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Nebraska Illinois Football

Illinois coach Lovie Smith, shown here in a game earlier this season, saw his team lack energy and execution last week in a home loss to Rutgers.

It’s just not Lovie Smith’s style.

But if the head football coach had any compassion for his dwindling number of University of Illinois fans he would have opened his Monday news conference with a public apology.

There is a minimum level of performance that should be expected by any team that is going to charge an admission and Illinois failed to live up to that very low standard in a 35-24 loss to Rutgers.

As has been chronicled many times, this is a historically young football team, leaning heavily on freshmen. They’re learning on the fly. Mistakes are inevitable. But youth has nothing to do with effort and passion and acting like this is the most important game of the year, because it was the most important game of the year.

Freshmen should play like their hair is on fire, excited beyond belief to be an 18-year-old given a chance to play college football. Older players should be stoked to have not been passed over by the kids.

And the coaching staff should have them leaping around with a fervor that can be felt by those loyal people who still care enough to be counted in the stands.

That was absent Saturday. And Lovie Smith, the emotionless leader, missed a chance to calmly apologize for more missed tackles, penalties and turnovers than we can count.

Let’s be clear. It isn’t that Smith doesn’t care. He does. And there are times when his too-cool-for-the-room demeanor is appropriate. He coached exactly the same when in 2006 his Chicago Bears went 13-3 and roared off to the Super Bowl.

But on rare occasions, it would benefit him to step outside his calm appearance let his fans know he’s genuinely upset by a performance so flat it prompted starting quarterback Jeff George Jr. to say “we didn’t show up.”

At least offensive coordinator Garrick McGee tried, saying he wasn’t in favor of telling frustrated fans to hang in there, that better times are ahead.

“I’m not interested in telling our fans to be patient,” he said Monday. “We need to do better on the practice field and go out and give them a better product on the field.”

Watching the game from field level was a group of recruits who are considering the Illini. What might they have thought?

Well, if you’re still selling a chance to play early, they might have thought they could play right now.

“The recruits know what’s going on,” McGee said. “We have a lot of young guys out there. They know we are not bringing guys here to sit on the bench. And guys who are big-time high school players, they want to go play and they want to play in the Big Ten and be on national TV and they want to see that there’s an opportunity to come here and play.

“That’s our message to them. We bring you here to play. If you’re big enough and strong enough and you can protect yourself and you have the ability to learn what to do, you’ll get the opportunity to play.”

Saturday’s game against Rutgers brought to mind the 2014 Illini meeting with Purdue. A Memorial Stadium crowd of 45,046 was mortified to see Illinois miss tackle after tackle as the Boilermakers rolled up 346 rushing yards. Those fans booed and grumbled audibly as they filed out of the stadium.

Just as some fans are doing now, the gloomy feeling was that Illinois would never win another game and never stop another opponent. People were calling for the head of Tim Banks, the defensive coordinator.

But things change. Illinois won three of its final five games that season, somehow saving Tim Beckman’s job. That same team went to a bowl game.

There have been many other changes, obviously. But Banks, the coordinator who fans didn’t think could coach worth a hoot, is now the co-defensive coordinator at Penn State, helping orchestrate the stingiest scoring defense in the Big Ten.

It’s worth noting that attendance was down to 35,765 for the Rutgers game and good luck selling a single ticket based on that performance.

An apology won’t fix the tackling woes. But Smith would do himself a favor by looking his fans in the eye and telling them they deserve better, then promising that they’ll get it.

Play like last Saturday — and the absence of a plausible explanation — does nothing to lift the demoralized spirit of a fan club whose membership keeps shrinking.

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Mark Tupper covers University of Illinois sports for Pantagraph News Service. Contact him via Twitter: @MarkTupper

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