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- Werner: Lovie riding, dying with his defense
- CHAMPAIGN — Like most who watched Illinois squander away a primetime opportunity, Illini star defensive end Oluwole Betiku Jr. was still searching for answers after he stepped out of the locker room.
- How did Illinois blow a 14-point lead with under 20 minutes remaining?
- “I still can’t believe we lost. I just can’t explain it,” Betiku said following a 42-38 loss to Nebraska. “I still can’t believe we lost. I was just in the locker room and reflecting on the whole day. I felt like there were some plays I could have made to help the team win. Stop a drive or just do something to help us win. I’m just reflecting on all my bad plays.”
- Scarier still is that Illinois coach Lovie Smith still has no answers for college, especially Big Ten, offenses.
- To be fair, there was some defense on Saturday night at Memorial Stadium. Actually, the Illini defense was a big reason the Illini had a 35-21 lead over Nebraska (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) after Brandon Peters’ 10-yard touchdown run with 5:40 remaining in the third quarter. Four Illini takeaways in the first 40 minutes led directly to 21 Illini points.
- The defense’s takeaways — though a few of Nebraska’s fumbles could be called “giveaways” — did the heavy lifting on three of the Illini offense’s five touchdown-scoring drives, which covered 37 yards, 10 yards and 14 yards. The Illini offense even failed to score on a drive that started inside the Nebraska 40. Rod Smith’s crew certainly doesn’t get a pass for Saturday's loss, especially after throwing for just 78 yards and converting on 1 of 11 third downs. The Illini offense didn’t keep its defense off the field long enough, running just 61 plays to Nebraska’s 98.
- But in a far-too-familiar familiar script, the Illini defense too often couldn’t find its own way off the field, except when Nebraska fumbled or found the end zone. In a game in which Illinois (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten) recovered four fumbles, it still allowed 40-plus points for the ninth time in its last 12 Big Ten games and allowed 550-plus yards for the sixth time in its last 10 conference games. Wait, wasn't defense supposed to be the identity of a Lovie Smith program?
- “It’s very frustrating, kind of depressing on our end, especially on the defensive end,” senior linebacker and team captain Dele Harding said after the game. “It was moreso mistakes; I wouldn’t say fatigue. We did a lot approaching the season as far as endurance goes. I wouldn’t say moreso fatigue. Maybe mentally that could be a factor.”
- Lovie Smith undoubtedly was a great defensive mind in the NFL for decades. But after his early struggles at Illinois — and former defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson’s resignation midseason last year — Smith doubled down on his system this offseason.
- Rather than hiring a proven college defensive coordinator and continuing his CEO-like role, Smith took on the defensive playcalling himself. It was sort of commendable. Who better to teach and run his scheme? Plus, no one else to take the fault if it doesn't work.
- Simply, Smith chose to ride or die with a system that drove him to great NFL success. Barring a drastic turnaround though, he appears to be dying with it in the Big Ten, a conference in which he now has a 4-24 record — a worse winning percentage than predecessor Tim Beckman.
- I asked Smith after allowing six touchdown drives of 64-plus yards on Saturday if he’s scratching his head over why his defense is not working.
- “No, not at all,” Smith said. “I’m disappointed in the night. I feel good about the four takeaways we had. They gave us good opportunities. But I’m disappointed in the night. I’m not going to go back two or three more years, four or five when we played well either. I’m disappointed in tonight. Period. Our team is better. We’re better defensively tonight. We weren’t as good as we needed to be.”
- Smith loved the four takeaways. But how repeatable are four recovered fumbles in a game when during the entire nine Big Ten games last season, Illinois recovered four total fumbles? While the Illini laid some wood against Nebraska, the fumble fairy seemed in their favor — and the big reason why Nebraska didn’t crack 60 points. Otherwise, the Cornhuskers found a lot of green space.
- "We got to wrap up tackles," Illini junior safety Tony Adams said. "We got to get that ball out every time that we can. When we get somebody down, we got to put our foot on their throat. We just got to finish them.”
- The Illinois defense spent all of the offseason discussing that it would be better than last year's historically bad group, which allowed more than 45 points per game during Big Ten play. Injuries to Bobby Roundtree and Marquez Beason obviously sting. But with a deeper, more talented, more experienced roster across the board, the results remain drastically disappointing. Smith preaches that progress is still happening. But allowing 690 total yards and 42 points shouldn’t be a marker of progress for any program.
- "I think we have a chance now to win," Smith said. "In years past I don’t think we had a chance, but we have a chance now. We’re a better football team. Tonight it didn’t turn out that way. Or maybe it’s just a real good offensive team.”
- Maybe it’s a coincidence that the Illini have played a lot of elite offensive teams under Lovie Smith. Or maybe the answer is that it’s not a coincidence at all.
- Nebraska coach Scott Frost said earlier in the week that his first few defensive opponents changed their game plans against Nebraska, catching them a bit off guard and causing some struggles. But Frost said he didn’t expect Illinois to change its defense much from its base concepts. Predictably, Illinois didn’t. And predictably, Frost tore into the Illini’s deficiencies, especially its lack of pass rush and soft zones (especially in the middle of the field as JD Spielman had seven receptions for 159 yards). Nebraska also won the edge with speedy playmaker Wandale Robinson (159 total yards and three touchdowns).
- Takeaways are kinda Smith's whole schtick, and Illinois has increased its takeaways in each of his four seasons at the helm. But what's that matter if you can't stop a team's attack without taking the ball away, a not-all-too-common occurrence in football? That doesn't appear to be a schematic advantage.
- Understandably, the Illini defensive players after the game didn’t have an antidote for the defensive deficiencies. Or if they did, they understandably didn't point fingers at their coaches, instead pointing thumbs.
- “I take this L on my shoulders like this is my fault,” junior linebacker and team captain Jake Hansen said. “As a leader, I have to be better than that. Our team has to be better than that. I have to prepare us better than that. That’s what I’m thinking.”
- Added Adams: “We just need to come together as a defense. We got to fix some stuff. We got to get it together. We just got to buy into what coach Smith is teaching. They’re giving us the recipe. We just got to execute.”
- Lovie Smith has his proven, old, famous recipe. But if he doesn’t have his NFL ingredients — through drafting elite talent — is he capable of cooking the delicious defensive dish? If the fourth batch burns like the previous ones, then the answer might be to find a new chef. Preferably with a different recipe.
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