CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- A game a lot of folks before kickoff said wasn’t important at all for either program, sure had hidden significant after 60 minutes of football.
The conclusion for Northwestern’s program following Saturday’s result is easier to determine. There’s hope. A sudden collapse for a team and program that one year ago today was preparing to play in the Big Ten Championship Game proved the future may be bright for Pat Fitzgerald’s program in Evanston.
For Illinois, the regular-season finale has a lot of hidden meanings. And not many, if any, are good. The 29-10 loss to Northwestern was a culmination of underlying meanings that were masked by the takeaway-happy Illini of mid-October and early November.
Illinois may be bowl eligible for the first time since 2014 and the first time of the Lovie Smith era but here’s a list of things Illinois proved it can’t do against fellow Big Ten competition no matter how downtrodden or victimized throughout the course of a season.
1. Win without Brandon Peters
Illinois has had two home games (vs. Michigan and Saturday vs. Northwestern) where Matt Robinson has received practically a full week of the first-team reps in preparation for a start behind center. In the first half of those games, Robinson is 9 of 21 for 117 yards a touchdown. Without Peters’ ability to stretch the defense, the Illini offense is one dimensional. When defenses load up nine or 10 players at the line-of-scrimmage, similarly to how Pat Fitzgerald organized his Northwestern defense, Illinois’ offensive attack is elementary from the opening drive on. Illinois had 14 PLAYS in the first 30 minutes of action. The time of possession was 25:08 to 4:52.
A basic explanation is Northwestern just won a Big Ten road game by 19 points with a quarterback who was fourth on its depth chart and likely not brought on its opening game road trip to Stanford. Illinois couldn’t get anything going and finished with just 160 total yards using both its backup or third-string signal-callers. Peters is scheduled to be back next season but has already has a history of concussions in his collegiate career. It could be considered professional malpractice by Lovie Smith’s staff if Illinois comes out of these 15 bowl practices, spring workouts and fall camp without a solid backup quarterback plan.
Nobody is suggesting Illinois sat its injured starters, which included big-name players such as Peters, linebacker Jake Hansen, cornerback Tony Adams, wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe and defensive lineman Jamal Woods, with the thought they could roll over Northwestern anyway. If any of these star players could’ve been medically cleared, they play. No ifs, ands or buts. However, Illinois’ scouting misses throughout the years and lean years in the win column affecting recruiting have still left an impact on this program. Without a majority of its starters, Illinois isn’t close to the point where they can play backups and still consider itself a favorite to control any conference opponent. The depth simply isn’t there and is still likely a few years away from being at that level.
All the turnovers in the world (and it sure seemed like Illinois got all of them and more in that four-game winning streak) can’t erase the fact that Lovie Smith’s defense still hasn’t slowed down a consistent rushing attack. Iowa has played musical chairs with its tailbacks all season long and hasn’t found a consistent plan to run the ball. Wisconsin is only counter to this argument but the Badgers still struggled its way to 156 yards. Let’s face it - Jeff Brohm has never been committed to a balanced offense and has said as much during his short time at Purdue.
To allow 275 yards or more on the ground to Nebraska, Minnesota, Michigan, Michigan State and Northwestern is a fatal flaw that Smith will have to get fixed before the start of the 2020 season and won’t have the luxury of seniors up the middle like safety Stanley Green, linebacker Dele Harding or defensive linemen Kenyon Jackson, Jamal Milan and Tymir Oliver to rely on.
4. Pat Fitzgerald still owns the Illini and Lovie Smith
Is Illinois going to a bowl game this year? Yes. Is Northwestern bringing the rivalry trophy back to Evanston with bragging rights after a program-record fifth straight win? Yes. Fitzgerald now owns a 10-4 record against the Illini in this game and won convincingly with a team that had every reason to fold up the season and hand Illinois its seventh win of the 2019 season. Until Lovie Smith finds a way to turn the momentum in this game, the state of Illinois will be a purple state in every way but its presidential politics. And this is a trend the Illini program can’t afford to allow for much longer.
If Saturday’s game defined a lasting final moment of the Illini’s 2019 season, it is this group still found the arrogance of thinking they’d win just by showing up. And let’s face facts, we’re still years away from Illinois football being able to have that thought for one second, let alone 60 minutes.