Iowa Football

Illinois struggles mightily on defense

Illini rank last in the Big Ten in ... just about everything

Nov 10, 2018; Lincoln, NE, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini defensive back Michael Marchese (42) grabs the facemask of Nebraska Cornhuskers running back Wyatt Mazour (37) in the first half at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 10, 2018; Lincoln, NE, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini defensive back Michael Marchese (42) grabs the facemask of Nebraska Cornhuskers running back Wyatt Mazour (37) in the first half at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

CEDAR RAPIDS — Lovie Smith has made his football bones on the defensive side.

He was defensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL. His defensive prowess was how he got to be head coach of the Bucs and Chicago Bears, the latter he led to the Super Bowl in 2006.

But his 2018 University of Illinois team has one of the leakiest defenses in the country. Not really leaky, so much as just plain bad.

These numbers don’t lie. The Illini go into their home finale Saturday against Iowa dead last in rushing defense, passing defense, overall defense, scoring defense ... you get the idea.

Illinois allows a staggering 532.9 yards a game, including 247.9 on the ground. In its last five games, it has given up point totals of (in order) 46, 46, 63, 31 and 54.

Somehow the Illini managed to win the game they gave up “only” 31, besting Minnesota, 55-31. The week prior to an Oct. 6 victory over Rutgers, 38-17, they had Penn State roll up 63 points on them.

Not good.

“Just keep working on it,” Smith said, Tuesday at his weekly press conference. “Tackling (last week) wasn’t as bad the week before. The tackling was bad this game. We’ll go back to work. We haven’t tackled like that. We’re better than that.

“It’s mindset, technique, all of the above when you miss tackles. Everybody in America misses tackles. We missed too many of them.”

Smith is in his third season at Illinois, returning to the college game for the first time since being an assistant at Ohio State in 1995. The school made a splash hire, giving him a six-year contract worth $21 million.

His $5 million base salary this season is higher than Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz, Penn State’s James Franklin and Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio, among others. Yet he’s only 9-25 at the school, 4-21 in the Big Ten.

Going 4-6 to this point in 2018 is an improvement, however negligible. Illinois still can become bowl eligible with a win over Iowa and another next week over Northwestern.

“If Lovie were sitting here, he’d tell you the same thing. This is a year we expect to see progress,” Illinois AD Josh Whitman told local reporters over the summer. “It doesn’t mean that we’re going to go out and win 10 or 11 games. But to take a significant step forward in our competitiveness and see our program start to show signs of what the future can look like, I think, is expected, and I think will happen.”

Illinois has been very young in Smith’s first two seasons and has but nine seniors playing their last game Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Overall, recruiting has gone decently in his tenure.

Illinois is opening a brand new 107,650-square foot football performance center next year, which should be a boon. When Smith was hired, $4 million was allotted to attract assistant coaches.

There has been a lot of money spent here.

“Right now, where we are with our program, the playoffs have begun,” Smith said. “The playoffs will start this week. For us to advance, we have to get this one. The team understands that. We watched the video (of the Nebraska game), then put that one to bed. Now it’s just about Iowa and having the best Tuesday practice we’ve had all year. All those things we’ve talked about, tackling, dropped passes, we have to get them fixed. It’s now or never.

“A lot of times when you are in that situation, it brings out the best in you. That’s what we’re hoping.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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