Saturday’s game becomes must win for program

Head+coach+Lovie+Smith+instructs+his+team+during+practice+on+Oct.+1.+After+two+losses+to+start+the+season%2C+the+Illini+are+counting+on+a+strong+performance+this+Saturday.

Photo Courtesy of Sam Anderson/Fighting Illini Athletics

Head coach Lovie Smith instructs his team during practice on Oct. 1. After two losses to start the season, the Illini are counting on a strong performance this Saturday.

By Carson Gourdie, Assistant Sports Editor

What does Nov. 9, 2019, mean to you? For the Illinois and Minnesota football programs, it meant success and excitement for the future. 

Illinois knocked off Michigan State in East Lansing, storming back from a 28-3 deficit to win 37-34. The signature win clinched head coach Lovie Smith his first bowl game, which provided assurance he was the man for the job at the time.

Minnesota, playing in front of a sold-out crowd, outplayed No. 4 Penn State, winning the game 31-26. Behind quarterback Tanner Morgan’s three touchdowns, Minnesota improved to 8-0 and became a serious college football playoff contender, and head coach P.J. Fleck was considered one of the best young coaches in the country. 

Both of these teams returned top players and were each prepared to make 2020 their best seasons in recent memory.

Flash forward to November 2020: Both teams are 0-2, and since Nov. 9, the Illini are 0-5 and the Golden Gophers are 2-4. After this week’s game in Champaign, someone is going to be 0-3, and their program’s trajectory will go down with them.

“It’s a game we need to win,” Lovie said. “We’re going to do everything possible to win.”

While Illinois wasn’t considered a contender in the Big Ten West division, Minnesota was. Starting the season ranked No. 21, back-to-back losses to Michigan and Maryland ended their Indianapolis hopes almost immediately.  

But how can these two programs turn their seasons around? Well, playing defense would be a good start. Illinois has given up 76 points already, while Minnesota has surrendered 94. 

“If you look at what they’ve done offensively both games, they really played really good offense,” Lovie said. “Haven’t played as well defensively, but offensively continue to move the ball on everyone.”

No matter how well Morgan can sling the ball, giving up 45 points to a Maryland team, who scored a mere field goal against Northwestern, is unacceptable. Slowly but surely, Minnesota’s lack of defense is wasting the offensive talent Fleck has collected.

But as the old phrase goes, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” and the Illini have an opportunity to be productive, despite having to start a fourth-string quarterback. 

While the Illini suffered a big blow last Saturday when it was reported senior quarterback Brandon Peters will be out for 21 days due to COVID-19, sophomore quarterback Coran Taylor stepped up big, finishing with over 300 total yards of offense and a couple of scores. 

“I’m super proud of his preparation,” said offensive coordinator Rod Smith. “I’m super proud of him right now. We just got to continue to keep working throughout the week and get him prepared.” 

The confident Taylor is ready to lead his team again, but turnovers were his undoing last week. Three of his turnovers led to 21 Boilermaker points. 

“I think we just need to hone in on the decision-making,” Rod said. “Hone in and make sure his eye discipline is correct, his eyes and his thoughts and his decisions are in the right area where it needs to be.”

While fourth-strings don’t usually have to worry about playing time, Taylor’s situation is unique. He has been tasked to save a season — and a program. 

Going into the year, this was considered to be Lovie’s most talented team yet. Fans believed they could clinch back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 2011. A loss this Saturday, though, would lead the Illini to a 0-3 start and all but end bowl hopes with a challenging schedule still on deck. 

Of course, Peters is out. But what’s the excuse with the defense? Graham Mertz and Aidan O’Connell completed 49 out of 56 passes against Lovie’s defense. While the defense improved during the Purdue game, they came up short when they needed a stop the most.

While Minnesota is disappointed, Fleck is going nowhere. The title of being an annual Big Ten contender will just have to wait another season. But if Year 5 of the Lovie Smith project isn’t successful, when will it ever be? The team is set to lose a good amount of talent next season, and recruiting under the former Chicago Bears head coach has been less than stellar. 

Last season, Lovie’s seat was steaming. Then he knocked off Wisconsin, sparking the most exciting stretch of Illinois football since 2007. This Saturday, he’ll have a chance to recreate that magic.  

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