Olin Kreutz

There’s something special going on at Illinois — take it from those who know head football coach Lovie Smith best

There’s something special going on at Illinois — take it from those who know head football coach Lovie Smith best

For the first time in the Lovie Smith era, Illinois is bowl-eligible. 

It’s been a long, strange trip here for Lovie and the Illini. In his first three years at the helm of the program, the team failed to top four wins in a single season, amassing a combined record of 9-27 (4-23 B1G). But something about this 2019 group, which currently sits at 6-4 (4-3 B1G), feels different.

Take it from those who know Lovie best.

“They’ve bought in,” Alex Brown, who played under Smith for six years with the Bears, recently said. “Lovie is changing the culture down there, and he’s getting everybody to believe.”

That belief was on full display in the Illini’s matchup with Michigan State in East Lansing last Saturday — a comeback victory of historic proportions that clinched the program a bowl berth for the first time since 2014. At one point trailing 28-3, the visitors rode a number of big plays, turnovers and big-play turnovers to storm back and snap a 37-34 victory from the jaws of certain defeat.

“When you play for Lovie, everybody is motivated… You’re never out of [a] game,” said Matt Forte, five years a student of Smith in Chicago. “You can be down, and he knows that one play by anybody can start the turn of events.”

Olin Kreutz was with the Bears for seven of Smith's nine years coaching the team.

“It was awesome to see Coach Smith get that win, because you know how hard he works at it,” he said. “And for his team to do it in a way that’s kind of ‘Lovie Ball’... It’s just what you expect from Coach Smith because that’s what he preaches.”

Illinois turned Michigan State over four times on Saturday, including a fourth quarter pick-six that cut the Spartans’ lead to just one point with 4:53 to play. This season, the Illini lead the FBS in total turnovers (26), defensive touchdowns (6) and are second in turnover margin (1.4). Add those gaudy figures (and a bowl appearance) to a campaign already highlighted by a last-second victory over then-No. 6 Wisconsin, and suddenly, it might be time to start thinking about a full-blown resurgence in Urbana-Champaign.

“The most dangerous thing for that whole conference is a team that has bought into the Lovie system,” said Lance Briggs, who played nine seasons as a linebacker under Smith in Chicago. “The players that are going to come and play at the University of Illinois know now that they’re walking into a team that believes in what they’re doing, and when they believe in what they’re doing, great things are going to continue to happen.”

Smith has certainly proven in the past — and to the people of Chicago, no less — that he’s capable of executing this type of turnaround.

“I’m sure you guys have heard this story about our '05 team and how we started out 1-3, and then all of a sudden. Boom. It just happened,” Brown said. “That is exactly what I see happening with U of I right now.”

All the program has accomplished in 2019 is a great step, but the hope is that even greater things are on the horizon.

“You wait ’til next year. They are going to compete, and they’re gonna beat — I’m calling that right now — they’re gonna beat either Michigan or Ohio State next year,” Brown continued. “They have the people there. More importantly, they have the belief that they can beat ’em.”

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Olin Kreutz: The Bears don't want to be what their offensive identity is

Olin Kreutz: The Bears don't want to be what their offensive identity is

The Bears offense has been the topic of conversation (debate, really) all season long. What was supposed to be a breakout year for Matt Nagy and Mitch Trubisky has devolved into a weekly discussion of what went wrong and how the offense can be fixed.

One of the primary talking points through the first 10 weeks of the season has been Chicago's lack of identity on offense. But why is that? Is it because the Bears can't do anything right? Or is it because Nagy is too stubborn to keep calling plays that work. 

Former Bears center and NBC Sports Chicago analyst Olin Kreutz offered his thoughts on the Football Aftershow on Sunday.

"You go back to their first touchdown of the year this year. It was late in the third quarter in Denver, which is the first sign already that maybe their offense isn’t going to be very good this year, and it’s a nine-play drive, eight of those plays are runs," Kreutz said. "That tells me right there what your identity is. It’s not that the Bears’ offense doesn’t have an identity, it’s that they don’t want to be what their identity is.

"They have an identity, right? They have a way they move the ball, they have a way they score. It’s just, no one turns the film on and says, 'Let’s go to our very few touchdown drives this year, and let’s see what were we actually doing on that drive?' The only drive, guys, that they were actually who Nagy wants to be was the second TD drive of the Eagles game last week. And how did they start that drive? They threw up I-formation boot to Allen Robinson, he dropped it over the guy, he went to jump over the guy’s head, not gonna say he dropped it, but Allen Robinson went for it. But that kinda got Mitch in his groove, you get him into a boot, let him throw the ball out, and then they start with their Will and their zone read. And that’s what they wanna be, but that was really the only successes they’ve ever had in that style of offense until today."

Trubisky and the Bears were more productive against a lowly Lions defense and managed to put up 20 points in the team's 20-13 win. But the passing game accounted for just 173 yards while David Montgomery churned out 60 yards on 17 carries. There were some nice moments for sure, but could a performance like Week 10 even compete against some of the NFL's better defenses? Likely not.

Kreutz is right on the money. Nagy has to stop trying to force Trubisky into the quarterback he wants him to be and instead let the offense become what it's meant to be based on the personnel on the roster. Trubisky will never be Patrick Mahomes, and that's OK. He can be 'Mitch Trubisky,' which based on Sunday's win at Soldier Field is good enough to at least keep the Bears competitive.

Olin Kreutz says blame O-line, not Trubisky, for Bears' 1st half woes vs. Eagles

Olin Kreutz says blame O-line, not Trubisky, for Bears' 1st half woes vs. Eagles

Mitch Trubisky has taken a lot of punishment this season. Whether it's a relentless pass rush or an army of football media, Trubisky has been circled as the primary target and lead defendant for everything that's gone wrong with the Bears offense in 2019.

Week 9's game against the Philadelphia Eagles didn't help his quest to regain respectability, either. Chicago produced just nine yards of offense in the first half and Trubisky completed only 10 passes in the game. His stat line (10-of-21, 125 yards) was more like an undrafted rookie making his first start than a former second overall pick in his third season. Naturally, it would be easy to (once again) blame him for the Bears' fourth loss in a row.

But that would be a mistake, according to former Bears center and one of the greatest offensive linemen in team history, Olin Kreutz.

After studying the All-22 of Sunday's disaster in Philly, Kreutz came to Trubisky's aid and said it was the offensive line that should be tarred and feathered. Not the quarterback.

He gave Trubisky some love on his 53-yard completion to Taylor Gabriel, too.

Kreutz hinted at Trubisky succeeding on the move, a theory that was reinforced by ESPN's Dan Orlovsky, who tweeted an interesting nugget about Mitch on Tuesday.

It's easy to get caught up in the negative. It's what people do, especially football writers and fans. And let's be honest: Trubisky's given those fans and writers arguably more ammunition than any player in the league this season.

But when someone like Kreutz suggests it's time to pump the brakes on the criticism launched toward the quarterback, even if just a little, it's advice worth heeding.

Until, of course, Trubisky launches another off-target throw over the head of a wide-open receiver. Then it's open season again.