CHAMPAIGN – Reality check.
Heading into coach Lovie Smith’s second season. Most Illini football fans saw something like this coming. A question mark at quarterback. An offensive line that needed an overhaul. A makeover in the front seven on defense with very little experience in the back end.
That doesn’t make for preseason expectations.
But living through it is another thing. And when a team like Purdue makes rebuilding look easy under first-year coach Jeff Brohm – a former Illini assistant under Ron Zook – then it makes a long season even longer. The Boilermakers left Minneapolis with a victory over the Gophers and coach P.J. Fleck, whose brand was on fire heading into the season because of his catchy marketing phrase and success at Western Michigan.
Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
So as the Illini (2-3 overall,0-2 in the Big Ten) plays host to Rutgers (1-4, 0-2) in a battle of two teams at the bottom of the Big Ten Conference power rankings, it’s easy to see why everyone around here wants a victory in the worst way.
“We’re taking this week as a must win,’’ said Illini quarterback Jeff George Jr.
If there was entertainment value coming from this season, it was coming from the growth of a freshman class expected to push its way into the two-deep. There were a handful of gams where the Illini were expected to compete, and another set of games where the Illini fans were just hoping for survival.
It’s a long road to relevancy for Illini football. This isn’t basketball, where a couple recruits can change the course of destiny. Football is about numbers, building an army of players who can go into the Big House, the Horseshoe, Camp Randall or Happy Valley and grind out a win against programs with more money, more history and, likely, a deeper roster of talent.
There’s no way for the Illini (who we should refer as the Illini freshman team) to compete against the powerhouses. But if the Illini want to avoid falling into the bottom of the Big Ten, they should win one this weekend.
“We’re two teams fighting for a win,’’ Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. “Both of us haven’t won as many games as we’d like. It’s a great opportunity ahead of us. We need to get back on the winning track at home.’’
Showing progress was a blurred line with these Illini, even for the most faithful. Dates against Indiana, Purdue and Northwestern don’t look as promising as this weekend. So it’s time to win one.
Honestly, the Illini showed something at Iowa, despite losing by 46-15 to the Hawkeyes. The offense moved the ball, setting season highs with 200 yards rushing and 446 total yards.
George added another dimension with his ability to throw down the field and put the ball into the hands of playmakers Mike Dudek and Malik Turner. That passing threat kept Iowa guessing some last week, and Illinois moved the ball as well as it has all season. The bad news was George had issues with ball security, He turned it over four times in the loss to Iowa with three interceptions and a fumble.
George trusted his arm a little too much and threw into coverage. If he makes better decisions against Rutgers, Illinois could find the balance needed on offense.
“We saw we can move the ball against a pretty good defense,’’ George said. “When we do what we’re supposed to do, we can move the ball. We have to eliminate turnovers. It comes down to making plays. The play calls are there. We have to look each other and come down to a decision. Somebody has to make a play.’’
Behind Nick Allegretti and the four freshmen, the Illini offensive line provided a glimpse to the future. If these guys stay healthy, there’s a big building block.
“We saw them grow,’’ Lovie said. “It’s neat to see them get better.’’
The Illinois offensive line, ironically, had one of its best days last week with four freshmen in the starting lineup. Are they ready to take the next step? Probably not yet, but they showed flashes of what we can expect in the future with road graders like Larry Boyd and Vederian Lowe.
The undisputed leader of the unit is Allegretti, a junior guard who is quietly putting together an All-Big Ten type of season that will likely go unnoticed because of the lack of wins. Illinois allowed just one sack against Iowa. In a season in which they have been inconsistent at best, the performance at Iowa was a big leap forward for the program’s foundation up front.
This isn’t your father’s Big Ten standings. This isn’t even your older brother’s Big Ten standings. Since the addition of Penn State a few decades ago, followed by Nebraska and Rutgers/Maryland in short order, the conference has a different feel. Geographic rivalries mean less than TV markets. That’s the way of the world in college sports these days. For someone like me who grew up close to the Wabash River, a win over Indiana or Purdue meant more than one over Minnesota or Wisconsin. Conferences are built on the backs of border rivalries. Or, I should say, they were back in the day.
Conference basketball tournaments in D.C. and Madison Square Garden might mean something to ratings numbers. They don’t do anything for ticket sales or Joe Fan who likes to make a drive to Indy or Chicago to catch the alma mater.
This new Big Ten doesn’t do much for me. But that’s another topic for another day.
Through it all, there’s no denying how important a win is this week. Perception is reality. For the Illini to win the recruiting wars in the offseason, the coaching staff would like some ammunition to carry into the living rooms. Despite all the reasons why there was less expected out of the second season under Lovie than the first, the there’s still one thing that would help.
Beat Rutgers. Stay out of the cellar in the Big Ten power rankings. That’s reality for the Illini.
John Supinie is a columnist for Orangeandbluenews.com. During the day, he’s an Audi Brand Specialist at Green Audi in Springfield. Call or text him at 217-377-1977 if you’re looking for an Audi, Volkswagen, Toyota or preowned car. Ask for the Illini deal.