Illini Conclude Epic Collapse At Minnesota

The Fighting Illini continued their fall from grace, losing their sixth straight game at Minnesota Saturday. After appearing to have a potent offense first half of the season, the Illini challenged records for futility against a team with a 2-9 record. If athletic director Mike Thomas was looking for another rationalization to terminate head coach Ron Zook, the Illini may have provided it.

A season that began with so much promise ended with a demoralizing 6 game losing streak. Despite an 8 game home schedule, 6 straight victories and bowl eligibility to begin the season, the Illini now limp into the postseason unsure whether it will be rewarded with a bowl game.

There wasn't much Illinois head coach Ron Zook could say afterward.

"It is very disappointing. As I just told the coaches, we didn't get it done, and the players didn't get it done. For whatever reason, we've got to figure it out.

"I feel bad for the seniors. Some of these guys will never play football again. They're a good group. It teaches them a lot about life."

It appeared the Illini left their game on the field against Wisconsin last week. All the nice things possible with a seventh win weren't enough to motivate players already discouraged by recent failures. Meanwhile, the Gophers were extremely focused to win their last game to use as a stepping stone to next year.

"You have to give them credit. We said all week long it was a football team that was playing extremely well the last 4 games. They would have won last week had they not turned the ball over two times in the red zone.

"We didn't do our job. We didn't do the things we were supposed to do and play with the same energy and intensity you have to do to be successful."

Athletic director Mike Thomas, speaking at halftime on WDWS radio, remained vague as to his plans relative to the football program. There is much speculation he will appease angry donors by firing Zook. All he would provide were his criteria for all athletic programs at the UI.

"You look at the total body of work. It's not just since my arrival for any sport, it goes back before my time. We look at a lot of pieces. Certainly, winning a high level and winning Big 10 championships and being a national player, you can still get it done in the classroom, and you still have to be first-rate ambassadors for this community.

"Those things aren't obviously exclusive. I think you can compete at a high level, you can win games on the field of competition and get it done in the classroom. Historically, Illinois has done a tremendous job of being engaged with what's happening on the campus and community."

He will sit down with Zook soon and, if necessary, make a decision after that.

"Traditionally you try to do that fairly soon after the season is over with, regardless of where the program's at."

The Illini offense was completely inept in the first half. With a cold wind blustering at 25 mph and more, a conservative approach was attempted. The result was one first down, registered with less than a minute remaining in the half, and 18 net yards of offense.

The Illini defense played extremely well first quarter, but momentum favored Minnesota heavily in the second stanza. Nathan Scheelhaase was hit in the backfield and fumbled. The Gophers recovered on the Illini 16 yard line. Quarterback MarQueis Gray, who rushed for 167 yards and two touchdowns and passed for 85 yards and a TD, needed just one play to give the Gophers a lead early in the second quarter.

The rest of the quarter proved fatal for the beleaguered Illini. Getting the ball back on the Illini 46, the Gophers needed 7 plays to score on an 8 yard pass from Gray to John Rabe. They added two field goals to make the score 20-0 at halftime. Whatever confidence the Illini defense had early, the short fields and lack of any success by the offense ruined it.

The Gophers struck again on their first possession of the second half to put the game out of reach. The Illini did mount a brief counterattack on their next possession. On fourth and eight on their own 22 yard line, fullback Jay Prosch ran a fake punt nine yards for the second Illini first down of the game.

Encouraged, the Illini began a march downfield with their hurry-up offense. Reilly O'Toole, playing for an ineffective Scheelhaase, completed five passes and ran for 11 yards on a scramble to set up Troy Pollard for an 11 yard touchdown. But the excitement was temporary.

Two possessions later, a long drive ended inside the Gopher 10 yard line. O'Toole had moved the team from its own 37 via 3 straight completions to Jake Kumerow and an 11 yard gain to tight end Matt LaCosse. The Illini were 3rd and goal at the Minnesota nine when the Illini decided to insert Scheelhaase, who gained two yards on a run. His fourth down rollout run-pass option was diagnosed, resulting in a sack to end the Illini's last scoring threat.

The Illini ended with 160 total yards of offense compared with 333 for Minnesota. All but one statistic favored the Gophers. But when the team's highlight was the punting of rugby style kicker Ryan Lankford, much maligned earlier in the year, you know there isn't much to brag about. Lankford had a 41.9 yard average on nine attempts.

O'Toole completed 11 of 21 passes for 63 yards and ran for 26. While it remains to be seen whether he is now the starting quarterback, Zook did praise him.

"Reilly is a guy that's a much better athlete than what people might think. I think you saw a little fire in his belly, and he showed some aggressiveness out there. He's an aggressive, winning type guy. I think he's gonna be a fine quarterback."

The Illini remain bowl eligible, but there are now 10 Big 10 teams with at least six wins. It remains to be seen whether they get the invite expected since halfway through the season. It is a frustrating conclusion for everyone concerned.

"We've got to figure out why the wheels have come off." Zook understates. "I think there's a lot of reasons for that; it isn't just one or two things. You wish it was just one or two things. There's a lot of things we have to go back and fix. We're not the same team now that we were the first game."

Sad but true.

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