CHAMPAIGN — One loss — one rather unsightly, penalty-marred, mistake-filled loss — and I’m wondering if there will be anyone sitting next to me while I continue to enjoy the “freshman watch” theme of this University of Illinois football season.
It’s going to take some willpower to stomach the growing pains that will come with starting 10 players who were in high school last fall, as coach Lovie Smith did in Friday night’s 47-23 loss at South Florida.
But this is a little like watching the recent vintage Chicago Cubs, after Theo Epstein arrived and decided that in order to be a real contender, the way to go was to acquire young talent, commit to their ascension and be patient.
In Epstein’s first season, 2012, the Cubs lost 101 games and were hard to watch. But if you had some faith in Epstein and what he had done in Boston, you were able to stand the foul odor of rebuilding.
The next season wasn’t much better with 96 losses, then 89 losses in 2014.
But in 2015, with some of those kids starting to break into the lineup, the transformation accelerated. The Cubs were 97-65, reached the playoffs and eliminated the Cardinals before losing in the NLCS to the Mets.
We all know the grand payoff that arrived in 2016: the team’s first World Series championship in 108 years.
I’m not saying Lovie Smith is Theo Epstein and I’m not saying Illinois is on track to win a national football championship.
What I’m saying is that Lovie recognizes that repairing Illini football is no quick fix. It’s a near total teardown combined with a full-on commitment to youth and recruiting with the hope that by playing them now, Illinois will benefit in 2018 and 2019 by having more experienced and better athletes manning most positions.
Lovie started 10 true freshmen Friday against the nation’s 22nd-ranked team. It’s 11 if you count the left-footed Australian punter, Blake Hayes.
He has played at least 18 true freshmen three games into this season. Expect more to play as offensive coordinator Garrick McGee indicated big lineman Vederian Lowe is about to be pressed into action as he gets healthy.
The one position that does not have a youth-based resolution is quarterback. Despite the coaching staff’s attempt to sell junior Chayce Crouch as the team’s undisputed leader, they are no longer able to sell him as an effective master of the offense.
Through three games, Crouch has completed 32 of 62 passes for 326 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. That’s an average of not quite 109 passing yards per game.
Crouch struggled mightily in Tampa, although his offensive line often could not provide adequate protection.
In the third quarter, sophomore Jeff George Jr. made his 2017 debut and at least generated some excitement. He did throw two interceptions, but in each case the turnover came as he was hit while passing.
I’m disappointed in both the quarterback play and in the play calling that has been used at that position. It looks like McGee is determined to make Crouch a pocket passer when his strength is running the ball. And while I would prefer a quarterback who can run, George is the far better passer and, at this point, the better choice to move and diversify the offense.
Smith shares less information than a trained spy. So don’t expect him to rush right out with news that he’s making a quarterback change. Or that he’s not making a change and will stick with Crouch.
But just as so many of the current freshmen starters are taking lumps now in hopes of being better prepared down the road, George had the same experience a year ago.
He was a redshirt freshman last year and with both Crouch and Wes Lunt injured, he was given his first career start last Oct. 22 in front of 111,000 fans at The Big House in Ann Arbor, Mich.
It was a daunting assignment. George was severely overmatched against the nation’s No. 3-ranked team and Illinois lost, 41-8. George completed 4 of 15 passes for 95 yards.
I felt sorry for him. His dad, Jeff Sr., was in the stands and while proud, I’m sure he agonized knowing there could hardly be a more difficult circumstance for anyone to make his first college start.
But two weeks later, Jeff Jr. threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes and Illinois upset Michigan State, 31-27.
The point is, George is a year older and more suited now to understand what it means to be a starting college quarterback. He may not be great and many of the pieces around him aren’t yet ready, either.
But this season is about youth, experimenting and finding out who’s ready to fight for a spot on what I believe will be a better football team in the future.
Smith and McGee might decide to stick with Crouch.
I hope they’re willing to find out what they have in Jeff George Jr.