In his 31st year on the Illinois football beat, AP Top 25 voter Bob Asmussen is on call 24/7. Submit your questions BY CLICKING HERE and he’ll chase down answers.
CHAMPAIGN — Despite an offseason of build up and two weeks of convincing, not much has changed for Illinois football.
It remains the team that hasn’t started 3-0 in eight years. It is still the school that loses home games to underdogs from outside the Power 5. It is the program that won’t be on the radar of Top 25 voters for the rest of the season.
The latest letdown came Saturday at home during a 34-31 loss against Eastern Michigan. On a perfect afternoon at a building filled to 57 percent capacity (columnists can do math), the Illini sucked the fans in, then sent them away mumbling. And wondering if they will be back again.
Illinois hasn’t played acceptable pass defense since Tim Beckman, in an act that questioned his judgment, let Vic Koenning slip away.
There was plenty of headshaking in the postgame press conference. Starting with the head coach.
“Disappointing game,” fourth-year Illinois leader Lovie Smith said. “We knew we were playing a good football team coming in. We knew we needed to play better football than we had played the previous week.”
On Friday at the Illini Quarterback Club luncheon, Smith talked about wanting his team to get to 3-0. And he was asked about it throughout the week.
“There was a lot at stake (Saturday),” Smith said. “I thought we would play a lot better than we did.”
A few positives stood out. Like the return of tailback Reggie Corbin after he missed the win at UConn. And the continued fine play of receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe.
“Reggie Corbin rushed for a lot of yards,” Smith said. “Josh caught a lot of passes, as did Daniel Barker.”
But the yards don’t matter. The statistics don’t matter. The loss matters.
Eastern Michigan was a bowl team in 2018 and is a contender to win the MAC. But the Eagles shouldn’t have been able to come into the college home of Dick Butkus and pile up 480 yards against a Big Ten program.
“We should feel bad (Saturday), and we will,” Smith said. “We’ll correct those things and get ready for next week.”
Yes, the defense was shaky. Turnovers were an even bigger problem.
The Illini had just two. A fumble and an interception. But in a three-point game settled in the final second, two is way too many.
Our beat writer breaks down the need-to-knows and hands out grades after Illinois home loss to Eastern Michigan on Saturday.
“Turnovers really hurt us,” Smith said. “Penalties maybe even hurt us even more.”
Oh yeah, the penalties.
Thanks for the reminder, coach. The Bad News Illini were whistled nine times for 80 yards. The Eagles were much better behaved, getting called twice for 20 yards.
We know the coaches are telling the players not to foul. So, where is the disconnect?
“We work on it and haven’t gotten the point across enough,” Smith said. “There is a lot of holding that goes on. We’ve got to do a better job.”
There, in part, is your ballgame.
So was the play of Eastern Michigan quarterback Mike Glass III, who outperformed Illini starter Brandon Peters.
Glass threw for 316 yards and three scores and ran for another 37 yards.
“Their quarterback played outstanding ball,” Smith said. “We shouldn’t give up big plays like that.”
Peters, who had seven TD passes in the first two games, threw two more against the Eagles. But he had two turnovers and was sacked six times.
“He played the way I coached, the way most of us played (Saturday): not good enough,” Smith said.
Smith didn’t see it coming. The team practiced well during the week, he said. The players appeared to be ready.
“These things happen,” Smith said.
Going into the season, I expected Illinois to open 3-0. I believe the term I used was “easily.”
As is often the case (ask at my house), I was wrong.
The 2-1 record isn’t good. It looks worse when you consider what’s ahead.
Illinois opens Big Ten play next Saturday night at Memorial Stadium when Nebraska visits. The Cornhuskers will likely bring a few thousand fans. At least.
Nebraska lost a disappointing game last Saturday at Colorado. The fans out west are counting on another win in Champaign. Just like the one they picked up two years ago in the middle of a dreadful 4-8 season.
Nebraska is the least of Illinois’ worries, though. The final eight games include seven against 2018 bowl teams.
One, Michigan, is hoping to compete for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Wisconsin appears to have bounced back from last season’s slip. Iowa is one of the top contenders in the Big Ten West and Northwestern always plays well at the end of the season.
The 2-1 record can quickly turn into 2-6. Fortunately for Illinois, hapless Rutgers visits Champaign on Nov. 2. Any way that game can be moved up to the open week on Sept. 28?
The list of impressive wins during Smith’s three-plus seasons is short. Eastern Michigan would have qualified. Barely. Instead, Smith now carries an 11-28 record during his tenure with the Illini.
Nine more opportunities are there for Illinois to bounce back. To convince its fans, its alums and its students that it can make changes. In a positive way.
Saturday felt like a miss. The kind that past Illinois teams allowed to turn into a pattern.
Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at email@example.com.