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Northwestern-Illinois preview: Three things to know about Illinois

It’s been a really tough season in Champaign.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Ohio State Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

It’s HAT week! While we could make this week an endless stream of headgear-related information, HAT week also entails a football game.

1. Quarterback is merely a hypothetical construct.

There are many reasons that Illinois has 2-9 record, but nonexistent quarterback play is chief among them. This season, Illinois quarterbacks are averaging 6.36 yards per attempt with an 8:17 TD-to-INT ratio. That’s very bad. There’s absolutely nothing behind center right now. Freshman Cam Thomas looked capable of being somewhat average against Purdue, but a concussion knocked him out of the last two games. Thus, Illinois is left with the familiar timeshare of Jeff George Jr. and Chayce Crouch, who just cannot do anything on offense. We shall see if Thomas is healthy to start, but you’d figure Northwestern’s defense is going to pick George and Crouch apart. Offensive injuries have also taken away many of Illinois’ offensive starters over the course of the season.

The offensive line also doesn’t seem to believe that Illinois has a quarterback, seeing as the unit has given up 38 sacks in 11 games. The Fighting Illini rank 121st in adjusted sack rate. That’s very bad for a power conference team.

2. Illinois is very inexperienced.

The striking part of Illinois’ defense is that there are almost no seniors currently playing. The last remnants of the Beckman classes are mostly missing. None of the top 12 tacklers on Illinois’ defense are seniors. There’s a freshman punter and two freshman wide receivers who have gotten significant action in Ricky Smalling and Louis Dorsey. Illinois has had 79 freshman starts this year. The only veteran leadership is from wide receiver Malik Turner, who is way too talented to be on a 2-10 team and was a very nice guy when I talked to him at Big Ten Media Days. (He also really wanted to beat Northwestern.)

3. Things have to get better, right?

Illinois is one of the three worst Power 5 teams in college football alongside Kansas and Oregon State. However, unlike those programs, Illinois has a stable future at head coach and has mostly avoided drama and internal chaos this season. That’s good, considering where Illinois is coming from. But, after two rather surprising wins to begin the season, this year has been torturous, so bad that you almost feel bad for what’s going on in Champaign. Bill Cubit’s 2016 class was in MAC territory, and it’s showing.

The schedule wasn’t that awful this year, with games against Rutgers and the entire Big Ten West. Illinois hasn’t even been competitive. Ironically, the best game it played was against Wisconsin, and that was still a 14-point loss (Indiana was a close second, and Illinois still lost by double digits). Illinois has had 24 turnovers this year, and they’ve also recovered 6-of-23 fumbles. This is one of the many reasons Illinois is lukcy to be 2-9 rather than 0-12. The Illini are averaging 16.2 points per game. It’s unwatchable.

I have no idea how a relatively decent football program falls apart like this! It makes no sense for Illinois to reach Kansas or Purdue (with Hazell) levels of ineptitude. Remember, this is Year 2 for Lovie Smith. There are zero signs of improvement. Either the end of the Beckman era or the Cubit experiment was a cataclysmic error that will take Lovie Smith 3-5 years to recover from, or Illinois’ future is a dark abyss. Maybe that recovery starts this weekend with an unlikely win over Northwestern. Dumber Northwestern sports things have happened. We don’t know. But if what occurred in 2017 becomes the norm for Illinois, it won’t be fun, in the long-term.

Haha, what am I talking about? It’ll still be somewhat fun.

But this game would still be more fun if the stakes were a bit higher.