Illinois had a bye week to rest tired bodies and refresh minds. It had two weeks to study Michigan tendencies and fire up to play an inspired game against a ranked opponent. But the entire Illini team played tentatively early, allowing the Wolverines to take control of the game. Illini coach Ron Zook was as bewildered as his fandom afterward.
"I thought we had some things fixed, and obviously we don't. We're in a funk for some reason, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. We've got to get through it."
The confidence gained from the six game winning streak has been depleted, replaced by self-doubt and deep disappointment from a four game losing streak. Zook understands the psychology involved.
"Probably the difference between the first six games and now is the overall mental attitude. The first six games, we weren't questioning ourselves. When bad things happen, you begin to doubt yourselves and question, and begin to press a little bit. I think that started in the Ohio State game. Coaches began to press, players began to press, and we kind of went South."
Michigan went 80 yards in just four plays to open the game. Running back Fitzgerald Toussaint gained 65 yards on one play as he burst through a huge hole and almost went all the way. Quarterback Denard Robinson scampered the final 16 yards to paydirt. The Wolverines scored again as the second quarter began on a two yard option by Robinson to make it 14-0.
In contrast, the Illini offense was held without a first down on its first three possessions and had only one the whole first half. They netted only 30 first half yards and had the ball only 9:08 of the 30 minutes in a pathetic display of ineptitude against an admittedly strong and well coached UM defense.
Despite being on the field so long, the Illini defense stiffened the rest of the half. After freshman punter Justin DuVernois shanked a 15 yard punt, consecutive tackles for loss by Illini linebacker Jonathan Brown and a later TFL by Michael Buchanan held UM out of the end zone. Later in the half, the defense forced a field goal that missed to keep the score 14-0 at halftime.
Despite a major statistical discrepancy, the Illini still had a chance as the second half began. But again the offense failed to move the ball. Not even an orange and blue sky as the sun set could awaken the offense.
Ryan Lankford fumbled a punt, and Michigan moved downfield for a 27 yard field goal by Brennan Gibbons. At that point, the Illini offense finally began to show some life. Using a more up-tempo style, they moved 75 yards in 13 plays. The biggest gains were a 14 yard completion from Nathan Scheelhaase to Spencer Harris and a bubble screen to Lankford that netted 18 more. Scheelhaase's option keeper from the 13 yard line gave the Illini life at 17-7.
After holding UM without a first down, the Illini offense began moving again. But any hope of a comeback win was shattered when UM cornerback T.J. Floyd intercepted a Scheelhaase pass and returned it to the UI 22 yard line. Three plays later, it was 24-7 and fans started their exodus. The Illini scored again on a one yard run by Jason Ford, but they gave up a quick TD at the end to create the 31-14 final.
Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino is catching heat for his play calling, but penalties, missed blocks and other mental errors continue to disrupt any offensive continuity. He wants desperately to improve the running game, but he is searching for answers.
"I think part of it is you've got to get first downs so you can stay on the field and get in a rhythm. A couple times we're not getting our blocks. A couple times we had big holes, and one time we fumbled. It's a combination of everything.
"I thought second half Nathan made a couple plays running on his own, making things happen all by himself. But you've got to run the ball better than that. We're just not doing a good job of that right now."
The Illini offensive line failed to pick up Michigan blitzes repeatedly, sacking Scheelhaase four times for 49 yards in losses and forcing hurried throws. At one point, the line was composed of redshirt freshmen Alex Hill and Michael Heitz, junior reserve Tyler Sands, injured Graham Pocic and Jeff Allen. They were in on the Illini touchdowns, but the lack of experience had a negative effect overall.
"Yeah at times we did, do to some injuries and different things," Petrino remembered. "We've got to re-evaluate what we're doing and the people that are doing it."
Petrino was asked if Scheelhaase has trouble finding hot receivers on all-out blitzes. He disagreed.
"A couple of them, we need to change the protection. Some of them, there shouldn't have been anybody hot; they should have been picked up.
"Nate struggled in the first half, but some other people did too. I thought he battled to the end. I was proud of him. I thought he competed as hard as he could second half. It doesn't matter who you put back there. If guys aren't doing their jobs, you're not gonna get it done."
Scheelhaase says the Illini are still confident. But after struggling the past four weeks, the offense reminds of last year's defense...on its heels fearful of bad things happening. If things don't go well early, doubt creeps in.
"As far as I'm concerned, I don't think confidence is an issue. But any time you don't start off the way you want to, guys can press the issue at times. You want to make it easier on yourself by starting off strong so you are more confident and playing more loose."
Receiver A.J. Jenkins had another productive day despite playing against an outstanding cornerback in Floyd. He ended with 103 yards in 8 catches as he was again the primary target for Scheelhaase. Like other Illini, he felt the team was ready for this game.
"Yeah I did, definitely. I thought the scheme was right, we had two weeks to watch film on them. I felt real confident going into the game."
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning took the blame for early Michigan running success, saying UM went against its tendencies, and he was slow to react. But he also points out how his defenders struggled, especially early.
"It seemed like we had to get used to their speed. From my vantage point, the things we've done all year was pressuring and attacking and blitzing. What was hurting us, we were getting upfield and we didn't make the tackle. We were running right by them. We went back to our base, and we seemed to make things happen.
"But we got our butt beat. There's a couple calls I'd like to have over, and I'm sure our players would like to have a lot of plays over. We didn't tackle as well as we need to; we looked embarrassingly poor at tackling a few times."
Defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who had another sack plus a forced fumble to his credit, admitted it is hard for the defense to remain confident when the offense isn't helping out. But he promises all the players will remain tight knit as they strive to work things out.
"True. Last year when we were in the same spot, our confidence probably would be shot. Basically we came together as a group, and we're gonna go down fighting."
Senior cornerback Tavon Wilson, who led the team in tackles with 11 and added an interception and fumble recovery, states the obvious.
"If you want to beat a good football team, you can't come out that way. Michigan has got a great offense, and they scored a quick 14 points on us. We've just got to get going faster."
Linebacker Jonathan Brown, who had three tackles for loss and tied for second in total tackles with Akeem Spence and Ian Thomas, says the Illini must keep battling.
"We've lost four games, it's tough. The only thing to do right now is get ready for Wisconsin. Put this game behind us and try to finish out the season strong."
"Steve Hull got some numbness in his hands that wasn't going away, and they're taking him for further evaluation," Zook explains. "They said he got hit in the back and shoulder. That's something you don't mess with. He's probably the most serious right now."
Illini coaches and players are distraught after watching their promising season take a long detour. In the end, there are no answers that will satisfy those who question the program. All they can do is keep fighting the good fight and hope the fans will stay behind them.
"I told them in the locker room the word 'quit' isn't in us," Zook reminded. "We're gonna keep fighting and keep battling. The guys are gonna keep battling with us."