Illinois football coach Ron Zook made a mistake at Indiana Saturday. It didn't cost him the game, but it created a firestorm of criticism and confusion afterward.
Nathan Scheelhaase had just hit Jon Davis for a three yard touchdown pass to give the Illini a 20-13 lead. Zook inexplicably called for a two point conversion. Indiana was as surprised as everyone else and called timeout to reconsider. When play resumed, Scheelhaase failed to run in the conversion.
Zook waited until the end of his Sunday teleconference before initiating discussion of the subject on everyone's tongues.
"Nobody's gonna ask about going for two? I screwed up. I got going too fast. I screwed up, but that won't happen again, I guarantee that."
Like most coaches, Zook refers to a two-point conversion chart before making such decisions.
"There's two different (cards) that we use. And then Paul (Petrino) has them in the (press) box too. I just got going too fast and looked at the wrong thing. That's on me."
With the timeout, there was time to reconsider the decision. Zook was asked why Petrino or someone else didn't correct him.
"Paul and I had talked an awful lot about two-point situations Friday night. There's some things we want to do in two-point situations. He probably just assumed that is what I was thinking."
Wouldn't he normally kick the extra point to give the Illini an 8 point lead?
When a team is winning, there are fewer things to complain about. And with the Illini, every mistake or problem becomes a teaching moment. The opening kickoff return giving the Hoosiers a quick lead yesterday was a definite mistake by multiple players, including kicker Derek Dimke according to Zook.
"It was about a 3 second hang time. It was a line drive, and we didn't have anybody to the 40 yard line by the time he (Shane Wynn) caught it. We've still got to cover. Two people weren't where they were supposed to be, and that's what happens when you're trying to get guys on the field to rest other guys.
"We'll learn from it, and fortunately it wasn't something that hurt us. Your kickoff coverage starts with the kick. Derek and I talked about it this morning. We'll get it straightened out and be fine."
Nathan Scheelhaase has made tremendous improvement in a year and is a big reason for offensive success in 2011. Zook sounds like a proud papa when speaking about him.
"A big thing is he's in his second year. Coach (Jeff) Brohm has done a great job with him in terms of coaching the things he does best.
"Nathan is a very intelligent guy, so he learns from his mistakes and hopefully doesn't make the same mistake twice. And he's an extremely hard worker. He's a little bit of a football junkie. He studies football and wants to be the best he can be. So it's just a natural progression.
"He knows where to go with the ball, he's so much more confident in his abilities. And he's a leader and can raise the guys around him to play better as well."
A major recipient of Scheelhaase's improvement has been senior receiver A.J. Jenkins, who is closing in on some major Illini records.
"I think the biggest thing besides knowing the offense, Coach Petrino has done a great job with him. And it was all the work Nathan and those receivers put in this summer. On more than one Saturday morning, those guys would get me off the Stairmaster to get me to open the Indoor for them. This summer, Nathan had them out there all the time.
"I think that's one of the reasons Nathan is throwing the ball so much better, and I think the same for Jenkins. They know each other so well. A.J. has always been talented, he's always been a guy that could catch the football, run and all those things. But the extra work those guys have done is paying off."
The Illini defense has been outstanding this year. When asked if defenders have a chip on their shoulder from their lack of respect in preseason, Zook said there was more to it than that.
"That's probably got something to do with it. Vic (Koenning) and the staff are doing a great job. Coach (Mike) Gillhamer has done a great job with the secondary in terms of teaching them how to prepare for different concepts they're facing.
"And being in the system a second year allows Vic to make adjustments we maybe couldn't make last year. We were playing pretty well last year until the Michigan game. Now we've got to play through the whole year to the best of our ability."
Illinois is now #15 in the UPI coaches poll and #16 in the AP media poll.
"I'm happy for Illini Nation, and I'm happy for the players," Zook acknowledged. "Our players understand the most important game is Ohio State, and on any given day anybody can beat anybody. At the end of the year, you can see where you're at."
Zook was able to see part of the Ohio State game at Nebraska last evening. His observations on Nebraska's comeback win served as a reminder for Illini fans next Saturday.
"The crowd was very important. The enthusiasm and momentum they poured into that stadium had a lot to do with it. We're gonna have to have our place rocking in the same way. It was a great job by Nebraska. That's what a home field advantage can do for you."
Buckeye freshman quarterback Braxton Miller was hurt in the game, but his status for the Illini is unknown. He makes a difference for OSU, so Zook must prepare both for him and his backup Joe Bauserman.
"We haven't heard any reports yet. Right now, you've got to expect them both to play. Until we know differently, we probably have to figure that Braxton Miller will be the guy, both him and Joe."
The Illini have not enjoyed a 6-0 start since 1951. Zook was asked if he has ever experienced this kind of beginning to a season.
"No I haven't. But we don't look at it as a 6-0 start. We look at it as the next game. We've talked all year about how we're gonna play one game at a time. Our guys are able to stay focused on the game and not panic. No matter what, they keep playing, and that's how we're approaching the season.
"It's one game at a time. Let's put all our focus on Ohio State now. It's the most important game of our lives because it's our next game."