Loren Tate: There's light at end of tunnel
This isn’t a call for Illinois to produce a bowl-level football campaign. A December trip would be nice but, realistically, the talent level simply isn’t there.
But mark this down as a call to hold the fort this season in anticipation of more promising possibilities when youths begin to come of age in 2014.
First, look at next year’s home schedule. It is eye-popping. After a 2013 Big Ten season in which the Illini host ranked foes Wisconsin, Michigan State (OK, the Spartans are No. 26 with AP), Ohio State and Northwestern, the Illini will welcome less-fearsome visitors Purdue, Minnesota, Iowa and Penn State in 2014 after hosting Youngstown State, Western Kentucky and Texas State.
With an average Illini team, all seven home games would be considered winnable. These four Big Ten foes project with Indiana as the five weakest conference members, not counting next year’s newcomers Maryland and Rutgers.
So, here’s the plan: Survive in the face of seemingly insurmountable 2013 challenges, keep the faith through likely September-October losses, and show November improvement — particularly on key trips to Penn State, Indiana and Purdue — with a squad that should become more capable as it grows.
The defensive unit has just two senior starters in Jonathan Brown and Tim Kynard and is bubbling with youthful huskies eager to step up. Of 33 defenders on the newly released depth chart, 31 are non-seniors. This unit will be young and mistake-prone early, but there’s potential on the rise. Imagine, 31 of 33 return, and only seven of the 31 are juniors. Tim Beckman will use backups extensively in these steamy early games in an effort to develop the overall squad.
Offensively, the addition of Wes Lunt offers a likely upgrade at quarterback, Donovonn Young again will lead 2014 ball carriers, and only Corey Lewis must be replaced in the starting offensive line. Tight end Evan Wilson and the senior receivers will be missed, but there are more skilled squadmen poised to move in.
What we have this season is a replay of the venerable Western movie device: The fortifications are under siege and they must hold out until reinforcements arrive. Right now, for those with vision and good hearing, and assuming their ears aren’t plugged, the bugle call can almost be heard in the distance.
This isn’t meant to suggest that the 2014 Illini will be ready to challenge Ohio State — which could be improved at most positions other than quarterback — but they should be ready to look all seven Memorial Stadium opponents squarely in the eye.
The other five games are another story. They will travel to Washington as well as Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Northwestern. It’s odd to see a schedule work out in such a fashion that they’ll be underdogs in every road game and, with reasonable improvement, have a distinct opportunity in all seven home games.
Fast start a must
The immediate nonconference games are critical. Improvement and wins are essential. The program can’t afford another staff shakeup, much less a start-over at the top.
The difficulty with early-season setbacks is how they affect late-season play. Winners tend to bond and improve. Losers tend to splinter and unravel, usually reacting poorly to the first sign of a “bad break.”
This may be less true in the modern era with so many bowl opportunities to shoot for. But look at the record. The Illini teams that embarked on the last five campaigns weren’t the same ones that finished the regular season. Each tended to lose its mojo.
2008: Lost late to Western Michigan and then to Ohio State and Northwestern;
2009: Gave up 102 points in the last two games against Cincinnati and Fresno State;
2010: Lost a 67-65 thriller at Michigan, then dropped two of the last three to Minnesota and Fresno State again.
2011: Gradually crumbled in losing the last six, closing with a 27-7 non-showup at Minnesota.
2012: Never recovered from Arizona State and Louisiana Tech debacles, playing only Purdue close (20-17) in the last nine games.
For Illinois, the key to the future is to prevail in the games that are winnable — it’s a must vs. SIU on Saturday — and continue to develop as competitors in the games where they are outmanned.
A coaching change was demanded after 2011. To repeat it after this season would be devastating (again) to recruiting. If the Illini show progress, players and fans will carry a new attitude into 2014, regardless of the record.
This isn’t the Cubs, who are hoping to mine as-yet undeveloped signees. This is an Illini football program that, in the churning turnover that characterizes all college sports, has attracted a fair amount of under-the-radar talent.
Nobody would describe me as an eternal optimist — far from it — but I look at these young linemen and see physicality on the horizon ... Teko Powell, Bryce Douglas, Jarrod Clements, Paul James, Ted Karras, Austin Schmidt, Joe Spencer.
You may be attracted to other positions, but it’s the huskies who’ll determine who rules the trenches and ultimately prevails on the scoreboard.
No, Mike Thomas, my glass isn’t half full. Not yet. Let’s see what happens in the immediate tomorrows. The Illini don’t have to win ’em all, but they definitely can’t allow the fort to be ransacked.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.