Illini Nation sees promise with Aaron Bailey in the fold and Wes Lunt in the pipeline at quarterback. Josh Ferguson looks like the real deal for the next 21/2 seasons, and the lineup of future receivers is highly promising.
But it’s a physical game, and Illini shortcomings became painfully clear Saturday when Nebraska’s forces smashed them down.
It takes muscle to win in the Big Ten. Mature, weight-trained muscle. Until the Illini can match that muscle, they’ll need magic tricks.
For me, there’ll be a lot more optimism about Illini recruiting when they bring in some guys who resemble Corey Liuget and Akeem Spence ... those rugged types that everybody covets. It hasn’t been happening.
This isn’t meant to denigrate the efforts of hard-working starters Austin Teitsma and Jake Howe at defensive tackle. They’re fourth-year juniors who moved up when Spence turned pro early and Glenn Foster graduated. Like nearly everyone on the defensive side, they were overmatched at Nebraska.
Backing up the tackles and seeing action Saturday were converted offensive lineman Robbie Bain, freshman converted end Jarrod Clements and juco transfer Abe Cajuste. The Cornhuskers pretty much ran as they pleased, three halfbacks averaging 8.2 yards per carry in a 39-19 result.
Where’d everybody go?
The first problem: too many departures.
The 2011 class originally listed Clint Tucker, Chris Jones and Willie Beavers as DT commits. It was a wipeout. The 2012 class quickly lost Daniel Rhodes and featured Teko Powell and Vontrell Williams. But like 2013 freshman Bryce Douglas, they did not make the flight to Lincoln ... spotlighting development concerns complicated by injuries. Douglas’ announced teammate in the rookie class, Belleville Althoff’s huge Merrick Jackson, fell short of standards and enrolled at Iowa Western.
The trio of Powell, Williams and Douglas offer hope for the future but are falling too far behind to make much of an impact in the second half of this season. Coach Greg Colby is obliged to go forward with the players on hand.
Now, the next problem: recruiting.
Simply put, there aren’t enough defensive tackles to go around ... bruisers who can stuff the run, shed blockers and put pressure on opposing passers. They’re like basketball centers. They’re scarce. These young giants are called on for an extra level of mobility that offensive linemen usually don’t possess.
My weekend perusal of Rivals.com shows that the 12 Big Ten teams have roughly 150 football commitments, and seven are listed as DTs. So far, with more than half their quotas filled, Illinois, Ohio State, Nebraska, Purdue, Iowa and Penn State don’t have one.
Michigan State boasts the only four-star DT, Enock Smith, projected to sign in February with a Big Ten school. Ironically, he hails from Chicago Mount Carmel, which sent both Foster and Williams to the UI in recent years.
Line ’em up
Mike Ward, veteran linebacker coach, spoke of the situation after Saturday’s loss.
“We all need 300-pounders (for line play), and they’re rare,” he said. “The good ones are being recruited by everybody.
“We can either bring in the big, long prospects and develop them, or we can go the junior college route. It’s a good year for linemen in the Kansas and Iowa JC ranks, but we can’t get them in school (due to UI academic limitations).”
Referring to the task at hand, which finds Wisconsin and Michigan State coming to town later this month, Ward said:
“We can be negative and beat a dead horse, or we can go to work and try to get better. Nebraska was a physical team and ran the football on us. Good play-action teams do that.”
It might be acceptable to see Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah run for 100 yards. He’s going to do that. But 225 yards on 20 carries is non-competitive. And Illinois goes forward Oct. 19 with no apparent answer for Wisconsin’s 1-2 punch of Melvin Gordon and James White.
The Illini dike has more than one hole, but this is the biggest one because, if the defensive line is porous, if strong opponents can run effectively, it impacts every other aspect in a negative way.
For the record, Michigan State is No. 1 nationally in rushing defense and total defense, Wisconsin is No. 12 and 6 in those categories, and Illinois is No. 97 and 102 (out of 123) respectively. Including passes, Illinois is permitting 450 yards per game.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.