Iowa's infamous pink visiting locker room claimed its 21st consecutive victim as the Hawkeyes beat the Illini 35-7 Saturday. The soft pink color sapped all the testosterone right out of the Illinois team, enabling Iowa to push and shove its way to a convincing victory. Former Iowa coach Hayden Fry was heard to chuckle as his pink vision of 25 years ago zapped another innocent victim.
Those who thought it was Illinois' lack of athleticism, lack of emotion, lack of coaching, lack of tackling, lack of confidence, lack of maturity, or lack of caring are simply in denial. It was pink, pink and more pink. Even after the Illini rebounded from a terrible start to make a game of it, the effort to build emotions to a fever pitch to help pull an upset was sabotaged by another dose of pink as the Illini recouped in their locker room at halftime.
With tongue now firmly in cheek, the pink locker room probably did little to cause the poor outcome for the Illini. It would be much easier if we could blame the pink color, but answers for solving Illini woes lie much deeper. On this day, as was true last week against Michigan State, the Illini simply could not match ability, intensity and confidence level with the Hawkeyes.
Actually, Iowa is probably not as strong as the last three years, and it will likely suffer at least one if not several additional losses in the Big 10 this season. Hawkeye apologists will disagree vehemently with this prediction...so would we if we were accustomed to believing we were a nationally powerful team. But on this day, Iowa was able to ride the fumes of all the confidence they established through three straight ten-win seasons.
In contrast, the Illinois football team is emotionally weakened by memories of numerous previous losses over the same period. With the exception of two linebackers and a quarterback, most of the Iowa players are not tremendously superior to those from Illinois. But they expect to win, and we begin to doubt ourselves with the slightest bit of adversity. We are badly in need of psychological counseling or some group recovery effort before we can truly test whether our athletes are comparable to Iowa's.
Coach Zook said he has never experienced a team with so many confidence problems, developed from two seasons of frequent losses. Since Zook has coached for 27 years in both college and pros, this is a significant statement. He will be hard pressed to find solutions, but he promises to keep working until he does so. It is a true vicious cycle. We cannot win without confidence, and we cannot gain confidence without wins. The Illini fandom will need to be patient because there is no simple solution.
The Illini and Hawkeyes had almost identical statistics for the first half, but few if any observers felt the game was in any doubt at that time. Illinois defenders showed little ability to slow Iowa's decent but not exceptional offense, while the Illini offense showed its inexperience with numerous mistakes that prevented early scores. There is nothing more deflating to confidence level, both for players and fans, than watching the opposing team jam a touchdown down your throats following the opening kickoff. So memories of Iowa's easy first score left everyone assuming another blowout was in order. This will continue to be a truism until the Illinois defense can stop someone consistently.
Iowa played most of the game rushing only four defenders and dropping everyone else back into pass coverage. Blitzes have proven to be the Illini's undoing in earlier games, but Iowa blitzed only on the rare occasions when they needed to make a big play. Otherwise, they were content to let us dink and dunk our way down the field, figuring correctly that we would either self-destruct or run out of options before scoring touchdowns. As it turned out, we also failed on three field goal attempts, further deflating our already sensitive egos.
Quarterback Tim Brasic had a decent day statistically, but he still suffers from a lack of height and arm strength. To his credit, he stayed in the pocket longer than previously, in part to the lack of blitzing, but he still found it difficult to find open receivers. One would think our receivers would be excited to find seams in the zone after struggling to get separation from dominant man-to-man secondaries, but they still could not be found consistently. Brasic mostly completed passes to his safety valve outlets for short gains; the lack of downfield passing success enabled Iowa to pinch in to clog up our running game.
While the Illinois defense was constantly on its heels, it did at least show occasional signs of aggression. There were a few good hard tackles, an improvement over the MSU game but still not sufficient to scare opposing offenses. We actually forced two fumbles by Iowa with hard tackles, although one fell back into the arms of the Iowa player. Getting our first fumble recovery of the year certainly brought a sigh of relief to some, and our second interception of the season was helpful also, although the pass was thrown right at Justin Harrison.
Coach Zook has decided he must play more of his freshmen on defense in the hope they will improve the situation. At the least, they are not yet snake-bit from losing as our upperclassmen appear to be. Defensive end Sirod Williams and defensive tackle Tremayne Walker both played in their first games, although they didn't have much impact. They have potential, so this early playing time will help them down the road. And two of the biggest hits of the day were turned in by freshmen linebackers Rodney Pittman and Brit Miller. Pittman got significant playing time and contributed five tackles in the loss.
Coach Ron Zook has a chance to transform this team into a winner, and his assets as a coach are being compared favorably with Mike White, a man assigned to perform a similar task in the 1980's. But he will not achieve a turnaround as fast as White, largely due to a lack of confident, aggressive athletes who expect to win.
White had the distinct advantage of being able to recruit the California junior colleges and bring in top talent right away. These athletes were not only talented, but they were cocky enough to believe they could make the Illini winners. They were unaccustomed to losing, so they were not fearful of the adversity that hits all teams during games. They had the psyche to rebound from setbacks without letting the bad memories linger and have an impact on their upcoming games.
Zook cannot recruit the junior colleges to the same extent because the powers to be in the Big 10 resented the type of quick transformation that Mike White accomplished. They made the rules for junior college transfer so difficult that few could qualify for Big 10 eligibility. Thus, Zook must try to recruit high school players and hope they mature quickly enough to prevent two or three more losing seasons. This is no easy task, but it is exactly what the powers to be wanted.
In the meantime, Zook is stuck trying to figure out how to make wonderful, intelligent, sensitive young men into fire-breathing, snot-dripping football warriors who are not intimidated by the many top teams and players in the Big 10. In truth, we have a whole team of role players, people who need a few exceptional superstars to trust to make big plays while they perform their necessary roles.
Our players are comparable with the role players on other teams athletically, but they get tight and inflexible when trying to make plays they are simply not capable of making. They would play so much better if the burden to make game-changing plays was eliminated from their job description. Mike White's teams incorporated a number of walk-ons and lesser known recruited athletes, most of whom made great plays on occasion, but they were relaxed knowing that other better players could bail them out should they make mistakes.
We have no Dave Wilson or Tony Eason to bring exceptional, mature quarterbacking to our offense like we had under Mike White. We have no great linebackers like Dick Butkus, Dana Howard, or Kevin Hardy we can trust to dominate opposing blockers and ball carriers. We have no lock-down cover corners like Eugene Wilson who can force opposing offenses to look elsewhere for pass completions. We have no great defensive linemen like Simeon Rice or Don Thorp to pressure the quarterback and force double teams.
With just a few similar players, the Illini would look like a vastly different team. But right now, we are asking followers to be leaders, and some of them incapable of leading by example. They want to, and we need them to, but they are simply not blessed with enough explosion, strength or downright meanness to get the job done. It will be left to Coach Zook and his staff to recruit a few superstars who can come right in and play, no easy task when we are losing.
The Illini played better against Iowa than against Michigan State, but the improvement was not sufficient to excite the fandom or give our players more confidence. We will have to hope this nightmare for the players will end soon so they can begin to enjoy the game they love so much.
The Illini will have this week to make continued improvement in the hope they can pull out a victory next Saturday at Indiana.
Illini Lose to Iowa 35-7 in Iowa City
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