CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith has said before he’s his own worst critic.
Therefore, you shouldn’t need to speculate what grade Smith gives himself for the final 16 seconds of the first half Saturday at Iowa.
With Illinois having the football at the Hawkeyes 37-yard-line, the Illini burned two timeouts while contemplating whether to punt, attempt a field goal or attempt a play in a fourth-and-6 scenario.
“It’s a three-point game with 16 seconds (left) so we took a timeout to take about it,” Smith said. “Then as we talked about it and started going back and forth on it, we decided maybe we’d go for it. Then, the (play clock) got on us again but let’s just take another timeout. We’re fine. We got two timeouts and let’s take our time and make sure we get the right play in.”
Illinois fourth-year head coach Lovie Smith said immediately after the game he should’ve elected to punt the ball and likely go into halftime with a 10-7 deficit knowing the Illini would get the ball first in the second half.
“Disappointed in the way the half ended (and) wish I had that call to do over again,” Lovie Smith said Saturday. “Bad coaching move. My fault. If I had to do it over again, I’d punt the ball.”
On Monday, Rod Smith seemed to indicate the confusion and contemplation that required the use of the first timeout was deciding whether James McCourt could make what would’ve been around a 54-yard attempt into a slight wind at Kinnick Stadium. Despite McCourt having three makes from 50 or more yards out this season, which is tied for the most in the nation, the Illini coaches determined they were still out of field goal range.
“We talked about and concluded that our defense is playing so why not take a shot,” Smith said. “You got 16 seconds and maybe we can get a first down. If we get a first down, then we’re in field goal range for the young man.”
After using both of its final two timeouts, the combination of Lovie Smith (who was on the sidelines) and offensive coordinator Rod Smith (who was in the coaching box) eventually decided to attempt the fourth-down play. The result of the play, which involved an empty backfield against an Iowa blitz, was Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters being sacked for a 14-yard loss - the only thing Illinois couldn’t afford to have happened in that sequence.
“I wish I had that call back,” Rod Smith said. “I’d have called a different play. But I thought we did the right thing to be aggressive and go away a good team. I just wish we hadn’t taken a sack. Hated that part of it.”
Iowa needed just a 22-yard pitch-and-catch from Nate Stanley to Tyrone Tracy Jr. to get its field goal kicker Keith Duncan a shot at a 45-yard attempt.
Illinois was just three plays away from being down three points in a first half where they’d been outgained 229-166 but had held Iowa to just 39 rushing yards in 30 minutes of action. It’s clear after Lovie Smith’s Saturday reaction and Rod Smith’s Monday explanation that both the offensive and defensive boss at Illinois would want to have that sequence back.