CHAMPAIGN — The playoffs start now for the University of Illinois football team.
If the Illini want to find themselves in a bowl game, they need to beat Iowa on Saturday and Northwestern in two weeks to reach the six-win mark.
They also need to clean up mistakes. Dropped passes, botched punt returns and missed tackles all contributed to a 54-35 loss at Nebraska last Saturday.
"Now it's just about Iowa and having the best Tuesday practice we've had all year," Illinois head coach Lovie Smith said at his weekly press conference Monday. "All those things we talked about with tackling, dropped passes … all those things we need to get fixed. It's now or never. We know what we're capable of doing."
The offense, led by quarterback AJ Bush Jr. in the return to the school he signed with out of high school, continued to score points. Illinois also accumulated 509 yards of total offense. But drops, three turnovers (two interceptions and a fumble by Bush), and two botched punt returns slowed the offense in its tracks.
Bush was 11-of-25 passing with two interceptions, but wasn't assisted by his receiving corps, which had a host of drops.
"We've got to catch the football, first and foremost. I think that's pretty obvious," Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith said. "You don't want to have games like that, but at the same time, we did. We've got to go back to basics and go back to fundamentals. We caught them the week before, so they're very capable of doing it. We've got to go out and make a play."
Bush rushed for 187 yards and three scores, Ra'Von Bonner rushed for 81 yards and a score, Dre Brown rushed for 51 yards and a touchdown and Reggie Corbin had 59 yards before leaving the game with an injury.
Lovie Smith said he is hopeful Corbin will be ready to go Saturday against Iowa (2:30 p.m.), and Corbin said he feels fine.
"AJ Bush was outstanding," Lovie Smith said. "Again with a quarterback playing that way, you have a chance to win. Unfortunately, we couldn't get more possessions for our offense to be able to move up and down the football field.
"I think we had 16 explosive plays on offense. Most of our goals that we have set for each game offensively we accomplished except for turning the ball over three times."
Bush came to Champaign as a leader, and immediately grasped that role. It's not in his nature to berate his receivers for dropping passes.
"You've got to tell them, 'We're all going to make mistakes and get criticized. At the end of the day, you've got to keep playing. You can't harp on one mistake. You cannot do that. If you harp on one mistake that could lead to you missing another big play, which can happen,'" Bush said of his message to the receivers.
After an encouraging week against Minnesota on defense, the Illini allowed 606 total yards to Nebraska on Saturday.
Adrian Martinez was 24-of-34 with 290 yards and three touchdowns through the air, while adding 78 on the ground. Running back Devine Ozigbo had 163 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
"Defensively, just about every goal we had we didn't accomplish," Lovie Smith said. "Long runs and long plays, in general, really hurt us a lot. We couldn't take the ball away — had a lot of opportunities to get it and we didn't. We didn't tackle well, so these are things we have to clean up.
The problem on defense swirled around missed tackles. It's something that the Illini didn't do as often in the win against Minnesota, but couldn't get away from against Nebraska.
“Tackling wasn’t as bad the week before, but tackling was bad this game," Lovie Smith said. "We haven’t tackled like that. We’re better than that."
The miscues were a mix between the mindset and technique.
“Mindset, technique, all of the above when you miss tackles. Everybody in America missed tackles. We missed too many of them. We’ll go back to work this week and fix those, hopefully, and we won’t miss that many this week."