Illinois now faces its first adult-sized dose of adversity following Saturday’s 39-19 football loss at Nebraska.
Losing to Washington at Soldier Field was not adversity. It may have been the first loss and it may have been disappointing, but the loss was expected. And on the offensive side of the ball, the performance was encouraging.
Other than the excellent play of Josh Ferguson Saturday, there was little to feel encouraged about.
The defense, as I expected, got man-handled by a very good and veteran offensive line. Ameer Abdullah took advantage, exploiting Illinois sub-standard talent level, inexperience in the secondary and their very poor tackling. He carried 20 times for 225 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He was fantastic.
The defense also didn’t do much to cover the Nebraska receivers. Nebraska didn’t throw much. Didn’t have to. They got by easily with two backup quarterbacks.
The reason Illinois left Lincoln, Neb., feeling really disappointed was that for the first time this season the offense failed to generate big plays, failed to get the passing game going and failed to excite us.
It was quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase’s worst game. He never looked comfortable, with the wind, with the pass rush, with the pressure from Nebraska’s blitz and even when he did have receivers open, he often didn’t find them or connect with them.
They’ve got to get Ryan Lankford back involved.
The good news is that I believe Bill Cubit and Scheelhaase will attack this adversity together and I believe they’ll find solutions. From a personnel standpoint, Illinois is much better equipped to deal with the adversity.
Defensively, however, there simply are not enough experienced players to fake their way through this. The tackling and sub-standard pass coverage and lack of a pass rush are real problems that can’t be fixed by changing personnel. There are no other personnel.
Illinois took a step backward Saturday. They didn’t play well on either side of the ball.
They’re off this week, then host Wisconsin. I cringe thinking about that defensive front trying to slow down the Badger running attack. Could be ugly.
But there are other, winnable games coming up. And with three victories already in the bank, another one would be good, another two would be very good. Other Big Ten teams have issues, too.
To win some of these, Illinois will have to win shootouts. That means the offense has to get reasonably back on track. That means Scheelhaase has to rediscover a comfort level and Cubit has to equip him with plays that make him comfortable.
If it means quicker plays and less downfield throws, that’s fine if it results in first downs, extended drives and touchdowns.
Illinois may haves to reinvent itself as Big Ten play progresses. That could be what we call Cubit II. Or it could be a struggle.
It’s going to be the story of the Big Ten season and it will test our patience when they get run over by teams like Wisconsin.