LINCOLN, Neb. - To say Illinois re-invented itself during the bye week is probably a bit hyperbolic. But to say the Illini re-tooled seems to sell short their two-week transformation.
Illinois (1-3, 0-1 Big Ten) played like a different team during Saturday's 31-16 loss at Nebraska. Sure, the result was the same, a double-digit loss to a better team. The end margin against the No. 15 Cornhuskers (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten) doesn't seem all that different from 25-point and 24-point losses North Carolina (4-1) and Western Michigan (5-0).
But Illinois held the lead with 12 minutes remaining. The Illini had a chance to tie with under five minutes remaining.
No, Illinois didn't play winning football. A few too many mistakes (especially penalties), a bad break (the controversial spot on 4th and one), a questionable coaching decision (punting with three minutes remaining, down eight) and not enough big plays on offense.
But this was competitive football. And while most fans would rather see wins in Lovie Smith's first year at the helm, they also just want to watch a team that they think has a chance to win each Saturday they flip on the flatscreen or drive to Memorial Stadium.
On Saturday -- unlike two weeks ago against Western Michigan -- Illinois did that. It was the product of an introspective bye week that included a vast re-evaluation and retooling of the roster.
The Illinois coaching staff learned a lot about its players during the dozens of spring and fall training camp practices. Some of those observations surprised this reporter who's covered the team for years. Julian Hylton starting at safety? Jordan Fagan a key, versatile backup on the offensive line? Justice Williams held onto a starting linebacker spot in camp for how long? Nine true freshmen will play?
But those opinions change during a season based on the results. Smith loved preseason games in the NFL. They allowed him to see who can play and how they can play. But the preseason games in college football -- the nonconference -- count toward the actual record.
During those first three games, Smith's staff learned who can perform on Saturdays. And maybe more importantly, the coaching staff learned how its team needs to play to succeed.
Armed with that knowledge, the Illini shape-shifted on Saturday.
“You need every game to see where you are," Smith said. "We learn different things about our team each practice and of course each game. To have that break, evaluate exactly what we’re doing and to come out today like that, we’re heading in the right direction. I really believe that as a football team. Now we need to take a couple more steps this week.”
New blood, new looks
Illinois had four first-time starters on Saturday, and they changed the way Illinois played.
Redshirt freshman Reggie Corbin flipped spots on the depth chart with Ke'Shawn Vaughn, jumping from third string to starter and Vaughn from starter to third string.
The move was one of several that showed a shift in Garrick McGee's focus from putting out his most physical group to his shiftiest group.
McGee wants to run a power-based offense, where (in its simplest term) Illinois can line across from its Big Ten foes and just win one-on-one physical battles. But this roster wasn't recruited to play that style. This roster was recruited by the previous staff to play a finesse, precise, high-tempo spread system.
McGee implemented more of those spread elements on Saturday. During the first three games, the staff had been trying to fit the Illini players to their scheme. During the bye week, the offense shifted its schemes to fit its players.
“I think the bye week, we looked at the tape of Western Michigan and from that kind of made a lot of changes," Illini quarterback Wes Lunt said. "We need to spread the ball out, so that’s what we did. Completely changed the offense to no huddle and spread it out. I thought we moved the ball well today, and I think we’ll continue to have that attack.”
WIth senior tackle Austin Schmidt hampered by a knee injury, Illinois shifted redshirt freshman guard Gabe Megginson (who missed last game with an ankle injury) to tackle and started Lee at quickside guard. Both seemed to fare fairly well with the Illini averaging 5.9 yards per carry and Lunt getting sacked just once.
This wasn't a full on youth movement but take out Joe Spencer and add in another player (likely incoming recruit Larry Boyd) and you saw the 2017 Illini offensive line (with Nick Allegretti and Christian DiLauro as the other starters).
"This is how you want to play football," Illini senior center Spencer said said. "Running the ball, balanced offense, having fun with it. That's kind of what we felt today. We were out there having fun. Great environment and guys came out and played and laid it on the line. It didn't end up the way we wanted it, but there's things to work off of. That's a big thing going forward."
On defense, Illinois didn't change much schematically. But the staff overhauled its personnel.
Illinois traded raw athleticism for physicality by benching safety Julian Hylton for hard-hitting redshirt freshman Patrick Nelson and shuffling the linebackers by benching junior WLB James Crawford for redshirt sophomore linebacker Tre Watson, whose void at SLB was filled by sophomore Julian Jones.
“You’re ever evolving as a team, really," Smith said. "You give guys an opportunity. After you play a while, you look at what players have done. If you feel like you have a better option, you have to look at that option. That’s what we did. So all those moves, we thought the player that got time today that hadn’t been playing did something to warrant more time. For the most part, I was pleased with what some of the guys did.”
'No one's safe'
The Illini coaches also instituted accountability. Don't do your job? Then we'll give someone else an opportunity to do it better.
No one epitomizes this more than Vaughn. On paper, Vaughn had a solid start to the season, rushing for 175 yards on 32 carries (5.5 ypc) through the first two games. But take his 65-yard touchdown against North Carolina and add in his eight-carry, 22-yard performance against Western Michigan and that's 132 yards on 41 carries (3.2 ypc). He didn't appear to hit the hole that hard, he missed some open holes and he'd struggled to make defenders miss and escape shoe-string tackles.
So the Illini gave an opportunity Corbin (who had no carries the previous two games but a seven-carry, 71-yard performance in his debut against Murray State) with Kendrick Foster staying in his backup role.
While Foster again showed his speed on his 31-yard touchdown run, the Illini simply don't have enough players who can elude defenders in tight spaces. Corbin proved he has that "sauce," as he calls it -- and earned more playing time in the future.
Meanwhile, Crawford -- who was expected to be a key playmaker for the defense but struggled in his new role as an in-the-box linebacker -- appears to have fallen behind the two up-and-comers. And Hylton's surprise rise to the starting job appears brief given Nelson's production in his first start.
The Illini coaches sent a clear message during the bye week and into Saturday.
“Just tells the team that no one’s safe,” Illini senior defensive tackle Rob Bain said, ‘and that ‘we’re going to do what’s best for the team. We’re going to put out there who we feel can do their jobs and make plays.’ That’s always good. It keeps people on edge, competitive and never complacent.”
The Illini coaches sent a loud message to Lunt following the Western Michigan game and last week leading up to Nebraska. While they obviously don't feel comfortable in signing the quarterback car over to Chayce Crouch's name, they're at least willing to let the redshirt sophomore backup take it out for a spin.
Illini are 13th among 14 Big Ten teams in red-zone touchdown percentage with just five touchdowns on 10 red-zone opportunities (Rutgers has four touchdowns on nine red-zone opportunities). So they brought in Crouch, a tough runner whose lack of arm strength is minimized in such tight quarters, for a red-zone package late in the second quarter. Crouch completed a pass that had the Illini knocking on the door of the end zone, but then he took a costly delay-of-game penalty that ultimately resulted in Illinois settling for a field goal.
So not all the staff's moves worked. But at least they sent a message that if players do not succeed at their roles, they will try to find someone who will.
“I think they (the coaches) really learned a lot. I think we (the players) really learned a lot from the bye week," Lunt said. "People really kind of just opened up and wanted to know what our expectations were and where we stood as a team and as individuals. I think the bye week was the most important thing for us.”
'Things to work off of'
Illinois also got physical during the bye week. Smith rarely allowed full tackling during the preseason. But fed up with a lack of physicality on both sides, Smith got after it last week.
The Illini scrimmaged twice during the bye week. Starters vs. starters. Let's see who can play Big Ten football.
“It’s what we needed," Illini senior center Joe Spencer said. "...It paid off and it will pay off going forward."
The first year of a coaching often features a feeling-out process. You saw it go the completely negative way under Tim Beckman in 2012. Nebraska's 2015 season showed how even a good program can have struggles with it.
During the bye week, the coaching staff came to grips that it won't be able to run exactly what it wants on offense until it recruits a minimum two or three of its own recruiting classes. It hasn't even signed one class yet.
Also, the Illinois players learned that it doesn't matter where you started the season on the depth chart. If a player doesn't perform, someone else is getting a chance.
“It’s always a learning process especially with the first year of a head coach," Spencer said. "But I think now we just got to keep going off of this. I think this is a game where we didn’t win and didn’t finish. But there are sparks of it where we can form an identity, and that’s a big thing going forward."
Illinois has lost three straight games by a combined 64 points. Of course, those teams have a combined record of 14-1. Illinois competed with North Carolina, which defeated Florida State 37-35 on Saturday, for three quarters. It competed against the No. 15 team in the country on Saturday until the final minutes.
These are baby steps on this marathon rebuild. Despite the end result, Nebraska feels like it could be a big moment for Illinois.
Hey, we can compete. Hey, our coaches can make the adjustments and changes necessary to put our team in the best opportunity to win. Hey, there is a culture of accountability -- no matter who you are.
Illinois got better on Saturday even if their record got worse. Now, we'll see if they can continue to get better.
“There are no moral victories," Smith said. "I understand that. But you as a player, you have to analyze what you’re doing. And what we talk about is improvement. Each play. Each game. I think a lot of guys in the locker room did make improvement. If we continue this pace, we’ll eventually be OK. I understand it’s four games into the season and that it’s the second quarter (of the season), and it’s tough to go on the road in a hostile environment and win a game, period. Those guys aren’t holding their heads down in that locker room. We see promise for our future.”