CHAMPAIGN – The dilemma with a young football team is whether to make changes that might bring about better play or eliminate changes altogether, hoping simplicity and stability might bring about better play.
Illini coach Lovie Smith indicated this week that he's still in the change-making phase, despite having started 11 true freshman this season, more than any team in the country.
What everyone would agree is that Smith must find a way to change the way Illinois has played the last two games. After victories over Ball State and Western Kentucky, Illinois lost 47-23 to No. 22 South Florida, then lost 28-6 at home to Nebraska.
“A lot of things happened that we have to do better,” Smith said.
We concur. And here are five changes that would help:
1. Embrace the change at quarterback.
Smith and his coaching staff have seen the same thing most fans have seen, which is why on Monday he said Jeff George Jr., is No. 1 on his QB depth chart going into Saturday's game at Iowa. Chayce Crouch, the starter in each of the first four games, drops to No. 3 with true freshman Cam Thomas becoming the backup.
George won't offer the run option that Crouch brought to the position. But he's more comfortable throwing the ball and Big Ten opponents will eat the Illini alive if all they can do is dink and dunk with the running game. This change was a no-brainer.
2. Stabilize the offensive line and then stop tinkering with it.
The offensive line has been in a constant state of flux since center Doug Kramer got hurt in the season opener. The quest to find the “best five” has been unending. But Smith said Kramer is ready to return this week against the Hawkeyes. If he is, return him to center, shift Nick Allegretti to guard next to Christian DiLauro and let the two freshmen – tackle Larry Boyd and guard Alex Palczewski – continue to develop on the other side.
DiLauro said he has the most experience working along side Allegretti and that pairing makes a world of sense. Do it. And stick with it.
3. Remember who the play-makers are.
Illinois' strongest and deepest position is wide receiver. But so far, it's been a largely ignored group. That Mike Dudek was only targeted twice last week against Nebraska is criminal. Dudek, Malik Turner, Ricky Smalling, Carmoni Green, Dom Thieman and even tight end Louis Dorsey are the players who can pick up the chunks of yardage the offense has been unable to generate without a passing game.
The offense won't become “Air Illini,” but the coaching staff has to figure out a way to get the ball into the hands of these receivers.
4.Tighten up the run defense.
Better tackling across the board will help. The chance that Illinois' defense will generate more turnovers improves dramatically if Illinois can stop the run early and force opponents to pass on third-and-long.
Illinois' inability to get off the field on third down has been a killer this year. Opponents have converted on 33 of 62 third downs (53.2 percent), worst in the Big Ten.
5. Consider some earlier risk-taking.
This is not to advocate for a bunch of crazy long-shots or trick plays, but Illinois has been painfully conservative so far.
The Illini probably can't beat Iowa or many of the other Big Ten foes straight-up. So if a decent drive early in the game leads to a third-and-2 at the enemy 18, don't settle for a field goal. Go for it on fourth down. Have a couple plays ready to go. Not only would it be a winner on the scoreboard, it would fire up a young team whose confidence could probably use a lift right now.