Asmussen | Blowout loss to Purdue puts Illini football's progress in question

Asmussen | Blowout loss to Purdue puts Illini football's progress in question

CHAMPAIGN — They drew you in with a convincing win against Rutgers. (Note to self: Success against the dreadful Scarlet Knights does not mean much.)

On a brisk, but sunny afternoon at Memorial Stadium, a nice crowd came out for Illinois homecoming. Plenty of former standouts arrived back in the building, including iconic quarterback Juice Williams.

They could have used him on the field. And a whole bunch of guys on defense.

Porous on defense and listless on offense, the Illini got whipped 46-7 by Purdue after taking an early lead.

Now what?

The program is 2 1 / 2 years into the Lovie Smith experiment.

Can it work? Will it work?

On Saturday, the answer was no. A loud no.

Of course, Smith can coach. Two NFL teams hired him as their leader, and he took the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl.

But Rodney Dangerfield's performance in "Back to School" comes to mind: This is college.

Pro and college football are different. A lot different.

Oh, sure, running the ball and stop the run are the basics for a winning program.

But there is more to it.

College offenses are creative. In a lot of cases, it is by necessity.

College programs work with the players they bring in. No draft to pick players from. No free-agent signings. Or waiver pickups.

You start the season with 85 scholarship players and if some of them get hurt — Mikey Dudek, Edwin Carter, Jamal Woods — or dismissed — Bennett Williams — you are out of luck.

The best coaches make use of all 85. They find work for the guys on the bottom half of the depth chart, adding to the greater good.

I'm not sure that is happening at Illinois.

Been there, done that

Afterward, Smith went into "just one of those games" mode.

Tell that to the people who drove two hours from Chicago. Or flew in from Houston.

They expected better effort. They wanted to see execution that correlates to the sixth game of the season. They didn't count on their favorite team taking a 7-0 lead, then getting outscored 46-0.

Smith talked about the team giving up too many big plays. That's on him. Or his scheme.

These same players shut down Rutgers and slowed undefeated South Florida for most of four quarters.

What is Smith's message to the fans?

"Sorry that we played this way," he said. "Disappointing loss (Saturday) is what I would say.

"You look at the big picture. We're 3-3. It's disappointment. What do you say on a loss like that? It is what it is."

Trouble ahead

Both Illinois and Purdue are 3-3, but not the same kind of 3-3. The Boilermakers have won three in a row. Illinois has lost three of its last four. Purdue looks like a bowl team, although its closing schedule is difficult.

No one thought Illinois would blow out the Boilermakers. Certainly not oddsmakers, who pegged Purdue as 10-point favorites. The folks in Las Vegas didn't give Jeff Brohm's team enough credit.Illinois should be able to hang with Purdue. It should not be getting dropped at home by 39 points. And playing to an empty stadium in the final 10 minutes.

And it's about to get worse. The Illini travel to Wisconsin next Saturday for a game against the Badgers.

Paul Chryst's team loves to run the ball and should pile up big yards against the Illini defense.

Jonathan Taylor can't wait for the Illini to arrive at Camp Randall. Neither can the Badgers offensive line.

So, barring a bunch of turnovers by the careful Wisconsin offense, the score will be substantial. Never say never, but say "highly unlikely."

In the final five games, the one that looks most winnable is at 0-6 Nebraska. The Cornhuskers will view Illinois the same way.

Trips to improved Maryland and resurgent Northwestern are also on the docket. Minnesota and Iowa visit Champaign with bowl hopes.

The promise of a 3-2 start could quickly move the wrong direction. While three wins are more than in 2017, if the season ends at 3-9, it will be a major disappointment for the fans and administration. And a difficult sell for recruits.

Some top prospects were on campus this weekend. The enthusiastic crowd helped Illinois' chances to land them. But the on-field meltdown will have the top players wondering "Is Illinois the place for me?"

Maybe Smith is right. Maybe his team will bounce back next week against Wisconsin.

The Illini don't have to beat the Badgers to show progress. Just hang close through "Jump Around" at Camp Randall. Another 46-7 loss won't cut it.

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

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