Tate: Why the negativity? Oh, I know.

Tate: Why the negativity? Oh, I know.

If 3-3 is an undeniable improvement over 2-10, why all the renewed grumbling about the Illini football team?

Is this loser’s fatigue setting in? Or are complaints reasonable?

I know the answer, but first let me point out:

(1) Special teams are vastly better with good coverage and the UI punter, Justin DuVernois, averaging 40.8 yards. V’Angelo Bentley, who may miss this week, is averaging 30.8 yards on 10 kickoff returns to lead the Big Ten.

(2) Compared to last year’s 16.7-point output, Bill Cubit has the offense perking along at 35.3 with Nathan Scheelhaase on a 3,000-yard pace and tripling his TD passes from 4 to 12 in half a season. The tight ends have seven TD scores, and Josh Ferguson continues to lead the nation’s running backs in reception yardage (346).  

So if we’re going to have a reasonable discussion, accept the fact that two of three phases — special teams and offense — have been upgraded.

As for the defense, that’s another story.

And the reason fans are so flustered is because there appears to be no immediate solution. Tim Banks’ unit is permitting 6.5 yards per play and ranks No. 104 in allowing 455.7 yards per game. This is doubly concerning when you see Michigan State arriving Saturday as No. 1 in rush defense (59.1) and No. 4 in pass defense (168.9).

Stop the bleeding

Here’s the problem.

If Cubit sees that the Illini can’t run the football, he can change course and take to the air to avoid the mismatches in the trenches. They’ve passed for more than 300 yards four times this season and produced four TDs against a Badger defense that allowed none to Northwestern the week before.

Strategically, you can’t hide a weakness on defense. If you’re unable to stop the run, opponents will simply run you into the ground. And that’s what happened in the losses to Washington (34-24), Nebraska (39-19) and Wisconsin (56-32). Oh, sure, they passed the ball too. But the Illini become so helplessly conscious of the run that they are easy pickings in the secondary.

The numbers are frightful. If, as Bears coach Marc Trestman emphasizes, turnovers are a key statistic in close games, the Illini are shamefully shy in that department. They show four fumble recoveries and one interception in six games. That’s one pick by Taylor Barton and 11 breakups in 174 opposing passes. Only two other teams in the country have as few as one interception. Missouri has 14, and Northwestern 13.  

The Illini are weak at the line of scrimmage. A club that ranked No. 9 in sacks in 2011 has five so far, three of them by linebackers. Less than one per game.

UI junior tackle Jake Howe has started six games and has no solo tackles (12 assists). Wisconsin so shredded the line Saturday that four of the UI’s five tackle leaders were the safeties and cornerbacks. Juco transfer Zane Petty, who started in place of Barton, was credited with 14 stops.  

Practice patience

Tim Beckman recognizes the problem, addressing it Tuesday.

“We expected to be better offensively with the number of starters returning,” he said. “The defense is not where we want it to be. We’re trying things. We blitzed on 27 of 36 plays in the second half Saturday. We’re trying to get the ball back for our offense.”

Beckman was so upset that he refused to give passing grades to anyone on either side of the ball.

“We are getting doubled and washed up, and we’re losing gap control,” he said. “I coach the corners and part of our problem was what Wisconsin did, but our guys didn’t play very well, and our open-field tackling continues to be a problem.”

Fingers are being pointed at Banks but, to be fair, most of his athletes are overmatched. My criticism of Banks reverts to last season when the team had communication problems at Arizona State and never fully recovered.

That 2012 unit had plenty of experience and had known a degree of success: Of 16 players who started at least once on a 2011 club that finished No. 7 nationally in total defense, 12 returned. Of those 12, up-front warriors Akeem Spence, Glenn Foster and Michael Buchanan are now on NFL rosters as rookies.

But they slipped to No. 53 defensively last season, giving up 45 or more points on five occasions.

What is to be done now? That’s easy: Resist the urge to panic. Play out the string, make an evaluation and come to a decision. There are winnable games remaining. Let’s see what happens.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

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Green Shirt wrote on October 22, 2013 at 6:10 am

"Communication problems"?  Have you ever listened to an interview with Tim Banks?  To say he is inarticulate is to cut him some slack.  It seems as if every sentence is punctuated with a "you know".  No athletic director with any sense would ever make Tim Banks the leader (spokesman) of their football program and I have serious reservations about his prospects as a coordinator.

illinifaningeorgia wrote on October 22, 2013 at 11:10 am

Beckman is not much better.

billbtri5 wrote on October 22, 2013 at 10:10 am

is Lou Tepper available?..

Profilo wrote on October 22, 2013 at 10:10 am

finally a good doze of common sense after all the panic from illinihq (in print and radio) last Sat. A call for patient, reasoned and well-informed analysis is always welcomed, and it is to be expected from a professional source like this one. hopefully more fans can come to their senses too!

Now, in light on the observation that the D has not shown signs of improvement unlike the Offense and special teams, consider these FACTS as part of the reasonable discussion moving forward:

1. most of the players in the offense are veterans, and most of them came as three star recruits or better

2. by comparisson (save for JB and Bates), the defense has only few experienced players and they came as either two star recruits or were unranked. And since many of them were non-starters last year it is hard to consider them veterans at all

3. theres young talent in the defense, thats why is important to let those guys develop under one system for at least another year (unless one wants inconsistency a la Scheelhaase across the D line and backfield resulting from scheme/terminology changes.

And that's why sportwriters need to continue preaching patience to the fanbase. So far the defense has been as bad as expected at the begining of the season; no real suprises here. Unless something really extraordinary happens in the coming games, the narrative should stay the same.



ERE wrote on October 22, 2013 at 11:10 am
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WOW! The former Dean of Negativity, Mr. Tate, has a reasonable optimistic approach this fall! Glad I was sitting down when I read this.

I agree with Loren, defense has to improve but overall team much improved and Ilini football is fun to watch again.

illinifaningeorgia wrote on October 22, 2013 at 11:10 am

OVERALL progress MUST be made this year.  I don't care that the offense and special teams are better.  The godawful defense more than cancels out those improvements.  My take on acceptable improvement this year is not necessarily related to increased wins (I think a 4-8 record is about as good as we can expect this year, still better than last year).  Last year we lost 7 games by 4 touchdowns or more.  My expectations of improvement for this year is not to necessarily win some of those games, just to make the games more competitive.  So far, not so good.  In our first game of teams we'll face both years, last year we lost to Wisconsin by 17 points, trailing by only 3 after 3 quarters.  This year we lose by 24 and were never in the game.  Not a good start.                                           

Gill52 wrote on October 22, 2013 at 11:10 am

The answer would be to have some guts and bring back Vic Koenning, and give him complete control just as Cubit has complete control of the offense. 

kzimmer001 wrote on October 22, 2013 at 1:10 pm

When Beckman speaks, I hear, "derp, derpa derp"

jjohnson wrote on October 22, 2013 at 2:10 pm

Good column, Loren, and good points. I don't know whether Georgia fan was at the games, but I doubt it. Wisconsin's 2 top running backs are so quick that any sort of hole provided a gain of at least 5 yards, and plugging those holes is indeed a weakness, though Tietsma probably had more tackles than any lineman has had this year. For the writer who commented about the score at the end of three quarters against Wisconson last year, last year's defensive line featured Akeem Spence and experienced defensive backs. Moreover, I would agree that the offense several times put the defense in a bad position: Nathan's fumble and also the penalty (I thought it was a great block) by Ted Karras on our first possession and Donovon Young's second fumble in two games. The defense is not good, and defensive tackles are hard to come by, but this team is so much better than last year's in the two ways Loren mentioned plus an important 3rd: Last year, the Nebraska score might have been 70-0, and last year, after falling behind by 21, Wisconsin would have beaten us by 50 at least, so an important component -- team character -- has advanced significantly. For all you Beckman haters, explain that!

illinifaningeorgia wrote on October 22, 2013 at 4:10 pm

I KNOW last year's defense had some good players and a handful of them are now in the NFL.  So what.  Good players leave every year.  The point is, you replace them with players that can grow into the next crop of good players.  We haven't done that so far.  And from the look of things, it won't be much better next year---our recruiting class for 2014 is ranked in the mid-60's.  I have serious doubts that Beckman can ever get this team to be even a .500 team.

Lefty55 wrote on October 22, 2013 at 2:10 pm

I think the improvement is definitely there.  They play exciting football.  You can see how small and how slow we are compared to good teams; especially on defense. 

Right now I am of a keep Beckman and fire Banks mentality.  That is unless Banks is one heckuva recruiter, because this year we have a talent issue through and through.  I like how they fight though.  Go you crazy Indians!!

tonyjb37 wrote on October 22, 2013 at 2:10 pm
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What is to be done now? Are you freaking kidding me? Fire Tim Banks and get rid of all the players on defense that don't know how to play the game of football the way that it was meant to be played. Violent! These players we have on the team are weak, they have no heart, no toughness, and no nastiness in them at all. Before we start winning real games, the culture of this football team is going to have to change.  Look at all the teams that win consistantly and are competing for a national championship year after year, tell me what they have that we don't have? I already made it as clear as I can. Pay Nick Saban 20 million a year to coach here I gaurantee that we will win a national championship in 3-5 years Nick Saban is a mans coach! And there are many others that could do the same here if they were paid to come here. Money talks and anyone can be bought for the right price. Tim Beckman has been around football for 30-40 years and still can't coach winning football! Some guys have IT and some don't. Tim and Tim just so happens to be two that don't. If fans stop going to games then changes would be made. Everyone loves money! It is a complete waste of money and time to go  watch your team lose week after week and never improve. The fans do have a voice it is called money!

Profilo wrote on October 23, 2013 at 10:10 am

well, you'd better be a super, mega rich guy, because otherwise, under your own narrow standards, your voice is worth nothing.