How did Illinois lose at Purdue Saturday? Let us count the ways:
* A false start on the Illini's first possession forces a punt, demonstrating a lack of focus from the beginning.
* Defensive tackle Akeem Spence makes a great play to strip and recover the ball, giving the Illini great field position on the Purdue 43 yard line. But Nathan Scheelhaase fumbles the snap on first down and was sacked on second down. Again no first downs as the Illini can't capitalize on the turnover.
* PU quarterback Caleb Terbush leads his team 91 yards for the opening score. The big play was a 32 yard completion to Justin Siller on third and 21. TerBush avoided a sack to complete the big conversion.
* The UI gets its first 1st down of the game but is forced to punt again. The Boilermakers go 88 yards in 10 plays for a second score. A defensive offsides penalty on 3rd and 9 perpetuates the drive.
* On the Illini's next possession, Scheelhaase is sacked on first down, Fred Sykes drops his pass on third down, and freshman punter Justin DuVernois bobbles the snap and is downed on the UI's 16 yard line.
* Five plays later, it is 21-0. Further demonstrating a lack of focus, Jonathan Brown appears to force a sack on 3rd down, but PU gains a first and goal from the 4 when Spence is called for a personal foul on the play.
* DuVernois shanks his next punt, likely from hurrying it out of fear of the rush.
* Reilly O'Toole replaces an ineffective and confused Scheelhaase. He completes his first four passes and appears to be moving the team for the first time all game. But he then badly underthrows A.J. Jenkins into the wind on a sideline pattern, and Ricardo Allen intercepts.
* The Illini finally have an opening for a big punt return. Ryan Lankford catches the ball and darts upfield when the play is called dead. A flag is thrown because an official thinks he was calling for a fair catch, but was later withdrawn and the ball spotted where Lankford caught the ball. For all the complaints about a lack of returns, an official error prevented what would have been the UI's best return of the season and a chance for great field position.
* With 17 seconds left in the half, the Illini take over on their own 45 yard line. Scrambling, Scheelhaase finds a big opening and scoots downfield. As he is about to be tackled, he laterals to Jason Ford, who completes the 33 yard gain to the Purdue 22. With no timeouts and the clocked stopped temporarily for the first down, Scheelhaase spikes the ball instead of running a play, and the clock runs out.
That was just the first half. The Illini settled down some second half as Purdue slowed down its attack and became more conservative. But even then, mistakes took their toll. Purdue was 11th in the conference with 6 sacks on the year, but they added 4 Saturday.
Scheelhaase overthrew Jenkins on two open sideline patterns. Jon Davis, who had four receptions on the day, fell on a pass route that would have gone for a first down. Jonathan Brown jumped offside to give Purdue a first down. Holding was called on a long Scheelhaase run.
It was deep in the fourth quarter before the Illini rallied. Starting with great field position at the PU 40, it took 13 plays and a fourth down conversion to score for the first time. Jason Ford, who had his best game of the year, ran tough after a reception for 17 yards and made a good spin move to open up a 16 yard TD scamper with 8:12 left in the game.
Getting the ball back under four minutes, the Illini went 90 yards in 14 plays for their best sustained drive of the day, Scheelhaase using a draw to score from two yards out. Unfortunately, only :54 remained, and the onside kick failed, ending the game on a sour note.
The Illini made it close, but they didn't wake up until too late to prove victorious. As head coach Ron Zook stated afterward, they dug themselves too big a hole to recover.
"That's exactly right. This is the same team that won six games. We've got to quit worrying about winning and just go play. We'll go back to work and get this where it's supposed to be."
To their credit, Purdue is an improving team that came ready to play. They did everything right in all phases when the game mattered most. They kept the UI defense off balance in the first half by mixing run and pass and using multiple skill players in a variety of ways. Eight different players carried the ball. With a hurry-up style, the Illini were slow to compensate.
"They did a good job," Zook acknowledged. "It's a staff that's done a great job. They struggled a little bit at the beginning of the year, but they're getting their guys playing and believing."
Scheelhaase ended with 22 completions in 35 attempts for 217 yards while running for 16 yards and a touchdown in 13 attempts. But his first half left much to be desired. Culminating a frustrating 30 minutes, Zook agreed Scheelhaase should have attempted one final play instead of spiking the ball. It might not have worked, but the normally smart quarterback was off his game.
Zook felt O'Toole did a good job relieving the starter. He explained the reasoning behind the change.
"Number one, to try to get a spark going. Two, it gives Nathan an opportunity to catch his breath and see what's going on. He doesn't have to worry about the mental part of it."
One can use a variety of explanations and excuses for the loss, but in the end the only thing that matters is season record. Playing their 8th straight game without a break, the Illini are no doubt tired and bruised. It was obvious they lacked their normal quickness and spark.
They needed to play an inspired game, but it wasn't in them on this day. One can blame the players and/or coaches for the lack of focus, but Zook reminds the Illini seemed ready throughout the week.
"I can't question their practices; we've had great weeks. But for some reason, on Saturday we tighten up a little bit. We've just got to go play. When they just played and didn't worry about the score in the third and fourth quarter, they played decent."
Illini Nation is no doubt angry and frustrated about a season that appears to be slipping away prior to another road test at defensively-strong Penn State next week. Illini players and coaches are just as concerned. The season is not lost; most goals can still be reached. But the UI will need to dig deep next week to right the ship.