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Illinois’ Lovie Smith needs an upset over punch line Rutgers — and nothing’s funny about that

Smith is in Year 5 in Champaign. By now, a thriving program builder should have some answers, enough spare keys to slide into locks and open up victories or at least find jiggles of hope.

Minnesota v Illinois
Lovie Smith is a man in need of an upset victory.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

All hail Rutgers football.

The Scarlet Knights have lost 23 of their last 24 Big Ten games, but they did win this season’s opener impressively at Michigan State. So they’ve got that going for them.

Oh, and would you look at this? They’re favored to score another “W” on Saturday in New Jersey against 0-3 Illinois. The betting line has crept down a bit since it opened at seven points, but it’s not like the Illini have done any creeping up since winning six games and going bowling in 2019. For Lovie Smith’s program, it has been more of a wayward ooze.

Chalk up some of it — maybe a lot of it — to COVID-19 tests and contact-tracing protocols. The Illini have been hit harder than most teams. They were forced to play their fourth-string quarterback, Coran Taylor, for nearly all of Game 2 against Purdue and all of Game 3 against Minnesota. That’s about as ideal a plan as going all-in in Hold ’Em with 2-7 off-suit.

Still, Smith is in Year 5 in Champaign. By now, a thriving program builder should have some answers, enough spare keys to slide into locks and open up victories or at least find jiggles of hope. But Smith’s last four recruiting classes have ranked 10th, 12th, 14th and 14th in the conference, according to Rivals. His record at Illinois is an unsightly 15-37, and 8-31 in league games. The Illini — at the bottom of the league statistically on both sides of the ball this season — have lost six straight since the four-game winning streak that brought Year 4 back from the brink.

Not good.

Not going anywhere — and fast.

“We’re disappointed,” Smith said this week. “We’ve lost three games. We realize how many games we have left to go in the season. We’re also optimistic about our future, too. We know we’re a better football team, and we get a chance to prove that.”

But a loss to the punch-line Scarlet Knights (yes, it seems we’re done hailing them) would be a different sort of low for Smith, who’s under contract through 2023. It would have to put his job on the line if it isn’t already. Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman has had Smith’s back to this point, but the line between revival and ramshackle is hard to see.

“Do I look like the guy that’s going to panic?” Smith said. “We’re not panicking. … There’s no panic. We’re disappointed in the three games we’ve played. We need to play better this fourth game of the football season. There’s a lot of football left to go.”

Against Rutgers, the Illini won’t have No. 1 quarterback Brandon Peters, who has a third and hopefully final game to miss after a positive COVID-19 test. No. 2 QB Isaiah Williams, who has been quarantined during contact tracing, could get the starting call. The status of Matt Robinson, who entered the season third on the depth chart, is in doubt as he works back from an ankle injury. Taylor again?

Whoever takes the snaps, Smith’s 3-1 record against Rutgers — a mark that says more than a mouthful about how truly abysmal the Scarlet Knights have been — won’t be of much use once meeting No. 5 starts.

“To me, it’s pretty simple,” Smith said. “Nobody wants to hear about who we don’t have or anything like that. We expect to play better and need to play better.”

The Illini need an upset. In the worst way.

JUST SAYIN’

• “I’m going to enjoy the (expletive) out of this. Is that OK?”

It’s a fine time to hark back to that quote from Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald last November. He was fired up and then some after the Wildcats won 29-10 at Illinois in their final game of what had been a deeply miserable season. It was the only Big Ten victory for a team that went 1-8 in league play.

It was the start of something, too, wasn’t it? The Wildcats haven’t lost since and are off to a 3-0 start in a conference-only schedule. Are they as strong as the 2017 and 2018 squads that were a combined 15-3 against league foes? That might be a stretch, but this resurgence ought not be taken lightly. And — oh, by the way — it doesn’t make Smith look any better.

• I know it. You know it. Even your Uncle Earl knows it, and he has spent the last eight months quarantining inside a barrel of homemade schnapps. The Bears are beating the Vikings on Monday.

Of course they are. Matt Nagy is 9-0 against the Vikings and Lions.

Does that mean we complain any less about his play calling, clock management, fourth-down decisions and very existence when the Bears face those division foes? Probably not.

• Heading into last year’s NBA draft, I wrote in this column that the Bulls should draft North Carolina guard Coby White. What I meant to say was that the Bulls should draft Kentucky guard Tyler Herro. Alas, a series of typos did me in.

It doesn’t seem likely that Georgia guard Anthony Edwards will be available if and when the Bulls pick at No. 4 in Wednesday’s draft, but if he is — goodness gracious — they have to take him. If he isn’t? Dayton forward Obi Toppin would be a fine way to go. He’s already 22, but no player in the country improved as much as he did over the last three years. Dude went from recruiting nobody to college player of the year. That’s the sort of worker Billy Donovan is going to want to have around.

• Look, folks, if we’re going to spend our days fretting and arguing about White Sox manager Tony La Russa, can we at least work a bit harder on remembering to put a space between the “La” and the “Russa”? If social-media cesspools I swim in are any indication, there’s a vast conspiracy out there to ignore that space.

I suspect my sports editor, Chris De Luca, and our terrific Sox beat writer, Daryl Van Schouwen, join me in believing we can do better. Then again, those guys with spaces in their last names can be unpredictable.