The Day After: Agony Without The Ecstasy

There is no other way to say it. The Fighting Illini football team is heartbroken after its loss at Penn State Saturday in a game it could have won. It is perhaps lucky Illini players get a few days off to lick wounds and regain their determination to fight another day. Unfortunately for head coach Ron Zook, he had to relive it with the media on Sunday.

The Illinois football team fought valiantly against a strong Penn State group on its home field. Mistakes and turnovers were partly to blame for the loss. But onlookers felt officiating left much to be desired, even wondering if the officials helped Joe Paterno reach a coaching milestone 409th victory.

Head coach Ron Zook was unwilling to receive a $10,000 fine and incur the wrath of the Big 10 office by complaining publicly. He might have wanted to, but he thought better of it.

"I can't talk about that stuff. I'm sure in every game there's things you can question. Officials have a tough job, and they've got to call it like they see it. Sure, we felt like there were some things that were going the other way, but you get some of that in every game."

Penalties that weren't called. Phantom penalties. Possession decisions that favored the home team despite appearances. There is an extensive list of potential grievances. Unbeknownst to those watching on television, there was also a problem with snowballs.

Penn State fans were throwing snowballs at Illini players and coaches. Supposedly, one or more snowballs drifted near where the Illini were trying a game tying field goal at the end of regulation. Zook sought an end to it with the officials, to no avail.

"I kept telling them. I told them in the first half, and they said they were gonna talk to the game management. I guess they either didn't care or didn't get the point across. I don't think it gave us trouble, but they were firing at them. It's part of the game I guess. What can I say?"

On Penn State's first possession of the second half, Terry Hawthorne intercepted a pass to give the Illini good field position at the PSU 40. On the Illini's second play, Reilly O'Toole threw a short pass to A.J. Jenkins. On replay, it was clear he had the ball in his possession while sitting on the ground. D'Anton Lynn stole the ball from his grasp after he was down, but it was ruled an interception.

The officials said Jenkins never had possession of the pass, making the play unreviewable. Zook wanted to have the play reviewed but was rebuffed. During his Sunday teleconference, all he could do was quote the rule book.

"When the guy said it was not reviewable without wasting a time out, I assumed it was. 'You cannot review a possession or loose ball on the field of play.' That's the only thing I can tell you can put it under."

That may explain the ruling, but it doesn't explain the actual play on the field. Illini players, coaches and fans will have to assume they were simply unlucky and not undermined by biased officials.

Whenever a team loses a close game, every detail seems significant. When the Illini took possession of the ball with 7 minutes to play and a 7-3 lead, they needed to sustain a drive to take time off the clock or score if possible.

They made one big first down on a 19 yard draw by quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, but a holding call slowed the drive. During their eight plays, they didn't run the play clock down to the final seconds, and Zook was asked why. His explanation reminds of what happens when basketball teams slow their pace to run clock too early and lose momentum and often the game.

"You don't know what's gonna happen in the game. If we had done that, we might not have had any time for that last series. I don't think that's the time to slow it down. We were moving the ball and had a good tempo. But then later we would slow it down. Maybe we were a little faster than we could have been, but you can't just take the air out of the ball with that much time on the clock."

Everyone is frustrated by special team play. The blocked Justin DuVernois punt allowing PSU room for its field goal was the latest catastrophe. Zook was asked whether personnel changes were the answer.

"There were about four people involved in the blocked punt. It wasn't just Justin. I don't foresee changing any guys. We've got some guys that have got to make sure they do what they have to do. I'm not looking to change people just to change people. Justin has some things to work on, but for the most part he played pretty well."

O'Toole has played well subbing in spot situations for Nathan Scheelhaase this year as a true freshman. Some wonder whether a quarterback change would help stimulate a stagnant offense.

"It was Nathan's game, and we felt it was important to give him a chance to finish it. There's a lot of things that go into it."

On a positive note, Zook was extremely proud of how well his team responded after two straight losses.

"I think overall, particularly after the first quarter, we played pretty well. Defensively, we played extremely well. I thought offensively, for the first time in a couple games, we were much more physical."

Overlooked in the emotional turmoil of the game was the fact Jenkins went over 1000 receiving yards on the season, a major accomplishment. Zook was complimentary.

"I'm proud of him, I'm happy for him. He's doing things we thought he'd have the opportunity to have happen. If you ask A.J., I think he'd be the first to tell you that he would rather have won the game yesterday."

Jason Ford ran for 100 yards against Penn State. He appears to be the featured back.

"Right now, yes sir. I thought he ran well."

The Illini now have their first and only bye week on the schedule. While their bodies would have benefitted from it earlier in the season, now is a good time for a mental housecleaning.

"I told them after the game yesterday to get away from football. Most of them were around yesterday with me watching the tape. We've got to regroup and put it behind us. You'd like to get away on a more positive note, but it is what it is.

"I think our guys will regroup. It's a great group of guys. They stuck together; no one was complaining about anything yesterday, just playing."

There is no rest for the coaches, of course. Zook is already in Florida recruiting, and his assistants have fanned out around the country for the same purpose.

"Right now, everybody's on the road for a couple days. Vic (Koenning) and Paul (Petrino) will be back in the office on Wednesday. We'll practice Thursday, Friday, Saturday."

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