Once again it is December and the Illinois Fighting Illini football team is at home resting without a bowl game to prepare for. Such is the case for a team that went 4-8.
It was the third straight year that Lovie Smith’s team didn’t make a bowl game and the fourth season in a row overall without a bowl game.
But, that didn’t deter AD Josh Whitman from investing more in Smith’s future. After the season finale, Whitman announced a two-year extension to Smith’s contract.
So, how did Whitman get to that decision without being laughed out of the room? What was the good, the bad and the ugly?
Let’s look back at the season that was.
Hiring Rod Smith as offensive coordinator was a good, if not great move by Smith. His offense fit the players who were in the system like a glove and the offense sprung on to the scene as a dangerous group for opponents to worry about.
Illinois’ scoring averaged just 11 points, they were second in the Big Ten in rushing yards behind only Wisconsin and senior quarterback A.J. Bush finally showcased what many thought he would out of high school.
Junior running back Reggie Corbin was scary good this season, averaging 90.4 yards per game and rushing for over 1,000 yards on the season. Add in Mike Epstein’s 411 yards in just 7 games and Bush’s 733 yards and 8 touchdowns on the ground and you have a blueprint for future success for Smith’s offense.
Of course, Bush leaving after this season will change things a bit, but the overall blueprint was successful in its first year and that can really help transform a program.
For all the success the offense had on the stat sheet, one piece of news wasn’t good and that was Illinois inability to extend drives consistently on offense.
The Illini ranked 12th in the Big Ten in third down conversion rate. On the season they converted at just a 34.5 percent rate.
Amazingly, it is the best mark of any team under Lovie Smith, but still far below an acceptable rate if you want to win more football games than you lose.
Given Illinois overall offensive improvement this may seem like nitpicking, but this is the next step this team needs to take on the field to be even more successful and to help that defense.
How do you make the massive offensive jump Illinois did and still miss a bowl game? You have one of the worst defenses in the country, that’s how.
Illinois gave up an average of 39.4 points per game, which was dead last in the Big Ten and 124th out of 130 in the country. Further down the numbers showed a defense that was last in the B1G in rushing, total defense (508.3) and 13th in passing defense.
It was brutal watching this defense in 2018, so much so that Hardy Nickerson decided to resign for health reasons after allowing 63 points and 465 yards rushing in a 30-point loss to Maryland.
The defense gave up 30-plus points in seven of 12 games on the year, leading to losses in six of those games.
Smith took over the play calling for this defense after Nickerson’s departure, but things didn’t get much better. That indicates there’s a problem with the scheme, the players being recruited or both.
Clearly this offseason must be focused on finding a coach and set of players ready to step up to the plate. After all, it will be year three in the defense for a lot of players who got major reps in 2017, let alone this past season.
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