CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Jake Hansen walked off the field at Scott Stadium and toward the tunnel back to the visiting locker room shaking his head.
Hansen’s wasn’t the only somber face among the Illinois football team’s travel party. The sixth-year linebacker’s look of frustration was shared by his teammates, several Illini coaches and innumerable staff members.
An obvious answer for the frustration spilled over into the end of the game, with multiple unsportsmanlike conduct penalties on the Illini as Virginia finished off an impressive 42-14 win. A second straight game forced into playing from behind early because of defensive mistakes.
A second straight loss. And a complete erasure of any momentum from a Week 0 win against Nebraska.
Hansen was honest after Saturday’s game. The team captain said he didn’t have a good answer for why Illinois has slipped into old habits — on Saturday that meant multiple defensive lapses and too many penalties — after starting the season on such a high note by beating Nebraska 30-22.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Hansen said. “It’s a fair question. We’ve just got to be better overall as a team. ... It’s really frustrating. We’ve just got to execute on both sides of the ball.
“We’re beating ourselves on a lot of things — a lot of penalties. A lot of nonsense we can’t do. It comes down to preparation in practice and being a smarter team and being better in those situations.”
Illinois (1-2) put itself in an early hole again Saturday against Virginia (2-0). The Cavaliers’ first scoring drive covered 75 yards on four plays in just 1 minute, 16 seconds. The second was almost a mirror image — four plays for 80 yards in 1:37.
It added up to a 14-0 lead for the Cavaliers before five full minutes had passed in the first quarter as Virginia students were still nestling into their spots on a hill beyond one of the end zones.
Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong simply eviscerated the Illinois secondary on those drives. Two 30-yard completions to tight end Jelani Woods, including a 32-yard touchdown, on the first drive. Then two more big plays through the air on the second, including a 28-yard strike to Dontayvion Wicks for another score.
“We’ve really got to address the failure to execute our basic game plan early on,” Illinois coach Bret Bielema said. “I knew they were going to do a couple formations and a couple adjustments. That’s why we wanted to keep it simple and make our guys keep the ball in front of them. That’s not what we did, obviously, in the back end.”
Hansen labeled Illinois’ early defensive mistakes as execution errors. Virginia utilized multiple formations and the occasional gadget play with quarterback/wide receiver Keytaon Thompson, who is labeled as a “football player” on the Cavaliers’ roster.
“They do a lot of window dressing, and clearly it gave us some issues with the motion and stuff like that,” Hansen said. “It’s communication and working through things like that.”
Armstrong wasn’t just a problem in the first quarter. It continued all game long. The Virginia quarterback wrapped his day in the fourth quarter having completed 27 of 36 passes for 405 yards, five touchdowns and one interception. That included 11 “big plays” in the passing game of at least 15 yards that accounted for 301 of Armstrong’s 405 total yards.
“The size of the chunks that are happening are increasing in the number of targets,” Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said, noting Woods and Wicks were just two downfield threats. “It just starts to build. It’s hard to narrow down on four different or five different threats, and with a quarterback that’s making good decisions and fast decisions, throwing accurately, that’s leading to points.”
Giving up big plays wasn’t Illinois’ only issue, though. The Illini offense stagnated at times, and a season-high eight penalties for 90 yards, including multiple unsportsmanlike flags, was “unacceptable,” according to Bielema.
“I look at where we were that first game — we had (three) penalties,” Bielema said. “We might have had four penalties on one drive this time. It’s not so much what happens. It’s how you react to what happens. ... It’s hard enough to beat an opponent. We can’t beat our opponent and ourselves.”
Even after that Week 0 win against Nebraska, reshaping the Illinois football program is clearly still a work in progress for Bielema and Co. The last two weeks have been part of the learning process. A not so enjoyable part, but part of it nonetheless.
“The one thing you can’t do is you can’t coach confidence,” Bielema said. “A kid has to feel that. It’s a very hard thing. You can say things and do things and try to build it up, but until they’ve actually done it — until they’ve executed it in a big-time environment — they tend to flinch and go back to things they’ve reverted to.
“The No. 1 driving force for our coaches is to put it in (the players’) hands — offensively, defensively and special teams. You give them a plan, you give them the execution and give them the fundamentals and coach them. They have to feel it. They have to be able to understand, ‘This is when it happens. When I do this, this is the result.’ Until they go through that and until they feel that, it’s more just something we’re chasing.”
Illinois’ veteran players understand that concept. Have bought into it since Bielema was hired last December. Making it happen, though, the last two weeks is the missing step.
“To be a successful team, you have to be a player-led team,” Illini defensive lineman Jamal Woods said. “We’re the ones on the field. You’ve got to have trust in the 11 guys on the field. The coaches, they can call the plays, but it’s up to us to do the right things on the field. (Sunday) we’re all going to go in, study film and learn from our mistakes.”