CHAMPAIGN — Hardy Nickerson said the frustration level he felt Saturday as the University of Illinois defensive coordinator was nearly unbearable.
As Minnesota effectively and repeatedly ran the same play, and with Nickerson’s defense seemingly helpless to stop it, the 16-year NFL veteran linebacker said it was all he could do not to run onto the field and stop it himself.
“You can only imagine,” he said, describing his exasperation as Minnesota pounded the Illini defense enough times to bang out a 24-17 victory at Minneapolis.
Garrick McGee, Illinois’ offensive coordinator, knows the feeling of exasperation, too. And he felt his share of it Saturday as young players failed to finish a football game that McGee viewed as winnable.
As frustrating as Illinois has been during the current five-game losing streak, the numbers are a reminder of what head coach Lovie Smith and his staff are up against after intentionally choosing to begin a sweeping rebuild with more freshmen than any other program in the country.
Through seven games, Illinois has started 14 true freshmen. No other Big Ten team has started more than four. If quarterback Cam Thomas starts Saturday’s homecoming game against Wisconsin, as is possible, it will be 15 freshman starters.
Illinois has played 21 true freshmen (most in the country) and 10 redshirt freshmen. And the Illini aren’t just playing freshmen. They’re relying on them.
Eleven of Illinois’ 13 offensive touchdowns have been scored by true freshmen including the last nine. Illinois also has used 26 first-time starters in the first seven games, more than any team in the nation.
"You would hope each week you’d get a little better but we have not necessarily gotten a week better,” McGee said. “We get in those situations when the game is on the line and we start overthinking things and we start missing certain things or wondering what to do. It has happened to us three weeks in a row.
“We have to press to get a week better. We have to learn from our experiences so that when they come up again we’re comfortable in that environment and we can go win the game.”
McGee said he could see the issues arise when Illinois and Minnesota were tied going into the fourth quarter.
“It was a tie game in the fourth quarter and (the freshmen) were looking at me like they were down 30 points,” he said. “You’re talking one score and we win. But they didn’t have the look, the passion, to go make it happen.
“I think our freshmen can go out and compete with any of these teams in the Big Ten. As true freshmen. It will happen once they figure that out and stop second-guessing themselves and go play and make the plays to win. It’s third-and-one. Go out and make those blocks to win the game.”
McGee didn’t say specifically how he’ll divide the quarterback reps this week against Wisconsin, but it sounds like freshman Cam Thomas and sophomore Jeff George Jr. will both play.
“Cam did well for what we asked him to do,” McGee said. “We asked him to provide a spark for us, be under control and be efficient. He did a good job in that role.
“And that last play (an interception returned for a touchdown), I take full responsibility. I put him in a tough spot.”
As for George, McGee said he accepted the rotation and got high marks for completing 18 of 23 passes with no interceptions and a touchdown.
“Jeff is the better passer and Cam doesn’t know the entire package yet,” Smith said, explaining the decision to rotate the two quarterbacks.
Smith said receiver Mike Dudek and safety Patrick Nelson should both return after missing time with injuries. And Nickerson said he might get linebackers Dele Harding and Del’Shawn Phillips back after they sat out at Minnesota with injuries.
Running back Ra’Von Bonner is questionable.
“If he were to be limited, we’re looking at Kendrick Foster, Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown, all of whom we trust,” McGee said.
Notes: The Illinois at Purdue game Nov. 4 will kick off at 11 a.m. and be televised on the Big Ten Network.
Indiana State edged the Illini men’s basketball team in a closed scrimmage Sunday. Leron Black led Illinois with 18 points and seven rebounds and Michael Finke scored 15.
Sources said Illinois got off many more shots than Indiana State but shot poorly from the guard position. Indiana State was hot from the field, making 14 of 22 3-pointers. Illinois plays its final closed scrimmage this weekend at Vanderbilt.