The Illinois football team lost at Indiana Saturday, 36-13. In losing, they may have given up their last best chance at obtaining a Big Ten victory this season. And this game was winnable. All our remaining opponents are rated higher than Indiana.
This latest defeat may ultimately hurt our players even more than the blowout to Michigan State a couple weeks ago. They KNEW they could play with Indiana, but they couldn't create a victory on this day. They tried (at times they even seemed inspired), but imperfections always seemed to nullify their effort. Knowing they gave their all will make it even more difficult to look to our future schedule with confidence and optimism. After all, how much more can we give in the future?
As Coach Zook stated after last week's Iowa game and will repeat again this week, there were just a few plays here and there that, if executed properly, might have given Illinois a victory. Until we collapsed emotionally in the fourth quarter when we realized we couldn't win, we played Indiana even statistically. The main difference in the game was that Indiana had one player they could trust to give them big plays when needed. Illinois could not stop 6'-7" wide receiver James Hardy, which gave Indiana more confidence and more options than the Illini, who lack a go-to player.
Illinois had two nice drives going to begin the game, but no points resulted. This pattern was repeated periodically throughout the game. That is what happens when a team is as inexperienced and young as the Illini. Something or someone would always stop us before we could complete our drives. Mental errors, unpredictable accidents, and all manner of individual imperfections would rise up at the most inopportune times. We may have the necessary maturity with a more experienced team next year, but that doesn't help us now.
Halfway through the third quarter, the Illini started a good-looking drive that was gobbling up good chunks of yardage by mixing run and pass. We began, however briefly, to look like the kind of team we are supposed to look with our present offense. And then suddenly, without warning, we stopped ourselves without getting any points on the board. Such failure is emotionally draining for the team, and we played worse after that.
Not to be a poor loser or unfairly biased, but it seemed Illinois was also the victim of some misfortune to add insult to injury. During the second half, a running back stumbled while penetrating a hole, preventing him from bulling forward the necessary three yards for a first down; a key third down pass bounced off the receiver's fingertips, who appeared to short-arm it; we barely touched out of bounds on what would have been a touchdown pass reception; and the quarterback and receiver miscommunicated on an important fourth down play. Only a 52-yard field goal that bounced luckily over the crossbar resulted from these efforts. If we had executed these plays properly, we would have scored one or two touchdowns.
At times, Illinois looked better on defense than earlier this year. Part of that was due to a variety of blitzes designed to pressure Indiana quarterback Blake Powers into mistakes. When the blitzes worked, we shut down Indiana reasonably well. But gambling defenses create weaknesses for themselves, and we suffered mightily when Indiana found the weak spots. To paraphrase, "Live by the blitz, die by the blitz."
Most importantly, there were times when Illinois players had a bounce to their step. This was especially true in the third quarter. We began to realize we could play with Indiana and could win. We started showing that youthful zeal that is omnipresent with good defenses. It reminded of the fact Illinois does not always play this way, like early in the game and during the forgetful fourth quarter. Who knows, if we could have that zeal all the time, how much better we would play?
It is a mute point at this time, for we are unable to generate enough positive plays to keep our spirits up. And the Big 10 is loaded with talented and mature teams that have been molded by the refiner's fire of tough conference schedules to stand strong under pressure. We can compete when we are confident and having success, but we must be at peak efficiency to counterbalance innate difficulties. All the emotion in the world cannot beat teams who are superior athletically and playing with confidence.
It is difficult even for fans and sports writers to remain positive about our remaining five games, but that is what we must do. We have said, "Wait until next year" since 2002, and it gets tiring. But barring a miracle turn-around, we must view the 2005 season with the reminder that Coach Ron Zook will be making significant upgrades for future years through recruiting. It is little consolation to a long-suffering fandom, but more patience is required.
Eventually, Zook and company will get Illinois back to respectability. But the growing pains are painful to watch sometimes. Perhaps a week off and the thought of Homecoming coming up in two weeks will help us all recharge our batteries and heal previous wounds.
That is the best we can hope for right now.
Illini Fall to Hoosiers in Bloomington
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