There are few dominant teams in college football. Upsets are common and continue to confound the ratings experts. Among the upsets yesterday, USC nipped Oregon; Baylor beat Oklahoma handily; North Carolina State won big over favored Clemson; Virginia over Florida State; Penn State beat OSU in Columbus; and Missouri over Texas Tech.
Illinois coach Ron Zook referred to those upsets during his Sunday teleconference.
"Isn't it amazing? You think that we're miles and miles away. That's the frustrating thing for a coach. When you look at that, you see how close you are. We can't get over the hump."
Illinois wanted desperately to pull the upset over the powerful Wisconsin Badgers Saturday. They had a lead at halftime but saw their hopes dashed by a series of turnovers.
"There's no way you can have that many turnovers and have a chance to win. But if you look at the game, you have five turnovers. You have a touchdown called back, and you still have a chance to win the game. That's how close we are.
"The first half, offensively we probably played one of our better halves. No question. And I thought defensively we played pretty well for the most part. All we've got to do is keep playing for 60 minutes, one play at a time, same kind of way. I think we can do that, I really do."
Zook was asked if Wisconsin is the best team the Illini have played this season.
"I think they're probably the best team we played. Our football team's got to understand. Whether they're the best team in the Big 10, I'm not sure. But they're good. They've got a lot of weapons on both sides of the ball. And they play with a lot of confidence."
That last comment may be most significant. Teams accustomed to winning expect to win. Adversity strikes them also, but they have the confidence they can fight back and win. In contrast, the Illini have not had enough success to believe in themselves when things go badly. When turnovers mounted yesterday, confidence waned.
"If you play 30 minutes that way, there's no reason why you can't play 60 minutes that way. We've got to figure a way to put a game together. We haven't done that yet."
It is a vicious cycle. You can't gain confidence without wins, and you can't win without confidence. Illini teams the past 20 years have only rarely overcome adversity, and they can't sustain success even when they do.
Zook tried to make changes to stir the pot this past week, and it seemed to help for a half. One of those was to alternate quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole. He was asked if they will share time at Minnesota.
"I don't know, we'll look at that. Just off the top of my head, I would say that Reilly will play. But there's no question that right now, Nathan gives us the best chance to win."
Freshman punter Justin DuVernois dropped his second snap this season, and Zook used rugby punter Ryan Lankford in his place second half Saturday. This may also be a situation where players will share time.
"I'll probably use them both. That's the second time now that has happened to Justin. He's a freshman, and he is gonna be a good punter. But he has to understand you have to catch the ball.
"He does have good hands; he wears out the Jugs machine on his hands. He can't worry about the rush. He can't worry about anything, just get the ball off."
Freshman running back Donovonn Young ran with his old aggressiveness Saturday after a few weeks where he struggled with turnovers and confidence. He was the leading Illini ball carrier and scored twice before leaving the game with injury. Fortunately, it appears his injury is minor.
"I was proud of him. He ran hard, broke a couple tackles. That's what we want him to do. It will be day-to-day with Donovonn. It's a sprained ankle. Hopefully he can come back and be ready to go. He was in pretty good spirits this morning when I talked with him."
Like the Penn State game, critical officiating calls had something to do with outcome of the Wisconsin game. The Illini were assessed two questionable offensive pass interference calls that prevented the Illini from extending their first half lead to 21-7. And one of the Badger scores came on a similar play that wasn't called.
Zook will show the video to the Big 10, but nothing will be done about it to change the game's outcome.
"You turn in plays they use to try to get better. There were definitely some pass interference plays that were called on us and wasn't called on them that we will turn in for them to evaluate."
School is not in session this week due to Thanksgiving. The Illini had to move out of the dorms. They will continue their practices this week to prepare for Minnesota, and those unable to go home for a day will take time to share a Thanksgiving meal.
"After practice on Thursday, we'll have a dinner up in the Colonnades. And they'll have opportunities to go to our homes if they don't have some place to go. The travel squad will all be here."