Tate: Illini going through growing pains

Tate: Illini going through growing pains

Slumps are common in college football.

And the longer they go, the harder they are to turn. Like a stampede. It's called the death spiral, generally leading to fan apathy and, inevitably, recruiting shortfalls. Failure feeds on itself.

Miracles do happen. We look to the state of Kansas where K-State's ageless Bill Snyder lifted the seemingly hopeless Wildcats out of decades-long failure with 11 straight bowl trips beginning in 1993, and another six bowls on his second tour.

That leaves nearby Kansas. Jayhawk fans joyfully welcome basketball this month, exasperated by a football program showing five coaches since 2009, 30 losses in the last 33 games, 44 straight road losses (forty-four!) and a 50-percent drop in attendance since 2009 (official sales slipped from plus-50,000 to roughly 25,000, with two recent Big 12 dates falling under 24,000 ... and far less actually attending).

Illini's struggles continue

Illinois is hovering on that dreaded precipice.

Saturday's 29-10 loss at Purdue left the Illini with a 20-56 record since 2000 against their natural rivals from the Big Ten West ... a division vastly weaker than its OSU-led counterpart in the East.

In the last 22 seasons, under six coaches, Illinois has suffered losing streaks of 18, 10, 9 twice, 8, 7 currently, 6 on three occasions and 5. The Illini have dropped eight straight to Wisconsin, 9 of 10 to Iowa, 10 of 13 to Purdue, 6 of 7 to Minnesota and 4 of 5 to both Northwestern and Nebraska. Don't ask about Ohio State and Michigan.

Official UI attendance, which peaked at 76,000 in the mid-1980s, fell from 61,000 in 2008 to a 44-year low of 41,000 in 2014 ... and a week ago, on a chilly, misty day, the fourth quarter opened with the Illini not only outnumbered by Wisconsin on the scoreboard (17-3) but by red-jerseyed fans remaining in the east stands.

Of the 65 football programs in the FBS, Illinois has fallen to a position just above Kansas. No, not Oregon State. The now-struggling Beavers were 82-57 under their previous coach, Mike Riley, through 2012. No, not Cal. The Bears were 93-80 under Jeff Tedford before he departed.

Falling below suddenly competitive Iowa State is SEC bottom feeder Vanderbilt, displaying a 10-year audit of 21-54 in conference play compared to the UI's 19-61 record in the Big Ten. While Illinois was ringing up those 19 conference wins, Northwestern bagged 39.

Turning to the youngsters 

The Illini's hopes for revival lie with a promising nucleus of freshmen, 16 of whom have actually started this season.

It should be understood that this group is not necessarily superior to other mostly redshirted classes within the conference, but these young Illini are (1) exceeding expectations and (2) on a faster track due to extensive duty this season.

"We have a great deal of (freshman) potential across the board and they're getting valued experience," UI defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson said this past week. "They are the foundation for us to build on, and it's fun to watch."

And the coaches are learning as they go. They've made adjustments to get added beef at tight end where former starting tackle Christian DiLauro has become a valuable blocker (he also played guard Saturday), and at defensive end where 265-pound freshman Jamal Woods has switched from tackle. Former lightweight regulars at those positions, Louis Dorsey and Isaiah Gay, are best employed in passing situations.

To be fair, the Illini defense has shown improvement in recent weeks but, with injuries mounting on both sides (my count reached 15 when Malik Turner was hurt Saturday), the Illini tend to wear down in the late stages. Defensive tackle is dreadfully thin. Purdue, meanwhile, has made good strides under new coach Jeff Brohm, and scored two fourth-quarter TDs to secure its fourth victory.

Illinois entered Saturday ranking 111th in NCAA rushing and 107th in rush defense (out of 129), and was outrushed by Purdue, 209-80. Within the Big Ten, Illinois ranked last or next-to-last in points, scoring defense, rushing, rushing defense, pass efficiency, first downs and opponents' first downs.

Let's talk about the quarterbacks 

We are left to wonder: Will these UI freshmen be demonstrably better next season as compared to other 2018 plebes being mostly redshirted at comparable programs?

No small concern is the status of quarterback. Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee has swung from Chayce Crouch to Jeff George Jr. to Cam Thomas, each leaving much to be desired. We now await the arrival of two standpoint preps, Texan M.J. Rivers and Peorian Coran Taylor, and the possibility of McGee locating a ready-made transfer.

It is that uncertain. And while speculation centers on George's arm and Thomas' feet, we tend to overlook the fact that, with all these candidates, the answer lies from the neck up ... who best "sees the field" and makes the best decisions.

Thomas has yet to polish these skills. George is a gunslinger who makes risky choices. We won't know about Rivers and Taylor until we see them in college action.

All else aside, there have been no quality Illini football teams without a quality quarterback.

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

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Moonpie wrote on November 05, 2017 at 8:11 am

Ah, The Alibi in full force. From THe Head Cheerleader.

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!

But more than that, it's a warning from Prehistoric Tate that the traitorous fans are not allowed to complain or have doubt or even think anything but positive thoughts about the Aw Shucks Lovie Dovie Era. Sort of a long version of a Trump tweet. Like with Trump and his juvenile tweets to his base of fools, Illini fans are being told to blindly follow by another charlatan.