Saturday, October 15, 2011

Trademark Illinois (Read: Zook) Loss

I'll admit that I was both worried and confident heading into today's matchup with Ohio State. Ohio State is much more talented than their 3-3 record coming in indicated, and they had stud OL Mike Adams back, along with stud RB Daniel "Boom" Herron. Moreover, this was a type of traditional Big Ten offense and defense that Illinois had not faced the entire season thus far. However, I was confident that Ohio State would still be reeling from the Nebraska loss and the scandal that had plagued the program. Also, I expected Illinois to come out and gain some credibility by winning on a national stage. But one thing is for sure - I didn't expect a humiliating 17-7 loss that exposed all the problems that have encompassed the Ron Zook tenure.

I'll try to start with the positives from the game in the interests of cooling off my own anger. First, Whitney Mercilus, Michael Buchanan, and Jonathan Brown are absolute studs. These guys pressured Braxton Miller the entire game, and had some huge sacks. Another positive is Troy Pollard - he runs hard and fast, and remains the hidden gem of the Illinois running game. He absolutely, without question, needs more carries. He should even continue to get looks in the kick return game. For the most part, Nate Scheelhaase is the real deal - he's a leader, can make ridiculous plays with his feet, and gives a chance to win every game. I also loved to see touted freshman Jon Davis get some playing time and make something with it. The last positive I could think of is the ridiculous plays that A.J. Jenkins puts up every game. He even did this in the face of Ohio State CB Bradley Roby's ridiculous remarks that Jenkins was nothing special. Anyone who actually watches the game knows he is much more than just an average receiver.

Now, the negatives. If we have time. First, the running game for Illinois is completely stagnant. Jason Ford looked decent before going out with injury, but he still took runs outside and fumbled the ball (albeit recovering). Zook's blind loyalty to Ford is mystifying, and there is absolutely no reason to run someone out there who is too big and slow to run outside, refuses to consistently run inside, and fumbles. When you have capable backups like Pollard and Donovonn Young, why bother? Second, the defense simply was not prepared to handle a more traditional Big Ten style of running by Dan Herron and Jordan Hall. While they limited the OSU passing game on the defensive line, the OSU OL produced gaping holes for the running game for the entire game. It was pathetic. Third, the Illinois passing game took a hit because the defense could focus on Jenkins, not worry about the run, and as Scheelhaase proved with two interceptions, rely on Nate to underthrow balls. Fourth, besides Jenkins, the rest of the Wide Receivers have huge problems catching balls. I guess that makes the difference between 3 and 4 star receivers - THE ACTUAL ABILITY TO CATCH THE BALL!! So many dropped balls, costing so much field position and actual points at times. Final note on player negatives - the fumbles and interceptions are horrible and costly. Good luck proving your point as an elite program doing that.

The final negative is solely on the coaching staff and Ron Zook. Zook is supposedly the special teams coordinator, but as a graphic on the telecast showed, the special teams, outside of kicker Derek Dimke, are plain awful. The problem doesn't get addressed, and we get no field position on kick or punt returns. Simply awful. Not to mention the decision to punt in the second half instead of go for it. Granted, it gave us great field position that particular time, but more often than not that will blow up in your face in a complete embarrassment. Zook's time management is so bad, it makes it seem like he doesn't know what the time actually is. This wouldn't be the first time he looked absolutely clueless in a game. He screwed up the simple ability to call timeouts at the right time IN BOTH HALVES!!!! His decision in the first half cost Illinois the chance to get in Field Goal range. In the second half, Zook also refused to go for a field goal near the end to make the score 17-10, instead going for it on 4th and 2 when he had a minute and two timeouts to try and get the ball back. Maybe Zook should give the job to Paul Petrino and go do what he does best. Or do the right thing and let someone else on the team handle that responsibility. I've mentioned before that I like  Zook for his particular set of skills, but not for things like clock management, timeout responsibility, calling an offense, calling a defense, or running special teams. So basically the responsibilities for a football coach.

All of this ruins a great showing by the Illini fans, with them drowning noise on Braxton Miller and the Ohio State offense at one point in the first half, and the yelling of the "asshole, asshole" chant at Bradley Roby in the second half. I only wish we could have this kind of atmosphere all the time, which makes college football so special. But where do we go from here? Illinois needs to go out next week and lay an ass whupping down on Purdue and salvage some dignity. They do that, they're 7-1. But after that, the schedule gets tough, with games at Penn State and at home against Michigan and Wisconsin. The season ends with a clunker against Minnesota at home. My prediction? Beat Penn State, lose to Michigan and Wisconsin, and beat Minnesota. That leaves us at 9-3, and bound for a decent bowl. While that sounds great to a team that hasn't seen consistent success, it hurts this particular Illini fan on a day where they should have owned a team that only completed ONE DAMN PASS the entire game. Let's hope that this loss doesn't saturate through and ruin a very good Illini season. It all starts next Saturday against Purdue.