Illini Season Sours In Wine Country

The Fighting Illini football team ended the regular season the way it began, losing at Fresno State 25-23 Friday night. The Bulldogs played with more passion than the Illini, especially in the first quarter in building a 16-0 lead. The Illini fought back, but a lack of a passing attack prevented offensive balance. And a porous defensive secondary gave FSU too many chances.

Illinois lost any chance of being picked for a prestigious bowl game by ending the season 6-6. And they failed in their desire to pay back Fresno State for their miracle win in Champaign last year. Illini coach Ron Zook lamented the weak first half response by the Illini.

"It was a game of two halves. It was like we were sleep-walking in the first half. We weren't on point, and I don't know the reason. It felt like in practices we prepared well. It just took us a half to get going. You don't take the first half off against a good football team."

Fresno State, more accustomed to a slippery field that needs replacing, scored on its first three possessions by mixing short runs with play-action passes to wide open receivers. Senior quarterback Ryan Colburn, who completed 18 of 26 passes for 304 yards and three touchdowns on the night, hit open targets in stride.

Colburn hit A.J. Ellis for a 27 yarder the first time they had the ball to conclude an 8 play drive that met minimal resistence from the Illini. After the Illini failed to move the ball, Colburn hit a wide open Jalen Saunders over the top, and he completed a 78 yard touchdown play. Kevin Goessling hit a 45 yard field goal to make it 16-0 at the end of the first quarter.

Nathan Scheelhaase, who gained 131 yards rushing on 24 carries and set an Illinois single season record for rushing yards by a quarterback, burst free for a 47 yard run to set up an 18 yard chip shot field goal by Derek Dimke on fourth and goal from the one yard line. Goessling countered with a 52 yarder on FSU's fourth possession to make it 19-3.

The Illini appeared to be gaining momentum as they went sixty yards in four plays to narrow the Bulldog lead to 19-10. Scheelhaase hit A.J. Jenkins on a 23 yard pass play, and Mikel Leshoure ran the final 35 yards untouched.

FSU's Tracy Slocum fumbled the ball over to Trulon Henry to give the Illini great field position at the Fresno 46 yard line. But the Illini offense failed to generate a single first down. Dimke tried a 49 yard field goal with time running out in the first half, but it came up a few feet short.

Throughout the first half, the Illini appeared lethargic. FSU put repeated pressure on Scheelhaase when he tried to pass, and the Illini offensive line struggled to contain them. Defensively, there was no swarming to the ball and none of the passion Illini fans had come to expect.

"On both sides of the ball we were sleeping in the first half, and we weren't doing a good job of protecting," Zook explained. "You've got to play 60 minutes; we talk about that all the time. It took us awhile to get going. I felt the second half the football team came out and did a much better job."

Illinois marched 92 yards on 17 time-consuming plays on the first drive of the second half to narrow the FSU advantage to 19-17. A.J. Jenkins came back to grab a wobbly jump pass from a scrambling Scheelhaase for the score. However, Fresno reacted far too fast, going 63 yards in just four plays to regain an 8 point advantage.

Scheelhaase ran the option to perfection on the first play of the fourth quarter, going 25 yards to make the score 25-23. With the defense beginning to apply more pressure to Colburn, the Illini had their chances to take the lead. But the Bulldog defense stiffened, knowing the Illini pass offense couldn't pressure them consistently.

The Illini pinned the hosts back at their own 10 yard line with plenty of time to get the ball back. But the Bulldogs came through with a 19 play drive that didn't end until there were 23 seconds left in the game. At the 3:13 mark, an extremely favorable spot on fourth and one allowed the drive to continue, ending Illini hopes.

Illinois outgained Fresno State 399 to 364 for the game. But ity lacked FSU's big play ability, especially in the passing attack. Illini secondary members were slipping and sliding on the slick turf, giving FSU receivers more space. But Colburn and a bevy of quick athletes kept the pressure on.

Leshoure ended with 142 yards rushing in 19 carries. Jason Ford had a good day also, going for 50 yards in six tries. Scheelhaase was only 5 of 16 for 61 yards passing with one touchdown. Eddie McGee was two of four for 20 yards. Jenkins ended with 6 receptions for 75 yards.

Defensively, Henry led the Illini with 8 tackles. Nathan Bussey added 6 and Martez Wilson 5. Corey Liuget, Michael Buchanan and Ian Thomas each had two tackles for loss. Thomas was injured late in the game, but his leg was not broken. It may have been a high ankle sprain, but he has a chance to be healthy for a bowl game.

The Illini have few options for a bowl assignment. Their fate will be announced officially Sunday evening. Illini coaches will go on the road recruiting immediately upon their return to campus while the players conclude first semester. Bowl practices will resume next weekend.

Illinois did better than expected this season, but they had chances to have a much better record in at least three other games. Zook reminded them of that afterward.

"Like I told our football team, we're better than what our record is. But that's what the record is. That's what we have to learn from, and we have to make a stop to that."

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