If all you’re seeing is the final score — Iowa 45, Illinois 16 — your reaction is likely predictable.
Yawn. Another Illini clunker.
A 29-point margin sure looks that way.
But as ESPN’s Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast, my friend.”
Lost in that one-sided score is the fact that Illinois actually made some notable strides Saturday in Iowa City. There was improvement, signs of hope, steps in the right direction. There was also evidence that this Illinois football team is not yet good enough to sustain the progress for four quarters.
And after a quarterback debate that moved Chayce Crouch to the bench and Jeff George Jr. to the starting job Saturday, we could be in for another discussion this week.
Illinois was far more entertaining with George at quarterback because he and offensive coordinator/play caller Garrick McGee re-introduced the forward pass. But if you weigh in the damage done by three George interceptions and a lost fumble as well, you’d have to at least consider taking a look at freshman Cam Thomas this week against Rutgers.
First, the positives.
When a group is trying to march through this college football season with a massive collection of kids, many of whom were high schoolers a year ago, progress comes in increments. But after seeing precious little of it last week in a 28-6 loss to Nebraska, Illinois brought the battle to the Hawkeyes for three quarters.
Unhappy that his team didn’t compete hard enough last week against Nebraska, coach Lovie Smith liked the fight in the Illini this time.
What that final score doesn’t show is that Illinois led Iowa 13-10 late in the first half. A successful fake punt kept an Iowa drive alive and the Hawkeyes scored with eight seconds left in the half to take a 17-13 lead.
Even early in the fourth quarter, Illinois was still in a one-possession game, trailing 24-16.
Three of Illinois’ starting offensive linemen were high school teenagers last fall. Another starter, center Doug Kramer, is a redshirt freshman who was making his second college start.
That young offensive line opened holes and helped roll up 200 rushing yards. Three of Illinois’ top five receivers were true freshmen. Illinois’ one interception was made by a freshman safety. Illinois’ one sack went to a freshman cornerback.
The youth of this team is not an excuse for making mistakes. But the astonishing number of kids who are playing through this transition is a noteworthy fact and when Illinois is making plays, as it did for three quarters Saturday, it’s a reminder that this should be a very good, bowl-bound football team next season or in 2019.
The missing ingredient, however, is at quarterback.
I’m not pounding the drum for another change. George was making his first start since late last season and I’m for taking a longer look. But Illinois can’t win if the quarterback is going to give the ball away four times a game.
The pick-six George threw in the third quarter was an absolute killer. McGee called a heck of a play, rolling running back Ra’Von Bonner out of the backfield on a “wheel” route. If George lobs it toward the goal line, it could easily have been a touchdown.
Instead, he zinged it and Brandon Snyder intercepted and returned it 89 yards for a game-changing touchdown.
My guess is that George will get the call again this week. But nothing makes coaches willing to make changes more quickly than turnovers. The best running back in the world will find the bench if he’s constantly putting the ball on the ground. Ditto for any quarterback who insists on throwing it to the other team.
“Turnovers were the difference,” Lovie Smith said after Saturday’s game.
Before getting buried in the fourth quarter, Illinois gave great effort and three quarters worth of exciting results. Now, can they build on it and show they can finish a Big Ten game the right way?
That’s the next challenge.