COLUMN: Illini Loss A Reinforcement Of What We Already Knew
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Following his fourth straight loss to Iowa, Lovie Smith wanted to keep reinforce how this latest defeat to the Hawkeyes marked the showing of a new Illinois team.
Following a 19-10 loss to the No. 19 team in the nation, the overall assessment of Smith’s comments is yes but no.
Is Illinois a different team than the high school junior varsity program that showed up in Champaign last year to take a 63-0 beatdown to this same Iowa program? Of course it is. Wins against ranked Wisconsin and road wins at Michigan State proved Illinois is heading in an upward direction.
- When Illinois doesn’t get enough takeaways, they don’t win. Lovie Smith said it best Saturday that “one takeaway is not enough” as the offense continues to find balance and third-down efficiency in hostile road environments. But we already should’ve known that, right?
The loss Saturday served to give us further evidence that Illinois needs certain things to happen for victories to come and Iowa, a traditionally fundamentally sound program under 21-year veteran Kirk Ferentz, wasn’t going to give Illinois this win as Wisconsin, Purdue, Rutgers and Michigan State had in the previous five weeks of action. Iowa led the Big Ten in fewest giveaways and in order for Illinois (6-5, 4-4 in Big Ten) to get its first road win over a ranked team in 12 years, they weren’t going to be able to rely on takeaways.
“Every conference game is earned and every victory is earned,” Ferentz said. “They’ve done a great job with takeaways. We won that battle.”
- When Brandon Peters doesn’t play or doesn’t play well, Illinois will lose. But we already had evidence to prove this, right?
In the first half against Michigan State, Peters was admittedly bad at trusting his receivers with one-on-one matchups and struggled for nearly the entire 30 minutes. It wasn’t until an end-of-the-half heave into the end zone found Josh Imatorbhebhe for six points that Peters woke up and played like the highly recruited Mr. Football in Indiana he once was. On Saturday on an emotionally-charged Kinnick Stadium crowd for Senior Day, Illinois never could manufacture that confidence for its signal-caller. Whether it was the flea-flicker that ended with a puzzling interception, the fumble on an RPO carry near midfield or taking a sack on the fourth-down play near the end of the first half, Peters’ decision-making skills were below average against an Iowa defense looking for him to beat them.
“We had the opportunities but didn’t make the play today (and) turnovers, fumbles really hurt us,” Smith said.
- As far as the end-of-the-half sequence goes, Smith’s clock management skills were once again tested and he admittedly failed that test. Smith said after the game he wished he’d punted the ball on fourth-and-6 with 16 seconds left on the Hawkeyes 37-yard-line.
“Disappointed in the way the half ended (and) wish I had that call to do over again,” Smith said. “Bad coaching move. My fault. If I had to do it over again, I’d punt the ball.”
This admission sounds fine except for when you consider Illinois took two timeouts on a play that resulted in a 14-yard loss following the one thing Peters couldn’t do - take a sack. If Smith is the head coach, he needs to go with his gut and remember his word as the head coach is the final say. But after the fiasco against Nebraska, we knew this was a problem, right?
In a weird way, the loss in Kinnick Stadium Saturday can once again go down as progress for this Illini program but eventually, likely in 2020 when all of the veterans on offense return, Illinois is going to have to prove on the road they have the maturity to handle this kind of opportunity. Are there fewer steps for the Illini to take compared to last year and last month? Of course, yes. However, without the help of Lovie’s turnover magic, didn’t we know this was still a major hurdle to climb?