View from the West Balcony

The Big Ten losing streak was extended to eleven on Saturday afternoon in East Lansing, and it doesn't look like it will end any time soon. The once proud Fighting Illini football program that is just three years removed from a Big Ten Championship and a trip to the Sugar Bowl is now waffling and sitting on the bottom of the Big Ten below both Indiana and Northwestern. What went wrong between 2001 and 2004 is something that no one can really state with utter certainty, but every one will try.

As I sat in the sports bar yesterday watching the Illini football game, all I could think of was how far this team has fallen. I came into Saturday morning thinking this was Illinois' last chance at turning the 2004 campaign into a successful season. A win over Michigan State (a team Illinois has not beaten since 1992) could have given this football team the confidence it needed in its abilities, and maybe they would have been able to carry that out to two more Big Ten wins (Northwestern and Indiana). Unfortunately, a win did not happen, and I find it hard to believe the team will have the necessary confidence heading into the Indiana and Northwestern games.

My belief that Illinois would be able to beat the Spartans was pretty much shot down by the 4:00 minute mark in the first quarter. Michigan State had already scored two touchdowns on a pass from Drew Stanton to Jerramy Scott and a pass from Jerramy Scott to Drew Stanton. The Illini showed signs of life right after the halfback option pass to Stanton by blocking the extra point and Kelvin Hayden returning it for a successful two-point conversion for the Illini. The Illini were down 13-2 and they had gained some momentum through the excitement of the blocked kick / two point conversion.

Unfortunately for the Illini, their next offensive series stalled at the Illinois 49 yard line, and they were forced to punt. The Spartans came down on the ensuing drive and took all the life out of the Illini with a touchdown, increasing their lead to 20-2. After a Pierre Thomas 23-yard touchdown run and a Michigan State field goal, the teams went into the half. Michigan State was trying to figure out how to extend its lead early and close out the Illini, while Illinois was trying to find a way to breathe life into a comeback attempt. For the second straight game, Jon Beutjer was benched due to ineffectiveness, and Chris Pazan was brought in to spark the Illini offense.

In the second half, the Illini got the game as close as 30-25 after returning a blocked punt for a touchdown. The defense then held the Spartans on their next drive after the Illinois touchdown to a punt. Unfortunately for the Illini, they were pinned right up against their own end zone at the one yard line. After three straight runs, a sack on Illini quarterback Chris Pazan, and another run by Pierre Thomas, Illinois was forced to punt from their own 17 yard line. On the ensuing possession, the Spartans put the game out of reach with a DeAndre Cobb 12 yard touchdown run and the ensuing two-point conversion giving Michigan State the 38-25 lead with 5:47 left in the game.

On the next possession, the Michigan State defense stalled the Illini at their own 40 yard line and instead of going for it on fourth and four; Ron Turner elected to punt with approximately 4:40 left on the clock. This decision in and of itself is mid boggling. Turner elected to punt the ball to the Spartans who would run out the clock and the Illini's hope of a victory.

Why Turner punted, no one will know, but moves like that are commonplace in the Ron Turner era at Illinois. Instead of making the bold move and playing to win the football game, Ron Turner made the conservative move and played not to lose despite already being down 13 points. Decisions like this have made me scratch my head all the time, especially when you put them up against decisions that he makes in the early portions of games. He has shown he has the guts to go for it on fourth down in key situations early in games, and those decisions have come back to bite his teams in the ass, but when it comes down to the fourth quarter he plays conservative, and does not make the calls that put his team in the best place to win.

THE TURNER WATCH IS ON
Sure, you could just read the message boards on this site to figure out what fans want to happen in respect to the Illinois football coaching position. But once it is picked up by the "mainstream" media like the local beat reporters, you know it is more than just fans that are on the watch for the end of an era of Illinois football. In his Sunday column, Mark Tupper of the Decatur Herald & Review wrote:

This was Turner's chance to win one against a sometimes-struggling Big Ten brother, a young Michigan State team that has played with very little emotion and very little defense while winning just two of its first five games. This was his chance to show that the team camaraderie he's so proud of, the hard work this group continues to give him in practice, the commitment to improve, could all come together against one of the few teams in the league with which Illinois matches up well.

This was his chance to show how progress translates into victory.

And by failing to do so Saturday, it becomes increasingly unlikely Illinois can muster more than one token victory the rest of the way.

Given the surges we've seen from Indiana and Northwestern, even that might take some doing. Illinois could well go 0-for-the-Big Ten for the second straight year.

It was one thing when Illinois' troubles were pretty much isolated to the defense, where tackling is still a hit-and-miss proposition. But Illinois' offense has bogged down, too. And with Turner now tinkering with his quarterback position the way a mechanic takes a wrench to a coughing engine, it seems more and more likely that Illinois' troubles are too complex to fix this fall.

"I keep telling them we're going to be a good football team, and I still believe we are," Turner said Saturday with words that sound absurd to all but those inside the team locker room. "Once good things happen - meaning wins - once we get one, I think confidence is going to soar."

When? 2007?

Excerpt taken From the Decatur Herald & Review

Comments like this are not uncommon on message boards visited by die hard fans, but once they hit the local news papers, it is only time before questions will be coming to Ron Turner and Ron Guenther during press conferences about the job stability of the Illinois football coach.

The decision on Ron Turner's fate is not mine or any other fans; it is in the hands of Ron Guenther, Illinois' Athletic Director. Guenther gave Turner a vote of confidence after last season, but with Ron being a former Illinois football player, and a "football guy" he knows what is going on on the field with the Illini football team. I have seen him pacing in his box above the West Balcony in Memorial Stadium during home games as Illinois struggled against opponents. He wants Illinois to win, and Ron Turner was the man he thought would bring back Illinois football to prominence, both in the Big Ten and nationally, when he hired him in December of 1996.

Every one thought the program was to that level after the 2001 Sugar Bowl season, and Ron Turner showed his loyalty to the University of Illinois by signing a contract extension to stay at Illinois despite other schools inquiring about his availability. Despite his success in 2001, the complete failure of the 2003 season, and the lack of success thus far in the 2004 season has put Turner on the hot seat.

This will be a rough final six weeks of the football season for both Ron Turner and the players. Instead of playing football without distractions, the dark cloud of whether or not Ron Turner will be retained at Illinois will be hovering over the team in every media session they are involved in. The Fans, the coaches, and the players all want Illinois football to be successful, but right now the team is not successful, and has not been for the last two years, so the questions will remain on the tip of every one's tongue: When will Ron Turner be removed from his duties as Illinois' Head Football Coach?

The dark cloud had dissipated after last season's vote of confidence, but now it is thicker than ever. The mainstream media has joined with the fans, and that is not a good combination when you are trying to focus on a football game instead of who will be the head coach of the team next season.


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