When fading out the old guys goes too far


Quentin Shaw

Illinois head coach Lovie Smith stands on the sidelines during the game against Western Kentucky University on Sept. 9.

By Cole Henke, Sports editor

When Kendrick Foster got benched earlier this season, I was surprised.

The team MVP from last season not getting a single touch after the first couple of games of the season? It was weird, but I ultimately accepted it because freshman Mike Epstein was playing so well. Head coach Lovie Smith was planning for the future, and unfortunately, Foster fell victim to that.

But when the Illinois defense took the field against Rutgers for the first time on Saturday and linebacker Tré Watson wasn’t out there with them, I couldn’t believe it. It didn’t make sense.

He is the leader of this defense, and Smith and defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson weren’t going to have him out there in what was the last game the Illini were favored in all year.

Watson finally entered the game at the very end of the first quarter, which meant that it wasn’t some sort of one-quarter suspension either.

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    After the game, Smith said that he is going to play whoever he feels will give him the best chance to win, and if somebody isn’t playing, it is because they have not been playing to the standards that the Illini coaches set.

    Obviously, I am not on the practice field with the team, but I can’t fathom a situation where Watson had been playing badly enough to not play in this game.

    Watson needs to be on the field for this defense to be successful, and it isn’t just because of his play. He is the one that leads the team out of the tunnel. He is the one that gets the team fired up.

    His teammates have nothing but the utmost respect for this guy. He is an undisputed leader on this team. It doesn’t matter if a guy like him isn’t at the peak of his game; he is out there for his leadership as much as he is for his play.

    The Illini defense started out well, forcing a fumble, but after that, they were flat. Rutgers constantly mowed Illinois over with its ground game. The Illini honestly looked uninspired, and I can’t help but think that the main reason for that is because Watson wasn’t on the field.

    When Watson came in at the end of the first quarter, it was too late. Rutgers’ running game was already very established. The Illini were only down four, but the whole feel of the game was off.

    Again, maybe something happened at practice to cause Smith to not want Watson on the field. If it was a disciplinary decision, then the blame falls on Watson, but if it was really just because the coaches believed he wasn’t playing well enough, then I truly don’t understand.

    In order to win games, you need to play your best players, and for the first time all season, I could not find any reasoning that made sense behind the coaching staff’s decisions.

    I understand sitting a player to send a message, but there is a time and place for that, and it was not this game.

    During his postgame press conference, Smith said that the Illini needed to improve in every single facet of their game, including coaching. Smith is never one to shift blame. If he messes up, he will be the first to tell you that he did, and that is definitely something to be admired. No coach can make the perfect call every time, and if they have sound reasoning behind their decisions, then you can’t ask for more.

    But the reasoning behind this move was not strong enough.

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