Not for this masochistic fan of both the Cubs and the Illini. I mean I still watch as many Cubs games as possible (made difficult when I am traveling outside of the viewing area, and I refuse to purchase MLB.TV, but that is a different story) to just see the way the team will figure out how to lose a winnable game again. On Saturday afternoon sitting in a hotel room in Austin, TX (where real football was being played), that was the same fascination I had watching the Illini take on Rutgers.
I don't want to go into the specifics of all the mistakes that Illinois made, but they occurred in all aspects of the game from offense to defense to special teams to coaching. All of the mistakes compounded into what was a very embarrassing loss for the Illini players, coaches, and fans. The embarrassment caused many fans to vent, and rightfully so. These are the same fans that have been following this football team through the lowest of the low, and are just looking for anything, even the slightest hint, to prove to them that the Illini football team will once again be able to compete for bowl games.
No one is looking to compete with Ohio State and Michigan at the top of the Big Ten. Heck, no one is looking to compete right away with Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Purdue for the middle of the Big Ten. Fans are just looking to compete for a minor bowl game, even if it means spending Christmas time in Detroit.
The problem with what happened on Saturday was that we saw just how far away this team appears to be from even appearing in the Motor City Bowl. While the win over Eastern brought hope, the dismantling in all aspects of the game by Rutgers reminded Illinois fans that their hope was fleeting, not for this year, but for the next season, too.
In 2001-2002, Illinois' Men's Basketball team followed the slogan Youth is no Excuse. This team was led by senior Brian Cook, and then had key contributions from three freshmen: Dee Brown, Deron Williams, and James Augustine. Youth was no excuse, but the younger guys were able to lean on Brian Cook to learn how to play college basketball at the highest level, which he had already been doing for three seasons.
The 2006 Illinois Men's Football team is playing a lot of freshmen (14 played against Eastern), so honestly youth is an excuse. While it would be nice to say, like the basketball team in 2001-2002 that Youth is no Excuse, it just is. The biggest problem on Saturday afternoon was all the mental mistakes that were made by people who should not be making them like Seniors Tim Brasic and EB Halsey. These are players that are experienced enough that they should not have made the mistakes they did on Saturday afternoon.
When Ron Zook took over at Illinois, we all knew it would be a long rebuilding process. The Illini football program was at an extremely low point both in wins and in talent. Coach Zook has done a great job in recruiting, but could the emphasis in the media on the increased talent in the first two classes he has brought in help create a schism between the younger players and the older players on the roster?
Probably even more so than wins and losses right now, the one thing Coach Zook needs to do is ensure that he does not lose the locker room to infighting. I am not saying that he has lost the locker room, but it is a definite possibility, especially after a game like Rutgers where freshman mistakes were made by freshman, and seniors made boneheaded plays as well. If the Illini want to show improvement this season, the team needs to stay cohesive, and that might be the most difficult thing for Zook to do this season.
I know that will be the one thing I watch more and more as the season progresses (and the losses most likely build up). How is the team morale? How are they getting along on the sidelines? Are the older players picking up the younger players, and vice versa? The better the relationship here is, the better the Fighting Illini football team will perform, and this is a key job of the head coach.
- Illinois brought in Akim Millington (a transfer from Oklahoma) to help shore up the offensive line this season, but it doesn't seem like they are running that often behind him. Using the play-by-play data available on FightingIllini.com (which does not have directions for the Rutgers game), it looks like Illinois is just not running behind their star left tackle that much. Against Eastern Illinois, only six rushes out of 48 were classified as to the "left" be it behind the tackle or off the end. I don't remember many rushes to the left side of the offensive line against Rutgers. Why isn't Illinois using their best offensive lineman to lead their ground attack?
- How can a Division I-A football program have a punting game that is so bad? Kyle Yelton is a freshman, but he is also on scholarship. In a school the size of Illinois, there has to be some player that would be interested in punting that could get the job done for the Illini. This is going to be Illinois' downfall all season. The Illinois defense is just not good enough to play against a short field on every possession, and with Illinois' punting game, that is what they will be doing until it improves.
The strength of this Illinois team is supposed to be the offensive line and the running backs. (OK, enough with the snide comments about how the offensive line doesn't even give the quarterback enough time to take a one-step drop, I saw the game, and I said "supposed to be"). With that strength, why are we still trying to fit the square pegs (Illinois' offensive players) into the round holes (the spread offense). Yes, we have seen more I-Formation this year, but shouldn't we be seeing even more of it? Pierre Thomas and Rashard Mendenhall both have shown that they can be a competent combination that can gain a lot of yards on the ground. The best coaches always find a way to adjust their systems to work with the talent at hand, and right now, I just don't see much adjustment in the offensive gameplan. This Illini team does not have the team speed to run the spread offense right now, so shouldn't our offense be adjusted to get the most out of the players we do have? This frustrated me last season, and it has frustrated me even more this season.
I know that the coaches want to show the recruits what offense they will be running when they get to Champaign. But until Illinois has the horses, shouldn't putting a competent offense on the field be more important than showing what you will do when the players are all in place?