Rutgers_Illinois_Football_5972

Illinois head coach Lovie Smith applauds the marching band after his team's 38-10 win over Rutgers after an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Champaign, Ill. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)Illinois head coach Lovie Smith applauds the marching band after his team's 38-10 win over Rutgers after an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Champaign, Ill. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Listen to this article

It’s hard to climb aboard Josh Whitman’s “We Will Win” slogan when consumed by the withering rays of the 29-10 home football loss to Northwestern and the 63-56 Braggin’ Rights collapse against Missouri.

Outrushed 378-14 on one hand, and mixing 17 turnovers with four assists on the other, they amount to fundamental catastrophes.

And these are the games you HAVE TO win ... that is, if you want to avoid an unruly fan base.

So there isn’t a rush of optimism for Redbox Bowl success against 7-5 Cal on Monday afternoon. Illinois football hasn’t had much luck against anybody west of here, beginning with Iowa and Nebraska (2-17 against those two programs since 2001) ... although interim coach Vic Koenning provided a bright moment with a 20-14 bowl win over UCLA in 2011.

Mike White, who won conference championships at Cal and Illinois, never defeated a California team in five tries with the Illini. His successor, John Mackovic, upset Southern Cal 14-13 in his only outing against a California team (he was headed for Texas when Illinois lost to UCLA, 6-3, at the John Hancock Bowl on Dec. 31, 1991).

Since Illinois ripped Cal 44-17 in 2001, the UI record against California teams is 1-8, not counting mostly misadventures against teams from the states of Washington and Arizona.

This Cal team won seven of eight games in which quarterback Chase Garbers was healthy. Illinois, meanwhile, should get a boost with the return of quarterback Brandon Peters (from a concussion).

An upset win by the Illini on Monday would end a streak of seven sub-.500 seasons for the program.

Tate’s tidbits

— No state in the union has tumbled in prep football production like Illinois. The 14 Big Ten schools, plus Notre Dame, have thus far signed just 14 Illinois products for 2020. After Iowa’s five and Northwestern’s four, there are just a few other Illinoisans sprinkled around ... this meager offering from the second-largest state in the Big Ten footprint, barely trailing Pennsylvania and a full million denizens ahead of Ohio. Imagine: Just 14 Illinoisans of the 304 signees.

— As you can see, the 14 Big Ten programs and Notre Dame are averaging about 20 newcomers this month, with Illinois far behind at 12. Ohio State, which plays here next November, has three new five-star signees and a dozen four-stars, according to Rivals, while Penn State (13), Michigan (12) and Nebraska (10) are next in attracting four-stars. Both Illini four-star recruits, halfback Reggie Love and receiver James Frenchie of St. Louis Trinity Catholic, were injured and unable to perform during extensive stretches last fall.

— Limited by the 85-man limit due to 30-plus upcoming seniors, coach Lovie Smith left open slots for the giant transfer market, but it’ll be hard to gain long-term on the Wisconsins, Nebraskas and Iowas that way, and it’s unlikely he’ll be as fortunate as he was this past year.

More tidbits

— When the final minutes of the Rose Bowl tick off this upcoming Wednesday, collegiate sports’ most intellectual and powerful leader will move into retirement.

For three decades, Jim Delany led the Big Ten through an enormous expansion and financial-growth period without allowing the near-professional status of football and basketball to overflow. It is now the task of Kevin Warren to provide leadership on the sticky issues of transfer and pay-for-play.

— Best line on the struggling Chicago Bears: “Watching this offense is like watching a man try to run a mile with an asthma attack.”

— San Diego State, rated No. 1 this week in the new Net basketball system, is coached by Brian Dutcher, a graduate assistant for Lou Henson at Illinois in the mid-1980s. He assisted Steve Fisher in bringing the Fab Five to Michigan, and was a long-time “coach in waiting” under Fisher. Supposed Mountain West rival New Mexico just suspended two squadmen including Kansas transfer Carlton Bragg, a former Illini recruiting target.

— Back to Missouri. In celebrating a second straight defeat of Illinois, the Tigers uplifted a dismal mindset that has seen a dramatic dropoff of basketball attendance, a deep-in-red budget stemming from NCAA sanctions (6-6 but no bowl game), the second-lowest football income in the SEC and the costly firing of the Barry Odom staff.

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