CHAMPAIGN — Lovie Smith does not wear his heart on his sleeve.
But the Illini head football coach, who is famous for his expressionless face, couldn’t hide all the wear and tear that 10 straight losses has taken on him this season.
A prideful man who has coached a team in the Super Bowl, Smith has endured what must surely be the most difficult fall in his 38 years on the sideline, 19 of them spent in the NFL.
Saturday was the final chapter in this disappointing 2017 story. As it has a number of times this season, Illinois was competitive early, led after one quarter, trailed by seven at the half and looked like it might make a game of it in the third quarter against a Northwestern team that is bowl-bound and was riding a six-game winning streak.
Then the mistakes piled up, the Wildcats got rolling and the Illini frustration built. Northwestern’s 42-7 victory at Memorial Stadium was its seven straight and will send the 9-3 Wildcats to a very nice bowl destination.
As for the Illini, well, Smith admitted it’s been tough.
“It would be tough for any coach when you lose and I’m no different than anyone else,” he said. “I feel the same as our players and coaches in there. We put a lot into it.
“But this is where we are. Hard work doesn’t guarantee wins. But you can’t win without hard work. Eventually we’ll have the results we can live with.”
But not now. Not at the end of a 2-10 season that followed a 3-9 season in Smith’s Illini debut. That 5-19 record is something he has to live with but even when he committed to starting 16 different true freshmen this season (more than any program in the country), he didn’t imagine he would not win after the Sept. 9 victory over Western Kentucky.
“This season just hasn’t gone the way we wanted it to,” Smith said, letting the disappointment show ever so slightly on his face. “Whenever you lose as many games as we have and finish the way we did today… As you look back, we’ve had our moments and we’ve seen improvement from a lot of young football players, but it’s about wins and losses and we don’t have enough in the win column.”
While the final margin made it Illinois’ second-worst loss of the season, the game was competitive into the third quarter.
The Illini led 7-0 after one quarter when it marched 69 yards on its first possession of the day. That drive ended with freshman quarterback Cam Thomas racing 23 yards for a touchdown.
Even after Northwestern answered with second-quarter touchdowns by Garrett Dickerson and Jelani Roberts, the score was 14-7 five minutes into the third quarter.
But while Illinois’ offense was stalling, Northwestern was just hitting its stride.
When Thomas was sacked inside the Illini five-yard line, he fumbled and Northwestern’s Samdup Miller recovered for a touchdown and a 21-7 lead.
Less than two minutes later, after an Illini punt, Northwestern running back Justin Jackson sped 79 yards before he was bumped out at the one-yard line. Jackson scored on the next play and the Northwestern lead was 28-7.
Fourth-quarter touchdowns by Jeremy Larkin and Jesse Brown completed the scoring for Northwestern. But not until Illinois was whistled for two personal fouls. And when defensive lineman Tito Odenigbo threw the yellow flag back at the official, he was ejected.
“That’s not what we’re about,” Smith said. “That’s not the Illini way.”
As always, there were a few highlights.
Dre Brown, pressed into action as injuries at the running back position continued to mount, carried 12 times for 51 yards and returned four kickoffs for 125 yards. He missed both of the previous two seasons with injuries.
Safety Bennett Williams had an interception and nine tackles. Linebacker Tre Watson had 12 tackles.
But Thomas, who ran the ball well early, threw two costly interceptions and lost the fumble on the sack.
Thomas was playing in his fourth game but was making just his second start. He was asked what he’ll remember most about this season.
“The thing I’ll remember most is the feeling of losing,” he said. “You never want this feeling again. We want to be competitive in the years to come.”