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Badgers football: Lovie Smith sees progress in young Illinois team

October 25, 2017 GMT

Illinois enters Saturday’s homecoming game against the fifth-ranked University of Wisconsin having lost five straight games and seven consecutive in the Big Ten — a streak that began with a 48-3 drubbing at Camp Randall Stadium last season.

While difficult to spot the positives in such disappointing results, second-year head coach Lovie Smith said he’s seen progress in recent weeks.

“I think it’s hard when you lose games, period,” Smith said. “But to keep your focus, I don’t think it’s that hard when you’re making progress and you’re building. I think if you don’t see progress from week to week, then there’s an issue, but we are getting closer. You just have to believe in the process and just keep fighting each week.”

Illinois did put up a fight the past two weeks — keeping the score close against Rutgers and Minnesota and giving itself an opportunity to win. That’s more than the Illini could say in their previous five conference losses, which they dropped by an average margin of 29 points.

Illinois entered the final five minutes tied with the Golden Gophers last week. The Illini then allowed a go-ahead touchdown and threw a pick-six 11 seconds later.

“Last week, we lost a tough one,” Smith said. “I thought we made some progress in certain areas, but we still weren’t able to finish it at the end. … Our guys are excited about having the chance to play against one of the top teams (in Wisconsin) to see how we really match up.”

That pick-six was thrown by freshman quarterback Cam Thomas, playing in his first career game. He split time with Jeff George Jr. against Minnesota, and it’s unclear at the moment who will start under center Saturday.

If Smith picks Thomas, he’ll be the 15th true freshman to start a game for Illinois this season. No other team in the country has started more than 10.

The Illini have just nine seniors on their 100-man roster, tied for the second-least in the FBS. That roster also consists of 75 freshmen or sophomores, along with 40 newcomers.

“It’s tough. They’re young,” UW inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “That’s a huge thing. I think this year, they’re really incorporating those guys into the game plan. You see really good flashes from those guys. I think they’re only going to get stronger going further, and this week’s going to be no different.”

Smith is facilitating the early introduction of his own recruits, even if the early results are painful.

The former UW linebackers coach (1987) owns an impressive coaching resume at the college and NFL levels, and he’s betting slow and steady progress will eventually reap big benefits.

“He’s got a tremendous track record, and he does a great job of growing young men,” said UW tight end Troy Fumagalli. “I think he will get it going. It’s just a matter of time.”