Werner: Pain of expectation

Illini showed some encouraging signs in Saturday's close loss at Iowa but too many errors cost them a win, a bigger sign of progress

IOWA CITY, Iowa - There was a pain in the Illinois football coaches' and players' faces in the aftermath of Saturday's 29-20 loss to No. 22 Iowa (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten).

A new kind of pain. The pain of expectation.

Sure, Illinois  (4-2, 1-1) displayed some encouraging signs of strength, competitiveness and grit. But moral victories aren't -- and shouldn't -- be the standard anymore at Illinois.

"That's not the expectation anymore," said safety Clayton Fejedelem, who said he didn't play well. "The expectation here is to win, no matter who you're playing. Iowa's a good team. Undefeated right now. But there's no reason we couldn't be 2-0 (in the Big Ten) right now."

Watch this team without the bias of previous seasons' results -- Illinois has lost 27 of its last 32 Big Ten games -- and it looks like a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team. Tomorrow, Hawkeyes players will feel like it went through a Big Ten game.

Illinois no longer looks like the conference walkover. The Illini proved they belong on the same field as Nebraska with last week's 14-13 win. They proved they belong on the same field is Iowa on Saturday.

But it's winning time at Illinois -- and Illinois didn't do enough to win a game against a top-25 team at Kinnick Stadium. They turned it over twice in the final quarter: one on a pass by a wide receiver (Geronimo Allison) on a 3rd-and-1 in Iowa territory, and the other (a Ke'Shawn Vaughn fumble) on the first play of a drive that started with 3:20 left with the Illini down six points.

"I think the frustration is we're so close," said quarterback Wes Lunt, who threw for 317 yards and a touchdown. "I think everyone can see that we're breaking through as a team. We just have to get back to work on this bye week ... and move on."

The Illini offensive line was overmatched by Iowa's defensive line (46 rushing yards, 1.8 yards per rush and three sacks), but Illini coach Bill Cubit used an up-tempo, pass-heavy attack in the second half to overcome some of its weaknesses up front.

"You always want to be in the game," senior guard Ted Karras said. "I think in the past four years in Big Ten road games, it wouldn't have even mattered in the fourth quarter, just based on the history. (Saturday) we're in it and we're going to win. We just have to capitalize early. I guess it is a little frustrating because if we hold onto that ball, I think we're celebrating in here a little bit more."

The Illini defense hit Iowa hard but allowed too many big plays (and 478 total yards), including a 75-yard touchdown run by Jordan Canzeri (256 rushing yards on 43 carries).

"I know this: the kids played hard, which that's the expectation, and they should play hard," defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. "But at this point with where we want to be, we got to be able to close teams out. I thought second half we did a lot better, held them to a bunch of field goals. We just gave up the big run. We just can't give up big plays and have a chance to be successful on the road."

Illinois is still missing opportunities for big plays and allows too many big plays, which threatens to keep this team closer to the bottom tier of the conference. 

Injuries also give this team both optimism and pessimism.

They had a chance to beat Iowa without two of its top two offensive playmakers: running back Josh Ferguson (Illini coach Bill Cubit has no timetable for the senior's return from a shoulder injury) and wide receiver Mikey Dudek (who underwent surgery to repair a torn ACL six months ago). The Illini's top two remaining playmakers on Saturday, freshman running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn (116 total yards, 1 TD) and senior receiver Geronimo Allison (8 catches, 148 receiving yards, 1 TD), both took big hits on Saturday, and starting sophomore receiver Marchie Murdock left the game with a deep thigh bruise.

So the Illini are competitive despite the injuries, but the amount of injuries threaten their future competitiveness.

Illinois -- which has a bye week to lick its wounds before hosting Wisconsin on Oct. 24 for homecoming -- can take some positives from Saturday's loss. 

"In the past where we go on the road in this league, a couple bad things would happen and it'd go down hill really fast," said Cubit, whose team was blitzed 48-14 at North Carolina in Week 3. "It didn't do it this time, so I'm proud of the kids. Our kids fought. We can win a lot of football games with that kind of heart and effort."

It's progress that the post-game complaints center around a few plays that went wrong or a few coaching decisions in a close loss, rather than Illinois just lacking the talent to compete with its Big Ten peers.

But this program must move past moral victories.

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