CHAMPAIGN — Now’s as good a time as any for Illinois football to enter the first of two bye weeks on its schedule. Not that the Illini had any say in when they’d have an open date on the calendar. Or that they’d be 2-2 coming off consecutive home losses.
But that’s what Lovie Smith and Co. face following Saturday night’s 42-38 loss to Nebraska in the Big Ten opener for both teams. Losing the nonconference finale to Eastern Michigan was bad enough. Dropping a winnable game against the Cornhuskers — one that could have been a signature win in the Smith era in front of a season-best crowd of 44,512 no less — doubled down on the disappointment.
“We’ve just got to soak in defeat a little bit,” Illinois redshirt senior running back Reggie Corbin said. “We’ve got a bye week, which we definitely need, and then we’ve just got to fix everything.”
Don’t expect any major changes from the Illini in the next two weeks before they jump back into Big Ten play on Oct. 5 at Minnesota. That’s not Smith’s style. His bye week plan is centered around getting the team healthy and then simply continuing the evaluations that have been ongoing since training camp started.
“We’ll evaluate what we’ve done the first four games and what we need to do going forward,” Smith said. “Wholesale changes? No. We’re constantly evaluating. You don’t just get to a bye week and start evaluating. We’re evaluating throughout.”
Those ongoing evaluations have Smith adamant that his team — that his defense in particular — is better than it’s been in previous years and has Illinois in a better position to win. Four forced fumbles and recoveries Saturday against Nebraska does illustrate that. Giving up 690 total yards to the Cornhuskers leading to 28 second-half points that fueled their comeback really doesn’t.
“Our team is better,” Smith said. “We’re better defensively. Tonight we weren’t as good as we need to be. If you look at what happened in the game, we had an opportunity to win if we had converted the last drive. That’s the story of the game.
“When I say we’ve gotten better — we’re a better football team — we are. When you have an opportunity to win the game, last drive, all isn’t lost.”
That last drive, though? It was lost. Four incompletions — three by Brandon Peters and one by Matt Robinson after Peters was required to come off the field for his helmet coming off — illustrated a nightlong struggle in the passing game. Illinois rushed for 221 yards with Corbin leading the way with 134, but Peters was just 9 of 21 for 78 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
“We hadn’t passed the ball well all night,” Smith said. “To think that it all of a sudden would turn out that way at the end, normally it doesn’t happen like that. That was part of our problem throughout. We weren’t able to get anything going with our passing game.”
Nebraska didn’t have such problems. Sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez passed for 327 yards, and the Cornhuskers rushed for 363 more as a team to get to 690 total for the game. Missed assignments and missed tackles by the Illinois defense didn’t help.
“We’ve got to wrap up tackles,” Illinois junior safety Tony Adams said. “We’ve got to try to get that ball out every time we can. When we get somebody down, we’ve got to put our foot on their throat. We’ve got to finish.
“I believe in everything Coach Smith is teaching, and I think there’s a lot of guys that believe it, too. We’ve just got to be more disciplined. We were off our landmarks. We were missing tackles. It’s just the little things.”
Just add those to the list of what needs to be worked on in the next two weeks. The consecutive losses to Eastern Michigan and Nebraska have that looking like a lengthy list to get through before facing Minnesota.
“We’ve got to dig deep, man, and look for who we want to be,” said Illinois junior wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe, who caught a 26-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter. That play, Corbin’s 66-yard touchdown run on the opening drive and Dre Brown’s 36-yard touchdown run accounted for 128 of the Illini’s 299 yards of total offense. That means the other 58 plays generated just 171 yards.
“The season isn’t over,” Imatorbhebhe continued. “It’s just barely started, and we have a lot of football left to play. I feel like this will be a very good reflective week for us to really collect and figure out how we want to finish the rest of the season. I feel like we’re close and ready for a breakthrough. I really do.”