CHAMPAIGN - Lovie Smith almost said it right.
“Right now, we’re not a good football team,” the first-year Illinois head football coach said following Saturday’s 34-31 overtime loss to Purdue. “When you’re not a good football team, you have to keep working to be a good football team. That’s where we are, we’re based in reality right now.”
All those things are true. But let’s take it a few steps further.
Illinois isn’t just based in reality. It’s facing reality -- especially Smith’s staff.
And right now that reality is that Illinois isn’t just a bad football team, it’s the Big Ten’s worst -- though, I guess that title officially goes to the loser of next week’s Big Ten basement bowl at Rutgers.
Embattled and possibly soon-to-be fired Purdue football coach Darrell Hazell has three Big Ten wins during his four-year tenure. Two are against Illinois -- at Illinois.
Two straight times, one of the worst power-five conference teams in the country has come to the Illini’s turf, run to the opposing sideline following the last play of the game and stolen back the Cannon Trophy.
Two straight times at Memorial Stadium that the Illini (1-4, 0-2 Big Ten) has made the Boilermakers (3-2, 1-1) feel like they're the program that is progressing. And maybe they are.
“Every loss hurts, but some do hurt a little bit more than others,” Smith said. “This is one that hurts a little bit more.”
The most painful part is that Smith -- a ballyhooed hire whom first-year athletics director Josh Whitman brought in to finally bring long-term stability and credibility to Illinois football -- doesn’t seem to have any short-term solutions.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1715160-rapid-recap-purdue-3... Sure, a lot of the Illini’s current problems can be pointed back toward the epic mismanagement of Tim Beckman. This roster isn’t very talented. It’s not fast enough. It’s not strong enough. It lacks quality depth. It is accustomed to a culture of losing.
How does Smith fix those issues? Recruit! Talented players -- and a lot of them -- overcome many flaws. Besides grad transfer Hardy Nickerson, Smith hasn't recruited any of his current players.
But recruiting talented players becomes that much harder when you’re not showing much progress on the field.
Anyone who expected Smith to "Make Illinois Great Again" in 2016 either drank too much orange Kool-aid or has an orange shade of glasses. There were no quick fixes for this phenomenally flawed Illinois roster that competes in the same conference as Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska.
Most realized this was a long-term, painful rebuild. Maybe after an 0-4 start against FBS opponents this season most now realize that Illinois has a lot of work to do just to catch up to Minnesota and Northwestern.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1715232-three-stars-purdue-s... But this doesn’t take Smith and his staff off the hook. It’s not unreasonable for fans to have expected a cleaner version of football. Illinois pumps up its staff’s many years of NFL experience.
Then why is Illinois always the more undisciplined team (75.0 penalty yards per game to their opponents’ 38.2)? Why is this team committing way more penalties than Bill Cubit’s 2015 team (44.6 yards per game)?
“We have to have more discipline than that,” Smith said after a season-high 125 penalty yards, including several unsportsmanlike and personal foul penalties that cost Illinois dearly on Saturday.
Why does Smith’s defense -- one with several future NFL players -- look lost, confused and overwhelmed physically against an offense that scored seven points against Maryland, 24 against Nevada and 20 against Cincinnati? Why did Illinois allow 231 yards (5.6 yards per carry) even though Purdue was without its best offensive weapon (sophomore running back Markell Jones) on Saturday?
An Illini defensive line expected to be one of the best in the Big Ten hasn’t been. A back-seven expected to have issues has way more than originally thought.
“For them to break it into the second level, something’s gone wrong,” Smith said. “But when you do break it, there should be a second wave. A last line of defense to keep it to a minimum gain. That’s been one of the biggest problems we’ve had defensively.”
Illinois might not yet be fast enough, strong enough or deep enough to succeed in the Big Ten. But it can control penalties and preparedness.
“We’re trying to fix it. It’s as simple as that,” Smith said. “When you don’t get it done out there, they’re not responding. We haven’t talked about it enough and stressed it enough, evidently, when you’re not doing it out there.”
Smith has a lot of time to prove he can actually be that long-term solution. Recruiting has improved and Ron Zook proved early in his tenure (4-20 record his first two season) that an Illinois coach can recruit really well despite on-field struggles.
But to this point -- if we are based in reality -- Smith hasn’t had much short-term impact at all on the field.
“Look at the video and go back to the practice field. That’s what you do,” Smith said. “There’s no miracle pill. There’s not just one solution.”
That's a harsh reality for the Illini.