One thing the Illinois coaching staff seemed sure of entering the season was that Chayce Crouch was their answer at quarterback.
Three games later and it seems the coaching staff was dead wrong. Crouch was wildly ineffective in Illinois blowout 47-23 loss to South Florida.
Illinois loss also meant a decade-long losing streak in non-conference play lived for another year.
The junior signal caller was just 8 of 18 for 76 yards through the air and added just 10 yards on five carries on the ground. That all happened in the first half, because he was pulled during intermission after that performance.
It wasn’t just this game either. Crouch is just 24 of 44 for 252 yards and one touchdown to two interceptions on the season. Something needed to change, and change it did on Friday night.
Crouch could never get going in the pass game and Illinois had no chance by the time the coaching staff went another direction at halftime.
“We needed a spark, simple as that,” Smith said following the game. “When you get in a position where you have to pass, you go with the guy who has a good arm and maybe is the best passer of the group. That was the reason.”
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Jeff George Jr. came on at the half and sparked some life in the Illini offense. He finished just 12 of 22 passing, but put up 211 yards and a touchdown — a 21-yards pass to running back Mike Epstein.
The dichotomy was striking to say the least, and one has to wonder if we haven’t seen the changing of the guard for an offense in need of a spark outside of Mike and Mike — Mike Dudek and Mike Epstein.
Not only did Crouch hurt the offense, he killed the defense by not being able to sustain drives.
Illinois’ defense was simply beaten up and worn down by the time the middle of the third quarter rolled around. The numbers certainly reflect that, as South Florida ran the ball a staggering 66 times for 376 yards and two touchdowns as a team.
Thee Bulls topped the 100-yard mark, led by quarterback Quinton Flowers.
He was no slouch in the pass game either, putting up an efficient 15 of 27 for 280 yards and four touchdowns to one interception passing. He added in another 106 yards to lead the team in rushing.
But, the bigger issue was Illinois having zero ability to keep the offense on the field and give the defense a rest. South Florida held the ball for 38:21 of the game and never had a quarter where it held the ball for under nine minutes.
Illinois’ coaching staff can point to growing pains, starting a record 10 true freshmen and all, but this was a flat-out butt-kicking and Smith was not making excuses regarding the massive amount of true freshmen in the mix.
He’d be right in some respects, as some of those true freshman showed mettle in this game.
Wide Receiver Ricky Smalling set a true freshman record with a 76-yard reception down to the 1-yard line and Mike Epstein continued to give his level best. But, those were small highlight moments in an underwhelming contest overall.
George did something Crouch couldn’t do on a large scale — get the potential game changers the football in dangerous positions.
With 10 true freshman starting, growing pains can be expected of this team. But, growing pains should be over for Crouch.
Friday night’s loss proved that they were not over for Crouch and the coaching staff has plenty to think about going forward.
Did George prove enough in what was essentially mop up duty during the second half? Or will the coaching staff give Crouch a fourth opportunity to prove he can lead a quality offensive effort?
Illinois has a bye week coming up next week, which means it is a perfect time to evaluate which direction it wants to take for the offense in 2017 and beyond.
“We’re just looking at what happened tonight,” Smith said. “You make decisions based on what you think gives you the best chance to have success in this game. With the bye week coming up, we’ll evaluate everything, which was the plan anyway.”
You can bet a large part of that evaluation will be over what happens with the direction of the offense. Either way, it is time for the coaching staff to make said decision and stick with it, because playing yo-yo at quarterback is not going to help this team or either quarterback long-term.
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