The Illini football team overcame significant adversity on Saturday to defeat an improved Rutgers team 33-30 in overtime at beautiful Memorial Stadium. In doing so, they exorcised a few demons and laid some of the foundation for future success. So despite numerous mistakes and a few obvious weaknesses, one could easily state the Illini victory was practically perfect.
First of all, the Illini WON!!! After two years of mediocrity, any win is a good win. The fear of losing was still so powerful at Memorial Stadium that many fans left the game long before the Illini started their tremendous comeback. But now, we can no longer expect defeat. Anything is possible. Exorcising that demon is significant for both player and fan.
This is the first opening game win for a new football coach at Illinois since Mike White in 1980. Ron Zook was under tremendous pressure, taking charge of a team that has suffered mightily in recent years. To win his first game, given how little time the team had to learn new offensive and defensive systems, is a great accomplishment. Doing it against a Rutgers team with considerable talent and experience is even more of a feat.
Rutgers' offensive coordinator Craig ver Steeg is a former quarterback coach under Ron Turner at Illinois. With excellent skill at quarterback, receiver, running back and tight end, ver Steeg was able to remind Illini fans how effective the West Coast offense can be. Former Illini wide receiver coach Robert Jackson is now at Rutgers also. Defeating Rutgers, and two coaches who represent Illinois' forgetable past, helps the Illini close the book on the Ron Turner regime and gets the Ron Zook regime off on the right foot. Another demon exorcised. Can you imagine how frustrated we would be if we had lost to Turner's offense after rejecting Turner?
Fortune has a role to play in football, but it has seemed the Illini have had bad fortune for the last 2 or 3 years. We not only didn't play real well, but we had few if any opportunities to take advantage of mistakes by the other teams. It always seemed like every pass they would throw would be right to the receiver. Every fumble would bounce toward our opponents and away from us. Other teams would get one inch past the first down marker on their fourth down play while we would end up one inch short.
Now, at least for this first game, there is hope the fortunes of football will be rebalancing in our favor. Rutgers is a mature team and didn't beat itself with correctable mistakes. But they did miss some important field goals. They did drop a pass or two that would have either produced scores or first downs in the second half where one more score would have put us away. And they did have a rash of injuries, some major and some perhaps extremely minor, that hurt them and helped us. Perhaps it is too soon to guarantee a fortune shift for the better, but we now at least have hope.
A big demon, primarily for Coach Zook but also for those of us who have learned to respect him, was all the personal attacks leveled at Coach Zook by disgruntled Florida Gator fans. In what appears to be an effort by some Gator fans to make their team look good by attacking their former coach even after he is long gone, they have given cannon fodder for Midwest coaches to use when recruiting against Coach Zook.
Most of the criticism centered around the phrase, "Zook can recruit, but he can't coach." That was easy for Florida fans to say because Zook hadn't yet coached a game at Illinois. But the critics' credibility suffered a major blow last Saturday. The Illini victory was a mild upset, and the late game rally was far too outstanding to be just luck. Besides all the spring and fall teaching, our coaching staff made considerable adjustments during the game to improve our situation, and they kept the team focused on believing and never quitting. Ladies and gentlemen, Ron Zook can coach!!! Period!!!
And he helped lay a few major building blocks in the foundation that will become a better Illini football team in the future. For one, we have a quarterback who took just one game to come of age. Tim Brasic had taken only a couple of snaps in his first three years at Illinois, and he was predictably overwhelmed by the speed of the game and his own nervousness at the start.
But by the middle of the third quarter, Brasic began to regain his confidence and to make the plays the Illini need a quarterback to make. While he is certainly not an All-American at this point, Brasic has demonstrated for the first time since Kurt Kittner in 2001 that the Illini have a quarterback who can lead a team to victory against difficult opposition. He will make mistakes and struggle at times in the future, but Tim Brasic gives us our first real hope of quarterback leadership in a long time.
The Illini were extremely tight to start the game. Just running onto the field prior to the opening kickoff, one could sense the team was tied up in knots with a combination of nervousness and excitement. After all, think about how many players were playing in their first varsity game. The entire right side of the offensive line is new, and it took them awhile to settle down. There were numerous freshmen and redshirt freshmen who played in their first ever college game. And Brasic was basically new as well. Getting a victory while all these players were getting necessary experience is a great starting point for a positive future.
One of the marks of a good team is their ability to handle adversity and rally from a deficit. And it is one of the hardest traits to master. It is likely Coach Zook would have been thrilled if we had a come-from-behind victory any time in the first year or two. To have it happen in Zook's first game is remarkable. Now, Coach Zook can remind the men they can still win since they now know how to do it. Coach Zook says "believe", and it is much easier to believe after success than failure.
Another building block that manifest itself during the game is the great condition of the team. This block was actually developed in the spring and summer while the players worked out with strength and conditioning coach Lou Hernandez. But we were in much better condition than Rutgers, and we wore them down in the second half. Not one of our players suffered a serious injury. And we didn't have heat related problems like muscle cramping that had such a negative impact on Rutgers. Our players, if they had any doubts in the value of hard physical training in the off season, now know the benefits of that work. Coach Hernandez will use this game as a means of future motivation.
Our defense didn't play real well, especially in the first half. But it tightened up considerably as the game wore on. The combination of our conditioning and increasing confidence helped our defense stiffen and prevent the points that would have won the game for Rutgers. Our defense still must make major improvements, but this game will serve as a good example for them and be a building block for a dominant defense somewhere down the road.
While it is likely our offensive players trust the potential of Coach Zook's spread, no huddle offense, seeing it work to our favor in an important game reinforces that trust. We only used a fraction of our offense against Rutgers, but the diversity of plays and formations and the up-tempo style tied Rutgers' defense in knots. That is definitely a sign that a good offensive foundation is being laid.
Finally, for potential recruits who will soon be matriculating to Illinois to follow Coach Zook to football wins, a big building block was established with this win. Now, recruits will not believe all those other schools when they tell them that Zook can't coach. Sure, some of that will happen regardless, and the expected loss or two will be used as examples to the contrary. But a game like Rutgers shows so much more than just a final score. Any recruit with an open mind will now look more favorably on Coach Zook's description of Illinois' potential than that of opposing coaches. We are a work in progress, but recruits can see the potential.
We will lose some games. After all, we are still extremely young, our depth is a concern, the Big 10 is extremely tough this year (every Big 10 team that played won this week), and we still need to upgrade the talent level. But Illini fans can take heart. We may not be through with the down cycle we have experienced, but there is definitely light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.
Thank you Coach Zook for giving us renewed optimism for the future of Illini football.
Ron Zook Wins Opener as Illinois' Head Coach
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