With the 2018 Homecoming game vs Purdue a little less than 24 hours away, Illini football fans can see some progress.
And it’s so good to see. After the last couple of years where we knew that if the other team got a 10 point lead, the Illini were done, this year’s team has shown growth on both sides of the ball. The Rutgers game was clearly the best overall performance of the year. The fact that it came in a young team’s first road game of the season just adds to the level of optimism that a solid 21 point win generates.
Let’s forget for a minute that Rutgers is the worst Power 5 Conference team in the NCAA this season. It was good to see the Illini basically handle an opponent in every facet of the game.
Road win equals a significant step forward. Big Ten Conference win equals another step in the right direction.
Bennett Williams has been kicked off the team.
Momentum seemingly comes to a screeching halt and the feelings of disappointment make this feel like a big step in the wrong direction. So what the heck happened?
To his credit, Lovie Smith plays disciplinary matters very close to his chest. If word gets out, it doesn’t come out officially, and after some unfavorable tweets about disciplinary matters earlier this summer seemingly originated from sources inside the team, that has been cleaned up as well.
As a fan, it drives me crazy. I want to consume all the news about my favorite college football team, and I want all the details.
As a man, I 100% admire this stance. When Lovie Smith recruits a young man and his family into the Illini program, he takes the “in loco parentis” stuff very seriously. Lovie and his coaches can sit in a living room anywhere with any parents and look those parents in the eye and tell them that the Illini Football Family will protect their son’s interests at all times, even when poor life choices are made.
That is a huge selling point. The college years will serve to establish a great foundation for the rest of a student’s life. And the choices they make as young adults with their first taste of adult-like freedoms either kick-starts a great life, or it requires a re-set.
It appears that Bennett Williams has chosen the re-set path.
(But why does it have to be him? The Illini’s most impressive returning young player, a player who played with intelligence, football intelligence, range, and toughness. Attributes which Lovie and the Illini can build around for future success?)
From appearances, Williams seems like a real clean cut kid. Even his social media is clean, respectful and overwhelmingly positive. His father’s Twitter account looks like that of an absolute All-American father. And Bennett was personally recruited to this Illini program by Defensive Coordinator Hardy Nickerson, a long-time close family friend.
I won’t speculate on what the series of transgressions amounted to that earned Williams first a three-game suspension from the team and then a dismissal.
What I will say is that this IS a huge setback from a football standpoint for Williams and for Illinois. Williams only played in one game this season, so he can use a red-shirt, but he still has to sit out next season if he wants to transfer to another FBS school. So, in essence, Williams will have followed up a brilliant freshman season at Illinois with one-half of one game in the next two years. All over some self-inflicted wounds. And if and when Mel Kiper gets to analyze Williams’ suitability to play in the NFL, then any on-field evaluation will be hit with a red-flag for “character issues.”
For Illinois, it really sucks, even though the Illini may already have a better player playing Williams’ old position. Tony Adams and Sydney Brown looked athletic, fast, and tough in their first games at the new positions. There are backups behind those guys who have gotten some good reps this season. And more DB talent is on it’s way to Champaign next year.
Still, Williams displayed real savvy at the safety position, and coaches always love guys who are in position at all times.
Sadly, Williams chose to be out of position with respect to off-the-field behavior.
So, 2 steps forward and one step back.
That’s how builds usually work though. Almost nothing in life just gets better all the time in a straight linear fashion. Weight loss doesn’t work that way. Relationships don’t work that way. The stock market doesn’t work that way. So, obviously, it’s foolish to think that the Illini Football (or basketball) rebuild will work that way, either.
As Purdue looms closest on the game horizon, I simply cannot get a feel for how the match ups work for Illinois.
I know that Purdue passes the ball really, really well, and I also believe that Purdue will have the best skill-position player on the field with Wide Receiver Rondale Moore. But, Purdue’s defense isn’t very good, they have lost to a MAC team, it is a home game for the Illini, and the team really showed improvement off their bye week. (Purdue will be coming to Champaign fresh off their bye week, so expect them to improve, too)
Bye weeks are a really big deal. Bye weeks allow nagging injuries to heal. Bye weeks allow a mental refresh in the middle of the season-long grind. Big time college programs will take extra time in recruiting (which obviously has no bearing on this game), but also on game-planning for their next 3 opponents. Coaches are always saying one game at a time, but during a bye week, a coaching staff may take a day to spend time looking at the second and third upcoming opponents, if for no other reason, to be able to instruct the graduate assistants to look more closely at certain things.
The other big deal with a bye week is called the self-scout. Sure coaches watch the film of their previous games on Saturday night or Sunday, but there really isn’t time during the season to do the deep dive of looking at your own team, introspectively, to have conversations with the other staff members and to decide on changes. The self-scout is hugely important. It shows you what your own tendencies are in down and distance situations. It shows strong-side vs weak side, + or – field position tendencies, short side vs wide side plays, etc. For the defensive side, it shows you when your coverages are predictable, and it allows you to really dive deeper into figuring out what the other guy is seeing on tape and how they may scheme against you.
Jeff Brohm at Purdue is a good football coach, so expect his team to have a couple things really figured out vs Illinois. This game, because of it’s timing and the opponent’s strengths, will test Illinois schematically more than any other game on the Illini schedule.
If the Illini get caught out of position a few times, it could get real ugly really fast. Like 49-23 ugly…
And that would amount to 2 steps forward and 2 steps back. Spinning wheels go round and round.
Lovie Smith’s defensive trademarks are to keep everything in front of you, cover all the quadrants, be in position to make plays. Bend, but don’t break, lengthen the field and take the ball away often. This greatly limits explosive plays and missed assignments (the game winning TD for USF was a real aberration and a play not made by a player who likely won’t play on Saturday).
I don’t necessarily see this Purdue game as a stinker for Illinois, but I absolutely do believe that the Illini will have at least 1 really bad game among the last 7.
To this point, Illinois had a stinker first half in the Opener vs Kent State, a bad 4th quarter against USF, and a horrific 4th quarter vs Penn State. 4 bad quarters in 5 games is a whole lot of progress compared to last year. But this team is due to be bitten by a turnover bug in a game. Right now, Illinois is on pace to have a turnover margin of +25 for the season. Nobody does that and neither will Illinois this season. There will be a statistical correction at some point, and when that happens, the stinker game will be upon us.
I also feel that, on balance, Illinois will play better over the final 7 games than they have over the first 5…..even with all 7 of those games being against conference opponents.
Again, I see this team growing and developing. With the amount of youth on this team, you would hope that development over the course of a 12 game season would be substantial. I see 5 WINNABLE games remaining on the Illinois schedule. Any of those 5 would likely be seen by the media as upsets, although the game at Nebraska may be a pick-em. It just depends who is healthy by the time that game is played. I think Illinois absolutely plays at least one very, very good game and has a big surprising margin in an upset, so with one great game and one-stinker, that leaves Illinois at 4-3 with 5 question marks.
I think the most growth the remainder of this season will come on the defensive side of the ball. I think the offense is squeezing just about all it can from a group which has a young offensive line, inexperienced quarterbacks, average running backs, and well-below-average receivers.
The defense, however, looked dramatically different with Brown and Adams at safety and with Jamal Milan back at Defensive Tackle. In the final 7 games of the year, I look for Illinois to slowly normalize their defensive statistics, meaning that they won’t allow 565 yards per game the rest of the year. If they can get that average down below 475, the Illini just may earn themselves a 13th game.
And that would constitute several more steps forward.