View from the West Balcony

As I sat in the West Balcony on Saturday, I looked back at all the great seasons I have witnessed in Memorial Stadium since my freshman year at Illinois (1997). I can count those seasons on one finger, of one hand. My time as what many may consider a die-hard Illinois football fan has coincided with the entire Ron Turner era at Illinois, and just like Saturday afternoon against UCLA there have been far too many lows and far too few highs.

It was just seven years ago when I sat at Freshman Convocation inside Memorial Stadium and Ron Turner was introducing himself to the freshmen students as a freshman football coach. He did what every coach would do and asked the freshmen to support his team on the way to the Rose Bowl. The majority of the freshmen ate it up and cheered, and then never showed up to another event inside Memorial Stadium again. Not me though, I went to every game and watched a team go 0-11. No big deal, the team was rebuilding and Ron Turner needed time to get his guys in the system.

Fast forward to 1999. I am in my apartment watching Illinois down 27-7 to Michigan in the Big House, and about to be on the way to their third straight losing season in the Ron Turner era. Something happens and a switch flips in the heads of the Illini. Kurt Kittner and especially Rocky Harvey carry Illinois to a spectacular win in the Big House. This win propels Illinois to another great win inside the Horseshoe over Ohio State, and then to a dominating performance in the MicronPC.com Bowl. Illinois football was on its way under Ron Turner and Kurt Kittner.

The next season was lost when Michigan came into Memorial Stadium and defeated Illinois on some terrible official calls that were among the first reasons the Big Ten is experimenting with instant replay this season. The following season was definitely one of dreams as Illinois on the arm of Kurt Kittner won the Big Ten and was the Big Ten's representative in the BCS as they took on Louisiana State in the Sugar Bowl. The game was a big loss to the Tigers, but the program was turned around and headed in the right direction, or was it?

The next two years after the Sugar Bowl appearance, Illinois has finished 5-7 and 1-11, respectively. Questions abounded about the job security of Ron Turner for good reasons, but in a move that was probably done to help save his job Turner fired Defensive Coordinator Mike Cassity and promotes Mike Mallory to the Defensive Coordinator position. This spring and pre-season all we heard from the Illini football program was an Illinois team that was refocusing on the fundamentals defensively, tackling and positioning. After two games in 2004, we again know that the refocusing on these fundamentals are not working.

Yesterday's game started out as well as any Illinois fan could have hoped. Illinois took the ball on the opening kick and drove down the field to the four yard line thanks in most part to a great play action call on the first play of the game that resulted in a deep pass to Kendrick Jones. On third and two from the five yard line, E.B. Halsey rushed up the right side of the Illinois offensive line for one yard, leaving a pivotal fourth and one. Ron Turner decided to go for the first down, showing the confidence in his offensive line over a defensive line that was just dominated a week earlier in their own building. E.B. Halsey rushed straight up the middle, but he was stuffed. On the next play Drew Olson throws the ball to the right side for 23 yards, and UCLA proceeds to march down the field to score the game's first touchdown.

Illinois' next two possessions were not much better for Illinois. Four plays, nine yards and a blocked punt that luckily went thirty-five yards. I still have no idea how Steve Weatherford got that punt going forward because he had no time to kick and it looked like he kicked it through the body of the UCLA defender. The next Illinois possession started on the Illinois four yard line, and after moving the ball down the field 66 yards Kendrick Jones fumbled on the UCLA 31 yard line. The thought through the minds of most Illinois fans was probably, "here we go again." Illinois was down 14-0 and pretty much had given the game away to the Bruins.

On Illinois' next possession they scored a touchdown thanks to a Jon Beutjer 16 yard touch down pass to Franklin Payne. Illinois was down only 14-7 after all the offensive mistakes. They were still in the game, and all they needed was a defensive stop. The defense had a chance to slow down the Bruins attack, and that is what they did on two straight possessions. They held UCLA to a three and out and then Mike Gawalek intercepted a Drew Olson pass on the Illinois 48 that was batted in the air by an Illinois defensive lineman. The Illini offense had a chance to tie the game and effectively switch the momentum in their favor, but Pierre Thomas fumbled the ball on third and four, leading to another UCLA touchdown drive and a 21-7 deficit for the Illini.

Then at the end of the first half, Jon Beutjer went down with bruised ribs, and Illinois had a field goal blocked as time expired. Heading into the half, no one in the stands knew that Jon would not be back, but there was a sense that Illinois could still win this game. They had three turnovers, and were only down fourteen points. If Illinois could just not turn the ball over they had a chance to maybe come back and win this game. The first drive of the second half pretty much ended any thoughts of an Illinois comeback as UCLA took the kickoff and proceeded to march on a ten play eighty yard drive to close out Illinois.

Sure there were signs from Brad Bower and a rejuvenated Illinois offense, but the Illini defense was constantly missing tackles behind the line of scrimmage and letting UCLA gain big yards on these runs. The game was effectively over when Brad Bower through an interception in the flat on the Illini's second drive of the fourth quarter, which led to UCLA's final touchdown one play later.

I heard three things this summer and I saw three things on the field yesterday that were not changed at all. Illinois' defense was supposed to tackle better. On Saturday, Illinois' defense tackled as poorly as it did last season. Illinois' defense was supposed to be more disciplined. On Saturday, I saw Alan Ball just blatantly step on a UCLA receiver for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty (his second of the season). Illinois' defense was supposed to be better at pursuing the ball. On Saturday, I saw the same over pursuit, and cut backs work to perfection against this Illinois defense. The only change is the coordinator, but the exact same problems that killed Illinois last year, hurt the Illini Saturday.

What has changed? Will it ever change? Or are Ron Turner and Ron Guenther going to keep waking us up to I Got You Babe and having us relive the same day over and over every Saturday afternoon?

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