at Rutgers.
We got a chance to get better or get worse after this," Bain said. "It's up to us. We got a bye week coming up. It's up to us where we want to go the rest of this season. This doesn't define us, unless we let it."
Illinois made a coaching change because the program -- and athletic department -- had major issues. Despite a rough start, Smith still offers much more credibility and stability (six-year, $21 million contract) than Beckman ever did. These last two weeks are just a reminder that it will take a long time -- and talented recruits -- for those seeds to bear fruit.
"Normally with a coaching change, there's something going on," Smith said. "I didn't expect us to just beat everybody 100 to zero just right away. What I'd tell the fans is that we set the bar and now we're going to start growing from here. It's a process. It's hard winning football games. It's as simple as that. We eventually are going to get this done."
Smith and his staff will hit the recruiting trail during the bye week to further evaluate prospects. And honestly, recruiting will have a much bigger impact on the future of Illini football than wins in 2016. But the two are not mutually exclusive. The Illini have 14 scholarships available in the Class of 2017 and a few still available in 2016 that could be used on transfers or early enrollees. Smith even mentioned that they will look at junior-college prospects. The Illini certainly have plenty of holes next season -- more so than this season.
Which is why it seems so important for the Illini to get back on track. Smith has time, but a bad 2016 season on what could be a really bad 2017 season could further impede progress. Recruits are drawn to NFL coaching experience. But they're more drawn to wins.
"We're not where we need to be," Smith said. "The bye week is coming at an ideal time for us to take some things and, as a football team, decide exactly how we want this season to play."