COLUMN - Illini Not Being Prepared in Opener Must Fall on Lovie Smith

An embarrassing blowout season-opening loss where Illinois looks unprepared and outclassed falls directly on Lovie Smith.

MADISON, Wis. -- The lies surrounding the Smith Family Football Center in Champaign this offseason were consistent and numerous.

Let’s run down the list shall we?

  • Illinois head coach Lovie Smith said earlier this week that this 2020 squad was the most prepared football team he’s ever coached. (Nope)
  • Everybody surrounding this program would point to 2020 as the turning point season for Smith’s five-year tenure in Champaign. (Wrong)
  • This Illini offense was supposed to be the most dynamic unit since Ron Zook and Nathan Scheelhaase left town in 2011. (60 minutes of football and we’re still waiting for that first offensive score.)
  • The tight end position was supposed to be deepest and most talented in the Big Ten Conference. (Result: Four targets, two catches and 15 yards. And I don’t remember seeing Daniel Imatorbhebhe on the field Friday night at all.)
  • The back seven of this Illini defense was supposed to be filled with veterans that weren’t going to make silly mental errors. (The only way the Illinois defense scared Wisconsin at all would be if quarterback Graham Mertz or tight end Jake Ferguson were scared at how wide open they were.)
  • Brandon Peters was marketed as the most important piece of this offense and arguably this football team heading into a critical 2020 season. (Congratulations to Lovie Smith and offensive coordinator Rod Smith because you successfully manufactured a quarterback controversy when it was the furthest thing from necessary.)

And all of these problems added up to a critical element missing Friday night and it was the first thing out of the mouth of the Illini head coach.

“I thought I had the team more ready, more prepared to play than what we showed,” Smith said following his eighth loss by 30 points or more since taking over the Illinois program.

Maybe Mertz will become the next version of Baker Mayfield as the Big Ten Network sideline analyst Rick Pizzo suggested on the broadcast Friday night. With all the receivers running as wide open as humanly possible down the middle of the field on Lovie Smith’s defense, it may still be impossible to evaluate the freshman quarterback’s true ability.
After the month-long training camp following the Big Ten’s coronavirus shutdown,Illinois (0-1) was not prepared to play a football game and Smith knows that’s a direct reflection of his ability to run this program toward the correct path.

Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz executes one of his 20 completed passes Friday night. Mertz only threw one incompletion and threw four of his five touchdowns in the first half in Wisconsin's 45-7 season-opening victory over Illinois. 

Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz executes one of his 20 completed passes Friday night. Mertz only threw one incompletion and threw four of his five touchdowns in the first half in Wisconsin's 45-7 season-opening victory over Illinois. 

As Smith begins his fifth season in Champaign, there’s a disturbing trend being formed about his football program. In the three of the first four season during its first highly competitive test of their schedule, Illinois has the look being ill-equipped, woefully unprepared and lifeless in the moment. Trust me when I say it’s not being overdramatic to point out how they’ve fallen hard, flat and right on their face for everybody to see.

2016 - vs. North Carolina - 48-23 loss

2017 - at South Florida - 47-23 loss

2018 - vs. Penn State - 63-24 loss

2020 - at Wisconsin - 45 -7 loss

And after just 60 minutes of football in a year that had more hype for an Illinois football season in possibly a decade, you’re still waiting on an offensive touchdown and parents of players are going on Twitter to complain about the direction of the program.

Don’t think a social media temper tantrum can produce results? That’s cool. By the way, would you kindly tell me how the Big Ten Conference got to this point of playing football games during a virus epidemic again?

Finally, this brings us to the final dishonest idea being promoted by those in charge of Illinois football - that the 2020 version of the Illini would undoubtedly be better. There’s no evidence of that and substantial evidence that at best, this car is spinning its wheels and can’t move.

As sure as the sun and the moon rising in the east and setting in the west, Week 1 of a football season produces overreactions, hot takes and regrettable opinions. However, after another miserable outing against a divisional powerhouse, how long before those waiting for a rebirth of the Illinois football program get to point at the figurehead of this operation, Lovie Smith, as fundamentally unable to pull this wrecked and possibly totalled automobile out of the ditch created by the failed eras of the final years of Zook, the entire embarrassing Tim Beckman disaster and this current ‘Transfer Portal U’ rebuilding plan?

Judging by Friday night’s disaster, Lovie Smith may not have driven this car into the ravine but it may be appropriate to start asking if COVID-19 financial ramifications make it impossible to find a new leader in charge of getting all four wheels of this program back on solid, flat ground.