Ron Zook Reflects On Michigan Heartbreak

The Fighting Illini football team is licking its wounds a day after coming up two points short in a three overtime thriller in Ann Arbor. The defense is especially maligned after giving up 67 points and 676 yards total offense. But head coach Ron Zook isn't worried about his defenders. And he's encouraged by the confidence gained by the offense.

Illinois head coach Ron Zook spoke with media Sunday after having time to reflect on the record-breaking game with Michigan Saturday. The Illini defense suffered a major lapse after playing well all season, but Zook isn't giving up on them.

"The defense has proven it can play good defense. Obviously, we didn't play very good yesterday. You worry about that a little bit. Sometimes it's hard to play at the level you have to play at."

There are too many variables to isolate one inciting cause of the problems. Perhaps the Illini gave Michigan's vaunted offense too much credit and failed to play with reckless abandon.

"We might have been thinking too much. Obviously, we had a lot of respect for their offense. It's the number four offense in the country. We may have been thinking instead of playing the way we've been playing."

The Wolverines scored on a wide open 75 yard pass play on their first play from scrimmage. Some felt the play made the Illini doubt themselves, but Zook had an opposite perspective.

"That's hard, but when it happened I felt like we were gonna win the game. That has happened to me on more than one occasion. Usually the other side relaxes a little bit and thinks it's gonna be easy. They did a good job, they really did."

There were many plays that affected the outcome, but one coaching decision bothered the most fans afterward. Facing fourth and one at their own 42 yard line with a little over six minutes to play, Coach Zook chose to punt the ball. Since UM went 80 yards for the tying touchdown after getting the ball back, did Zook make the wrong call?

"If I could have it back, absolutely I wish I had gone for it. It's 20:20 (hindsight). Unfortunately, I'm not given that opportunity to run through it and see what's gonna happen.

"That's one of those decisions where it's easy to say now you should have done it. That's still not gonna guarantee you would make it.

"You take the information that you have and make the decision. The other quarterback was in, and I felt we could stop the pass. We hadn't stopped it, but I felt a little bit better defensively without having 16 (Denard Robinson) in there."

Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said afterward he recommend the punt after reviewing his play call options and the situation at hand. But Zook was not prepared to share blame for the decision.

"On third down I was talking to Vic (Koenning), but I switched back on fourth down to talking to Paul. Ultimately the decision is mine. I made the decision I felt gave us the best opportunity to win."

Did he consider going for two in the first overtime?

"I did, particularly being at their place. Once again, I don't have those decisions to do over again."

College rules require teams to go for a two point conversion beginning with the third overtime. Does he like that rule?

"It is what it is. Eventually somebody's got to go for two anyway, so it's probably just as good to go for it after two (overtimes)."

Zook reminded there were multiple situations that affected the outcome of the game. He referred specifically to a 3rd down and goal from the 8 yard line Michigan faced trailing the Illini 59-52 in the second overtime. Terry Hawthorne ran in front of Junior Hemingway to tip the ball away, but the ball flew back over his head into Hemingway's hands for the tying score.

"If you go back, if Terry knocks the ball down, we're not in that situation. There's so many ifs, ands and buts..."

Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase continues to improve. He's had 313 yards of total offense against Purdue and 312 against Michigan in consecutive games. Is he now ready to utilize the entire offensive package in a game?

"Yes. I'm the one who keeps pushing for more. I really believe one thing the coaches are doing is the things that Nathan does well. That's why he's progressing the way he's progressing, because he's doing the things he's comfortable with. Just take it a little bit at a time. As long as we stay on that progression, he'll continue to improve and get better."

The Illini have three games remaining, but this Saturday will be the last home game for the senior class. A win against Minnesota would make the Illini bowl eligible, but it means far more than that to the seniors.

"It's our second full class. It's a sad thing, it goes so fast. That's why I feel pretty confident these guys will be revved up. They know the importance of this game. They know it's a game we've got to play the way we're capable of playing. They want to play that way, and I really feel they will go out and do that."

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