CHAMPAIGN – After losing eight games in a row, there’s no question disappointment has a foothold in the Illini football locker room.
Losing hurts. Losing eight in a row really stings. And it’s no fun to be known as the program that has now lost 23 of its last 29 games.
But players, veterans and freshmen alike , say disappointment is not the same as despair. And the push to improve and keep fighting is a goal that continues to unite the team.
Several players known for offering an honest appraisal of the team’s state of affairs let it know that the feeling of disappointment runs deep after the most recent game, a 24-14 loss to Indiana.
“I wouldn’t say it goes to anger, to the point of lashing out,” said Tre Watson, the junior linebacker. “But certainly everyone is frustrated, from the top down.
“Guys need to be able to make plays, not 40 out of 80 plays. If you are on the football field you have a job and everyone is relying on you to make a play. If you don’t, you’re costing your team and you’re a liability. That’s how you win. By making more plays than your opponent.”
Running back Kendrick Foster said the losing week after week is a tough way to finish his career.
“You’re definitely frustrated being a senior,” he said. “I’ve been through coaching changes, I’ve had five different running backs coaches and it’s frustrating to be sure. You have to persevere and have faith and keep pushing and don’t let the younger guys see you throw in the towel. You have to be the best example you can.
“The thing is, I really think this program will be amazing in the next couple of years. They have a great staff. But we’re in an unfortunate situation right now. We’re in a tough spot.”
Junior Nick Allegretti is the only upperclassman among the five starting offensive linemen. Tackles Larry Boyd and Vederian Lowe and guard Alex Palczewski are true freshmen. Center Doug Kramer is a redshirt freshman.
Allegretti tries not to let his personal frustration affect the encouragement he tries to give to freshmen he sees making progress. He serves as a kind of den mother to them, making sure they can deal with the current string of defeats.
“The freshmen have done a great job,” he said. “We didn’t protect well enough (against Indiana) but I do appreciate their work. They are developing, especially mentally, and they are starting to see some things, which is impressive for how young they are.
“Obviously, I talk to them quite a bit. Most of these kids come from winning high school programs. They’re used to dominating and that’s not what’s happening here right now. So everyone is frustrated.
“You have to keep their heads up, to show them the stuff they are doing right while also showing them their mistakes and helping them make corrections. We’ll continue to grow. These kids will be great football players.”
Injuries have hurt this team’s ability to make progress. But so have the occasional absences that could be described as self-induced.
One player who wasn’t on the field against Indiana was safety Bennett Williams, who is arguably the most productive of the many freshmen coach Lovie Smith is starting. He was suspended for breaking a team rule and that doesn’t help either, Watson said.
“Any time you have a starter who’s not on the field, you miss them,” Watson said. “He’s a talented player who has made splash plays, who has range in the middle of the football field. When you have him you can rotate Stanley Green and Patrick Nelson and they can all be fresh. Today we didn’t have that option.”
Lovie Smith said the losing causes everyone to press. Coaches, too.
“We’re all pressing,” Smith said. “When you’ve lost as many as we have, you need to press. Press hard. But be smarter about it.”
Breaking the current losing streak this week would take something miraculous. Illinois is a 40-point underdog playing at eighth ranked Ohio State Saturday afternoon.