Tate | Lovie's Illini continue to make wrong kind of history

Tate | Lovie's Illini continue to make wrong kind of history

Community quiz: Which will recover from these endless seasons of Illini mediocrity first, football or basketball?

Natural response: Basketball! It's a guard's game and the Illini have guards.

Real answer: Yes, it's basketball, because (1) it takes fewer players and (2) while Brad Underwood's defense is lacking — and will lead to some disappointing setbacks — Lovie Smith's defense is historic. That is, historically bad.

Nebraska's 54-35 thumping Saturday provided more evidence. You don't need analytics to recognize that opposing runners encounter little resistance at the line of scrimmage, and rival receivers discover unaccustomed freedom in the Illini secondary. For Stanley Morgan and JD Spielman, who combined for 15 receptions accounting for 202 yards, it was a walk in park. As it was for QB Adrian Martinez.

Nebraska's 606 yards speak for themselves.

Here's some context

Only two Illini teams in history allowed more than the currently permitted 320 points in Big Ten games: 2005's 0-8 team with 341 and 2013's 1-7 team with 326. Obviously, the 2-5 Illini will pile up a new level of ineptness in the finales with Iowa and Northwestern.

Likewise, they're surely on some kind of record pace in allowing 5,329 yards throughout the 10-game season.

In Nebraska's first three possessions alone, Scott Frost's gang broke plays of 8, 30, 37 (TD), 8, 16, 49, 10 (TD), 23, 18 and 32 (TD). It seemed as though no one showed up on the other side.

And yet, this game appeared competitive at 21-14. A Big 12 game had broken out. Reggie Corbin became the UI's 14th 1,000-yard rusher, and AJ Bush Jr. was on his way toward 187 yards on the ground, an Illini quarterback record.

Getting defensive

What followed the early exchanges was Disastersville, a familiar place for this program.

First, and let me harp on non-defensive failures that lie in Lovie's lap.

(1) It's 21-14 and neither team could stop the other. Illinois had 'em on the run but suddenly faced 4th-and-5 at the Husker 41.

With Corbin and Bush running so effectively, a punt was a poor option here. You're a 17-point underdog! Go for it. The punt wound up gaining 21 yards. In a normal game, yes, you punt. Not when the defenses are so confused.

And you might have noticed later, Frost ran a fourth-down play successfully three times in Nebraska's third-quarter TD march.

(2) With Mike Dudek long gone, Lovie found a couple of freshman receivers who handled punts well during practices at home in the warm autumn weather. This was sub-30 degrees with a chilling wind in a foreign environment. What would have been the UI's fourth possession was lost when freshman Carlos Sandy, who sat out the last two games, couldn't corral the ball. And what would have been the UI's sixth possession was lost when freshman Jordan Holmes, who had two punt receptions all year, let it escape at the UI 7-yard line.

This may be second-guessing, but it makes me nervous to see a freshman, who is shivering on the sidelines, back there in the frigid Nebraska conditions.

'Our team collapsed'

So here are the Illini, having produced a spectacular 509 yards in offense, and outgained by nearly 100.

What we continue to see in Bush is a sub-par passer with sub-par receivers — preseason projections tabbed WR as a strength — and an ability to run that surpasses the long line of mostly drop-back passers in Illini history.

He had Nebraska guessing with his keepers, and he continued to run effectively after Corbin was injured in the second quarter.

But Illinois dropped the ball seven times Saturday, not counting a perfect pass to Dominic Stampley that he bobbled directly into the hands of a Nebaska defender.

"Our team collapsed," Lovie said. "Explosive plays hurt us, and we had a big problem hanging onto the ball. I thought we were in a different place."

This has been years in the making, and basketball will be in a good place before this is solved.

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