The University of Illinois provided cannon fodder for the ultra-talented Ohio State Buckeyes last Saturday to the tune of a 40-2 shellacking. It demonstrated just how far Illinois must develop to compete with nationally prominent programs.
Actually, some are taking heart in the fact the Illini defense appeared to slow down the Buckeyes through the first half. We do seem to be showing some improvement on defense, although we were facing an offense that was predictably uninspired and ultra conservative. With only a 13-0 halftime lead, a nervous OSU coaching staff had no choice but to open up their offense in the second half, which finally gave some of their most talented athletes an opportunity to demonstrate their great skills. The outcome was never really in doubt.
Illini ineptitude showed itself at its worst on offense, but much credit should go to a Buckeye defense that was extremely talented, mature, experienced and smelling blood as they stopped one Illini drive after another with little or no gain. A mismatch at every position guaranteed Illini frustration on every possession.
After seven straight losses and six in a row within the Big 10, Illini fans are understandably frustrated. Some are just angry and demand the firing of offensive and defensive coordinators and/or a change of philosophy. Others are more thoughtful and understanding of the problems left behind by the last coaching staff. They offer suggestions in the vain hope it will somehow reverse our negative cycle. But after watching the Buckeyes dismantle the Illini Saturday, it seemed obvious that we simply don't have the players in sufficient quantity and with sufficient maturity and experience to compete with top teams.
Some say our offensive and defensive play calling is bad and must be changed. Certainly, we all wonder if some plays might work better than others. But how can you call a running play, any running play, if you are working against a defense that includes six seniors, most if not all of whom will figure prominently in the next NFL draft? All three starting linebackers will play on Sundays in the future, and the rest of their defense is top of the line.
Bunching nine or ten players close to the line knowing quarterback Tim Brasic will be unable to complete deep passes against them, few if any holes remain in the Buckeye defense. And Illinois may not have the offensive line and especially blocking tight ends needed to improve our running game. Everyone wants to see Pierre Thomas run the ball more, but it is questionable whether ANY running back could gain yards consistently for the Illini given our blocking deficiencies.
It would be wonderful to throw more intermediate or deep passes, but Brasic had little time to look for receivers. On one play and probably numerous others, the Buckeyes used a three-man rush against five offensive linemen and found two of their three rushers in Brasic's face with little or no opposition. They were simply flying past our beleaguered blockers. Is that the scheme or simply a difference in athletic ability? Honest people must acknowledge that ability is the principle factor. Is there any wonder Coach Zook is working the junior colleges for offensive linemen to come in and play next year?
Of course, it is also true that Brasic is probably gun shy by now after a whole season of taking one vicious hit after another. Even if he wants to hang in the pocket for that extra second to search for a secondary receiver, his survival instincts feel the oncoming rush and start seeking a running lane to avoid the pain. And as predicted last week, OSU did not permit Brasic to scramble for positive yards and held receiver Kyle Hudson in check most of the game.
Defensively, no scheme will permit Illini defensive backs to run with speedsters like Ted Ginn and Santonio Holmes. Anyone who watched both Ginn's long touchdown catch and run and Illini safety Kevin Mitchell's runback of a muffed extra point attempt for our only two points saw a massive difference in foot speed. While Ginn exploded for his long run, Mitchell ran like a linebacker out of energy. What defensive scheme can help Mitchell and his defensive back mates run with players like Ginn all day without suffering occasional failure?
The Illini defense definitely showed some fight. This was especially true before running out of gas being on the field so long. We are even beginning to see improvement in some of our youngest defenders. Brit Miller led the team in tackles, and the freshman from Decatur continues to surprise with his speed, intelligence and aggressiveness. He is the closest to a true middle linebacker we have recruited in a long time. Freshman defensive end Sirod Williams, an Ohio native, gained penetration against a super OSU offensive line on occasion, giving Illini fans a glimmer of hope for things to come. Chris Norwell is doing some positive things at defensive tackle. And Justin Harrison is helping stabilize the secondary with his hard-hitting leadership.
But Illinois cannot rush a quarterback with only our four down linemen because they do not pressure the quarterback enough to cause bad throws or obtain sacks. When the Illini blitz their linebackers or defensive backs, openings are left that can be exploited by opponents. A mature quarterback will burn us often. Fast receivers will find numerous openings, and running backs will have much open field once they make it past the line.
A defensive coordinator might out-guess his opponent some of the time, but averages work against being able to gamble with success consistently. The only way to compare offensive and defensive coordinators is to observe them when their talent is equal to their opponents. And we have not faced this situation this year in the Big 10.
Here are af few of the many other fan recommendations and the problems implementing them:
1. They should remove the names from their jerseys. Unfortunately, our team needs more recognition and not less. Some coaches remove the names in an effort to create less selfishness and more team unity. The Illini have the opposite problem. They have the team unity, they just don't have enough individual superstars to worry about selfishness.
2. They should change their uniforms and especially their helmets to give a more attractive look. If only looks were the true measure of a man, this would help. But would the outcome have been any different yesterday if we dressed like the New England Patriots, the USC Trojans or even the OSU Buckeyes? Not hardly. Clothing changes might make some fans happy, but it won't help us win.
3. Illinois should play Bryant Creamer and Lonnie Hurst at wide receiver. Not to single anyone out, but these are two of several names that come up frequently. Having watched a number of practices, it looks as if the Illini coaching staff is looking desperately for players at all positions. There is absolutely no evidence that coaches have a bias against any players. They want to play the best players, the ones they can trust the most for consistency. Those who don't play have not shown they deserve time presently given to ones who have surpassed them on the depth chart.
There are many recommendations floating around, with some being more reasonable than others. But up to now, the only recommendation that truly makes sense is to upgrade recruiting. The average Buckeye player is about two levels of competence beyond the average Illini player. They consistently recruit All-Americans from all over the country, while the Illini have trouble finding true stars within their boundaries and then have trouble recruiting them when present.
OSU will not return to the pack in future seasons. The Illini must rise up to their level through recruiting and nurturing our young players so they can progress through maturity and experience. Only then can we evaluate coaching staffs and systems. Only then can we concern ourselves with minor issues such as uniform type or names on jerseys.
The Ohio State Buckeyes did a number on the Illini Saturday, but it was still good experience for our young players. When we return to Columbus for a game two years from now, we will undoubtedly assert ourselves much better. Winning may still be presumptious, however. After all, OSU has had more than 50 straight years of uninterrupted success upon which to draw for the future.
Rebuilding is Hell, but it is worth it once the goals have been reached. Short-term pain can lead to long-term gain. If only we are patient enough to wait for it, and if only we are truly grateful for the success once it is finally achieved.
Ohio State Dominates Illini
Illini Inquirer Top Stories
Jeff George Jr.: 'Definitely can do better'Illini redshirt freshman quarterback Jeff George Jr. evaluates his first-start performance in Saturday's 41-8 loss at Michigan
Illini InquirerYesterday at 5:10 PM
Three Stars: Some positives to build uponIllini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner reacts to the Illini's 41-8 loss to Michigan, including his three stars of the game
Illini InquirerYesterday at 5:00 PM
Lovie: 'Saw signs' of growth in 2nd halfLovie Smith discusses the Illini's 41-8 loss at Michigan, including positives from the second half
Illini InquirerYesterday at 4:35 PM
Rapid Recap: Michigan 41, Illinois 8No. 3 Michigan blows out Illinois, which falls to 1-3 during Big Ten play
Illini InquirerYesterday at 4:00 PM
Recruit Recap: Another banner day for BonnerAnother big weekend for Illini commits Ra'Von Bonner and Ricky Smalling
Illini InquirerFriday at 8:01 PM