I've seen IU finish 0-8 in the Big Ten, blow big leads, lose to a I-AA team, and go 14 years between bowl appearances, but I don't think I have ever been as discouraged,as I was during and after Saturday's game against Illinois. The Illini are a better team than IU and certainly played better, but this was a disappointing performance in too many ways to count.
The vaunted IU offense appears to be a fraud. For all of the gaudy statistics accumulated against non-conference foes and Michigan's FCS-caliber defense, the offense has completely crumpled against the two real defenses it has faced. Over the last couple of seasons, IU's offensive line has done pass protection reasonably well. Not yesterday. Ben Chappell was under duress for most of the day and he handled it very, very poorly. Chappell threw for 279 yards, but completed only 26 of 48 passes and threw 3 interceptions and several other horrible passes. Illinois got pressure with three linemen pretty consistently, which exacerbated Chappell's ability to find open receivers. He threw a couple of other balls directly to Illinois defenders, and Dusty Kiel added a pick-six when Chappell was on the bench with injury. What's disappointing is that the defense wasn't half bad. The Illini punted five times, and two of their touchdowns were directly off turnovers. Twenty more Illinois points came on short fields created by turnovers or poor kick coverage (again).
The number of head-scratchers is increasing by the week. Last year, IU struggled in the red zone, and while that seemed to be getting better, that may have been nothing but a function of the competition. IU's red zone playcalling has become ridiculously predictable. Once last week and twice last week, IU has fruitlessly run up the middle on first and second downs and then failed to convert a pass on third down. I know very little about scheme, and perhaps the Illini defense was begging IU to run, but it seems to me that play action on an early down would be really effective with IU's receiving weapons. And note to IU offensive coordinator Matt Canada: if it's enough of a pattern that a dunce like me can pick up on it, rest assured that Big Ten coaches have caught on--even Ron Zook.
I hate to turn this post into a Festivus morning airing of grievances, but...well, no, I don't hate it at all. The lowlights:
- The IU offense struggled horribly on its first two possessions, managing only five yards and throwing an interception that could have been yet another pick six. On the third drive, IU finally began to move the ball, but after a 30 yard completion to Terrance Turner, IU yanked Chappell and ran some wildcat nonsense with Dusty Kiel. IU did score a TD on the drive, but it made little sense to disrupt Chappell after he finally found something that worked.
- The fundamentals on specials teams were atrocious. It's bad enough that over the last two games, IU has been spotting opponents huge gains on kickoff returns. Today, IU allowed punt blocks on two consecutive punts, and even from the supposed safe formation. Add those horrid breakdowns to the kick return that Duwyce Wilson caught and ran out of bounds with instead of letting it go out of bounds, and special teams were a disaster.
- IU punted on fourth and two with a 16-point deficit halfway through the fourth quarter. Entirely predictably, Illinois scored a touchdown on the next drive and ended it.
- As noted in the last point, IU essentially surrendered when the score was 29-13 with 8:30 left. Based on that, it really makes sense that when IU got the ball back, down 36-13 with 3:54 left, they had Ben Chappell throwing the ball and taking hits. He got dinged up (no word yet on his condition) and Dusty Kiel threw the pick six that was the final insult.
This was a discouraging performance against a decent but far-from-great team. It was one of IU's most winnable games. The Hoosiers' entire season now turns on the game against Northwestern next week. I'm not optimistic.