So this happened on Monday:
Learned a lot from Saturday. Looking forward to our team responding with a great week of practice! #keepaniontheillini ???
— Lovie Smith (@LovieSmith) September 12, 2016
Which begs the question: What exactly did he learn? Russian? Quantum physics? The roots of Germany’s expressionist film movement?
Smith’s tweet inferred that his Illinois squad got something out of last weekend’s 48-23 home thrashing at the hands of North Carolina.
Western Michigan 34, Illini 10 said something else.
After shooting themselves in the left foot against North Carolina (13 penalties for 99 yards), the Illini attempted to go for the right (seven penalties, 48 yards) versus the Broncos.
After tackling mostly air against the Tar Heels, defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson’s charges — who surrendered 197 rushing yards and four touchdowns on the ground versus UNC — were gashed again, this time to the tune of 287 yards (5.3 per carry) and four more scores allowed.
Actually, the peanut gallery learned several things from watching the Illini (1-2) during Week 3. And if you’re an Illinois fan, none of them are comforting.
We learned that it’s possible to sack the other quarterback five times and still give up 34 points. And lose. Badly.
We learned that the up-down-up rushing stat lines of 2015 are back, and uglier than ever. A week after putting together an encouraging 182-yard night against the Tar Heels, something to build around, the Illini totaled three yards on the ground against Western.
Three. On 15 carries. At home. Against a team from the MAC.
We learned that when the pocket goes to hell around them, Western Michigan quarterback Zach Terrell — the one sacked five times — can occasionally weave his way out of trouble (11 rushes, 21 yards, 9-of-13 passing), and Illinois signal-caller Wes Lunt (four carries, minus-20 yards) still … can’t.
We learned just how badly (again) quarterback Lunt misses receiver Mike Dudek, a sure-handed, go-to target. The senior completed 29 of 42 pass attempts for 312 yards, but 56 of them came on one play — a double-reverse flea-flicker that ended with Lunt finding Ainslie Johnson via over the top of the Broncos’ defense.
It was an inspired call, well-executed at every turn. In fact, it was the kind of inspired call you might expect against Wisconsin or Nebraska or Michigan, one of those games where you need to scheme some surprises into the menu in order to keep a favorite guessing.
It was Illinois’ only touchdown of the day. It came with the Illini down 21-0. At home. To a team from the MAC.
We’d say we learned the Broncos (3-0) were legit, but we already knew that coming in. Senior wideout Corey Davis is an NFL target. Terrell, another senior, is as savvy as they come. A fortnight earlier, the Broncos opened at preseason sleeper Northwestern and handed the Wildcats a 22-21 setback.
What’s impressive, in hindsight, isn’t so much the wins as the way they were realized — Western controlled the line of scrimmage against what was expected to be a decent Northwestern bunch and then turned around absolutely dominated the trenches in Champaign.
Granted, maybe the ‘Cats and Illini are closer to the Purdues of the universe than to the Michigan States. But Coach P.J. Fleck, a former Northern Illinois star who dresses like Jim Tressel and runs around like Pat Fitzgerald, might also have the best non-major roster north of Houston and east of North Dakota State.
It’s the first time in school history that Western has taken out two Big Ten programs in the same season. The Broncos are now 6-35 all-time against their big-money big brothers, and two of those victories have come in the last three weeks.
This month alone, Fleck has taken out two Power 5 programs. Which means pretty soon, he might darn well be handed the keys to one of his own. And Western Michigan, on balance, just might have the third-best team in the Big Ten West.
Which says good things about the Broncos. What it says about the West, though, not so much. Because we also learned that Lovie’s got a long road ahead. And if Saturday was any indication, a very, very, very long way to go.