CHAMPAIGN — Loyally watching a sports team that is rebuilding from the ground up is a gruesome assignment.
One must deal with lopsided losses, young players who aren’t really ready and the promise that things might get better soon. On occasion, there’s a game that dangles the chance for a victory, then yanks it away in a blizzard of breakdowns.
It’s no fun.
When it works (think Chicago Cubs or Houston Astros) the wait might be worth it. But along the way, patience can be put to the ultimate test.
That’s how it is these days with University of Illinois football: Gruesome to watch and difficult to maintain faith that better times await.
In the course of coach Lovie Smith’s massive Illini football rebuild, Saturday might have pushed the patience to the breaking point. A miserable first half was followed by hope. A close score kept the outcome in doubt into the fourth quarter.
Then, predictably, Illinois fell apart and lost to the Hoosiers, 24-14. It was Illinois’ eighth loss in a row.
“It’s tough when you’ve lost as many as we have,” Smith said. “It’s tough. It’s not like guys aren’t trying. They’re playing hard. But we’re not a good football team right now, it’s as simple as that.
“Offensively, it’s tough duty when you can’t run the football. Defensively, we had our moments, but we haven’t taken the ball away enough.”
Winning teams look at the positive numbers: touchdowns, yards gained, takeaways. Indiana quarterback Richard Lagow, for instance, completed 32 of 48 passes for 289 yards and a pair of touchdowns. His 5-yard slant to Simmie Cobbs Jr. with 5:45 to play pushed Indiana’s slim three-point lead to 10.
Losing teams look back on the negative numbers and the Illini (2-8, 0-7) had plenty of those.
Quarterback Jeff George Jr. threw two interceptions and lost a fumble. He was sacked eight times. The Illini team was whistled for eight penalties, some of those coming at key moments.
And injuries continue to pile up. The number is difficult to determine. Cam Thomas, who was expected to be the starting quarterback, did not play due to a concussion suffered late in last week’s game at Purdue. Coaches hoped he’d pass the concussion protocol by mid-week, but he did not, necessitating the use of George.
Many others did not play including wideout Mike Dudek, who sources say is out for the season with a lacerated kidney.
Illinois’ offense never got going until the second half. The Illini trailed 14-0 at halftime when the offense generated just three first downs and 72 total yards. Australian Blake Hayes punted 11 times, seven in the first half alone.
On the first play of the second half, George hit tight end Louis Dorsey over the middle and when an Indiana defender missed an ankle tackle, he sped off and went 77 yards for a touchdown that brought the Illini to within striking distance.
But Indiana answered with a 28-yard field goal by Griffin Oakes to push the lead to 17-7.
That’s when Illinois dangled the possibility of a comeback victory. A 14-yard touchdown pass from George to Caleb Reams brought the Illini to within three points with nearly 13 minutes to play in the fourth quarter.
“When it comes to the third and fourth quarter, that’s when games are won,” said George, who had an ice bag taped to his right hand after the game. “Somebody has to make a play.”
Instead, the remaining Illini possessions included a lost fumble by George as he was sacked, and two interceptions.
“We’ve got to get the quarterback position right and get more production there,” said Smith, who served as Illinois’ defensive coordinator for this game. Regular coordinator Hardy Nickerson was in California attending his mother's funeral.
All in all, another day of frustration for the Illini.
“There’s a lot of disappointment (in the locker room) to be honest,” said linebacker Tre Watson, who returned to action Saturday after a one-month absence following arthroscopic knee surgery.
“If you’ve ever walked into a losing locker room, it’s going to be the same thing most of the time. If guys aren’t upset, I don’t know why they are here. I don’t know what you are playing for if you’re OK with losing.
“That’s what it is, guys wishing they had done more, wishing we could get some plays back.”
Watson said there’s still hope the team could finish with victories in the final two games.
But those games are at Ohio State this week, then at home against Northwestern on Nov. 25.