Before the season started, I predicted the Illini would go 7-5. Given the amount of talent returning from a bowl-winning team, I thought it was a modest prediction, I really did. The offense would struggle to find its identity, I wrote, but the defense would be good enough to keep them within striking distance in every game. Take care of business at home, I thought, and Illinois would be heading to its third straight bowl game.
I feel like there should be some sort of consequence for making such a ridiculous prediction. At this point, I would bet every dime to my name (which, to be fair, is very little) that Illinois won’t touch seven wins. My guess is that the 2-4 (0-2) Illini will win one more game this season, a home matchup against Indiana. There are a few more winnable games, to be sure, but Illini fans are all too aware that winnable games rarely translate to actual victories.
So, what’s gone wrong?
I know no coach ever wants to throw out the injury card, but you can’t ignore it. Eleven Illinois starters have missed a combined 22 games: FS Supo Sanni (five games), SS Steve Hull (three games), PK Nick Immekus (three games), LB Houston Bates (two games), WR Darius Millines (two games), C Graham Pocic (two games), QB Nathan Scheelhaase (two games), RB Josh Ferguson (one game), OT Hugh Thornton (one game), and TE Evan Wilson (one game). Transitioning to new schemes under a brand new coaching staff is hard enough as it is, so when you add so many injuries to several key players, it’s easy to see how things have gone poorly.
But let’s not kid ourselves, a fully healthy Illinois squad probably wouldn’t have faired much better. The four Illini losses this season have been by an average of 26 points, which tells me there’s more to it than injuries. I rarely come away from games thinking that if a few plays would have gone the other way, the outcome may have been different. Rather, we’re seeing consistent blown coverages, sacks, 3-and-outs, turnovers, etc.
One thing I keep coming back to is the offensive line. Scheelhaase gets very little pass protection, and RBs Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson get almost no running lanes. You simply cannot maintain drives when you’re consistently faced with 2nd-and-longs and 3rd-and-longs. Earlier this week, Coach Beckman talked about simplifying the playbook, implementing quick timing patterns, and involving more players in protection. I think that could help, but those are all short-term solutions for a weak and inexperienced offensive line.
I’ll be honest, I don’t know what to make of the defensive struggles. I still believe there are several NFL-caliber players out there (Brown, Buchanan, Spence, and Hawthorne). The Illini were the 7th best defense in the nation last year, and even though they lost DE Whitney Mercilus and S Tavon Wilson to the NFL, they returned almost everyone else. If you actually watch the games, it’s not as if the defense is overwhelmed physically – it’s more like they have no idea what’s going on. In the Arizona State game, some of those touchdowns had no Illini defenders within 10 yards of the receiver. And from a coaching perspective, it’s been concerning how few adjustments and corrections have been made (and if they have been made, how ineffective they’ve been).
But hey, let’s not get too pessimistic. Time for some positives.
Given the poor performance of the offensive line, I like what I’ve seen out of Young and Ferguson. Young runs hard, and his boldness in calling for more carries has been admirable. Ferguson has been impressive in the passing attack, and it looks like he’ll be a good fit in the Beckman offense.
Junior WR Ryan Lankford has been a solid target for Scheelhaase (or whoever else they’ve run out there at QB). In his first two seasons, Lankford caught a combined 18 passes for 237 yards and 1 touchdown. Through six games this season, Lankford has 25 catches for 362 yards and 5 touchdowns. Lankford figures to be a key piece in the Illini offense heading into 2013.
The defense looked better against Wisconsin. It got away from them toward the end, but for 3 quarters, they looked like the defense we expected to see coming into the season. The Illini defense currently leads the Big Ten in third-down defense, holding opponents to a third-down conversion rate of 27.4%. With so much talent, I have to believe they’ll get better. But if there’s anything Illini football fans are familiar with, it’s watching talented times live in mediocrity.
Illinois will take on #25 Michigan Saturday afternoon at The Big House in Ann Arbor; the Wolverines are 25 point favorites.