Tate | Embarrassments keep piling up for this year's Illini

Tate | Embarrassments keep piling up for this year's Illini

If you thought the 46-7 loss to Purdue on Oct. 13 was the low point for Illinois, think again.

If the 63-33 rout at Maryland two weeks later stuck in your craw, gulp again.

Iowa provided on Saturday the coup de grace, which in its fullest sense is "a merciful death blow to end the suffering of a severely wounded (in this case) team."

Lovie Smith's Illini appear hell-bent on leading the world in defensive ineptness as they permitted 63 points for the third time in eight games, this a 63-0 whitewashing by a fundamentally sound, but faltering Iowa squad that arrived on a three-game tailspin. The Illini have allowed a school record 383 points in a 2-6 Big Ten season.

UI fans left by the thousands Saturday after a 25-minute Iowa spree in which the visitors racked up 35 points while allowing one first down ... one first down by the (formerly) eighth-ranking ground attack in the nation. My post-halftime count was fewer than 300 fans in the horseshoe, fewer than 200 in the east upper deck and fewer than 75 in the student section (many left early for the Thanksgiving vacation).

This is a low point

It is difficult to imagine how Lovie will climb out of this quagmire.

How do you repair a shattered backbone?

How, after repeated embarrassments, do you get the team in a competitive mood for Northwestern, the Big Ten's West Division champions?

How do you inspire recruits after what they're witnessing on the field and in the stands (Illinois is last among Big Ten schools with 10 commitments)?

Iowa prevailed overwhelmingly in every phase, blocking a punt, returning a punt for a TD, and sending two exceptional tight ends — Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson — traipsing unnoticed through the Illini secondary for three scores. To top it off, coach Kirk Ferentz inserted a new QB and five reserve linemen, and they marched for two fourth-quarter TDs.

New faces all the time

The long-range picture, which seemed reasonably hopeful with all these sophomores, turned dark again.

Let's take one sector, the defensive backfield, Lovie's area of expertise.

In two seasons, an incredible 23 players have seen action, many of them given opportunities to start. The nine who have departed include 2017 senior Jaylen Dunlap and six who left with eligibility remaining, including Bennett Williams and Pat Nelson.

That leaves the current crop of Tony Adams, Stanley Green, Nate Hobbs, Cam Watkins, Dawson DeGroot, Michael Marchese, Christian Bobak, James Knight and former receiver Kendall Smith, plus freshmen Sydney Brown, Quan Martin, Delano Ward, Kerby Joseph, Dylan Wyatt and Ron Hardge.

Future doesn't look bright

Who can keep track of so many fellows wandering in and out? How can this unit develop any degree of cooperative efficiency? Has any team allowed more unguarded receivers?

To clarify, injuries and suspensions have complicated the problem ... Green, Martin and Brown didn't suit up Saturday and Watkins was helped off in the second quarter.

It must also be noted that the "deep" corps of UI running backs was reduced to Ra'Von Bonner (21 carries for 111 yards) when Reggie Corbin rejoined Dre Brown and Mike Epstein on the sidelines.

Yes, there are many reasons why this team is falling like a parachutist in a streamer. And we are left to wonder what Lovie is truly feeling ... about next Saturday and his future. After Saturday, the most confident person in the world would have doubts.

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

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