Sunday, October 28, 2012

Illini Hit Rock Bottom in Loss To Indiana

Homecoming. Every alumnus looks forward to the weekend, as it means reuniting with friends from college, spending time on a campus that you enjoyed some of the best years of your life on, pretending you're a college student again, and generally making a fool out of yourself at every turn. It's usually a blast, starting with the tailgate before the football game and continuing on through the day. When the football team is bad, though, the tailgating usually just turns into a party the rest of the day and the game  is ignored. This is the status of our program right now, as from the looks of it yesterday with a half-empty stadium, droves of alumni decided to continue tailgating rather than watch the nightmare that is Illinois football.

It's hard to even know where to start. With a 31-17 loss to Indiana, Illinois has officially hit rock bottom under new coach Tim Beckman. Let me repeat that for you - Illinois just got whipped by INDIANA. This is the same program that hadn't won a Big Ten game since 2010. The same team that has been a bench mark of terrible football in the Big Ten for what seems like decades. Coming into it, surely no one thought that a bad team like Illinois, who hadn't shown any fire, discipline, talent, or coaching all season, could even drop so far as to lose to Indiana. Right?!

Illinois football in a nutshell
Wrong. The new look Illinois team, that with turnovers, penalties, and a general lack of pride, enthusiasm, awareness, and discipline, is an embarrassment. They don't block well on the offensive line. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase can't throw a ball more than 30 yards without it wobbling like some wounded bird, and nearly every throw anyways is either made under a tremendous amount of pass rush pressure or is made not knowing what the result would be anyways. The running backs have no lanes to run through because of horrendous run blocking, but even when they do, they turn it over. There is no talent or depth at wide receiver, so all of Nate's throws head to Ryan Lankford, and world beater he is not. Illinois actually has talent at tight end, especially with Jon Davis, but we wouldn't know that as they are hardly figured into the game plan.

On defense, the defensive line can get to the quarterback sometimes, but they seem to either overshoot their angle or miss the tackle. The linebackers seem to be out of position if a passing play is called, and seemingly have no ability to defend running backs coming out of the backfield. And the secondary? They were shredded by Indiana yesterday, even though every starter in the defensive backfield is a veteran.

So where does the blame lie? Is the team really this untalented, or is the coaching bad as well? Well, considering there is a fair amount of talent on the team, or so everyone says, it has to be attributed to coaching in some regard. But really, for me, the source of the problem is a mix of truly horrendous coaching and equally horrendous talent evaluation and recruiting in the later years of Ron Zook's tenure.

Technically, Zook's final recruiting class was 2012, but only 5 recruits that committed while he was still coach eventually joined the class on national signing day. So we can look at evaluation starting with 2011 to truly get an idea of how underwhelming his final classes were. In 2011, Illinois had the 42nd ranked recruiting class. Zook brought in 28 recruits that year, and only one of them warranted 4 stars - Dondi Kirby, a kid that never even made it to campus because of grades issues. Other than Kirby, you only have one player, Jon Davis, who garnered much recruiting attention from other sources as well. And as you look at that list, there aren't any difference makers whatsoever. Maybe some of these players will blossom into effective players as they're still young, but at this point, the entire class looks like a bust.

Who is to blame for this mess?
In 2010, Illinois had the 70th ranked class in the country. This is the class that is hurting Illinois the most right now, because it shows the unreal lack of depth and talent that the program has at nearly every position. The lone 4 star recruit in that class, Chandler Whitmer, has transferred and currently plays for UConn. Jonathan Brown is a stud from that class, but nearly everyone else, even though they are technically in their third year of college, doesn't make a difference whatsoever. Finally, if you go back to 2009, where Illinois had the 35th ranked class in the country, it's clear that one major reason for a lack of success this year is a lack of talent and depth. That class was stocked with 4 star players, but the only ones that either stayed in school or developed into leaders/effective players were Terry Hawthorne, Nate Scheelhaase, Michael Buchanan, and Justin Green. That's it. Those guys are seniors, so imagine both where we would be without them, and where this program will eventually be without them. Zook left this program in shambles, without stocking the cupboard in any way that would resemble his recruiting reputation. This is what happens when you have a situation where Zook should have been fired years ago - no recruit would buy into Zook as coach when everyone and their mother could see he was captain of a sinking ship.

This isn't to exonerate the coaching staff, either. Beckman may be in over his head. His old program, Toledo, is now headed by his former offensive coordinator, Matt Campbell, and they are 8-1 so far this season. Toledo has a great offense and pretty solid defense, and most assuredly would come to Champaign and lay a whupping on the Illini if the two programs played. So is it possible that Illinois has stumbled into a similar situation as happened with Colorado when they hired away Dan Hawkins from Boise State? We just may have thought we were hiring the mind behind the resurgent Toledo program, when in reality that mind is staying behind in Toledo, just like Chris Petersen did with Boise.

It terrifies me that this team doesn't tackle well, commits stupid penalties nearly every game, turns the football over every game, doesn't adjust to the opponent whatsoever throughout a game, and runs vanilla schemes on both offense and defense. Even worse, the players look like they don't care. These are all hallmarks of bad coaching. Beckman came to Champaign with all his quirky quips about competition and whatnot, but right now it comes off as coaching cliches that feel all too pre-formulated. We have no idea how Beckman is going to respond when he gets his own players on the field, but it should say something about him as the coach that the players don't appear to have bought into anything he is doing or saying. And really, it doesn't matter how talented your team is - they don't need talent to play smart, physical, disciplined football.

I want to give Beckman his fair time. He came into a situation, outlined above, where he had no depth and minimal talent to work with. But there's something about this coaching staff, particularly Beckman, that reminds me too much of the early years of Ron Turner. They just seem outmatched in every game they play. How are we supposed to believe that the offense's schemes, headed up by Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales, will all of a sudden be effective or even in the least interesting to watch with better players? Are we really supposed to believe that Tim Banks' defense will stop getting gouged by every team they play if they had "better" talent? That's why it's hard to just pin it on the failures of Zook's recruiting. Something will have to change in the nature of Beckman's coaching for me to think that this is really going to change in coming years, because as it stands right now, Beckman has replaced Zook as captain of the Illinois sunken ship.