Wanted: outstanding athletes with the speed, agility, flexibility, strength, size, aggressiveness and confidence to compete eye to eye with the top teams in the Big 10 and return the University of Illinois to its former glory. Early playing time is likely for qualified applicants.
The above advertisement might be placed soon by the Illini football team as the necessity for an upgrade in talent became painfully obvious in the 63-10 massacre at the hands of Penn State in Memorial Stadium last Saturday evening. Coached by the legendary and timeless Joe Paterno, the Nittany Lions showed how good a team can be when it has great athletes with maturity and experience and a quarterback leader who can make big plays when needed. They set a wonderful example of what the Illini need to emulate to become a top football program.
The youthful Illini were excited about their prospects for the game. They were playing a rare night game on national television, so it was a chance to showcase their program against the 12th ranked team in the country. And they were coming off a bye week where they could regain their health and forget the miseries of the confidence-destroying losses that preceded it.
The Illini played with enthusiasm on their opening drive of the game, confusing PSU by mixing run and pass and displaying new formation wrinkles. While an untimely holding penalty prevented a possible touchdown, Jason Reda's 41-yard field goal against the wind was a positive beginning. But what followed turned optimism into great despair.
As it turns out, Illini players had enthusiam, but it was of the innocent, naive variety that lacked the intense focus of mature teams. We went through the motions of preparing to do battle with a powerful team. We even tried using our blue pants for the first time this year, hoping the change might give us an edge. Unfortunately, copying what others do to succeed is not the same as actually succeeding. Perhaps some well-deserved respect for Penn State's great and fundamentally sound athletes would have helped them develop the necessary focus in ways that a general enthusiasm could not. Immature teams often confuse the two.
The final score discrepancy was worse than any game in Ron Turner's last year, so one might wonder how basically the same players can be worse this year than last. This is not an appropriate comparison because of the different philosophies and styles of the two coaching regimes. Ron Zook is an aggressive person, and his offensive and defensive philosophies reflect that aggressiveness. Unfortunately, aggressiveness without great athletes and sound, fundamental play best demonstrated by experienced upperclassmen can produce some really ugly results.
Last year, Turner was fighting for his coaching life, so he did some things to prevent huge losses. He used a conservative style that employed runs on every other play no matter the score, allowing more time to run off the clock and preventing opponents from having as many opportunities with the ball. And he used a prevent-type defense designed to keep the scores close while reducing the number of long gains and quick scores.
In contrast, when Ron Zook says he won't change, what he is saying is that he has a system that he trusts will work once we have the athletes who can perform well in his system. He is preparing for the future by having his present team run this system to get used to it and learn to produce quality results. Zook will not suddenly become as conservative as Ron Turner just to keep scores closer because it would mean his players are not learning his system.
Yes, a no huddle offense uses up less clock, so if we don't get first downs and touchdowns, the other team has more time to score points on us. Yes, frequent pass incompletions stop the clock and produce the same effect. Yes, a high-risk offense is vulnerable to turnovers.
Yes, blitzing with linebackers and defensive backs puts great pressure on opposing offenses, but it backfires big-time if the quarterback is as mature and intelligent as the Nittany Lions' Mike Robinson because he can find the receiver left uncovered by the blitzer. And that aggressive style forces our defensive backs to cover receivers one-on-one, which exposes those who lack the speed and hip rotation necessary to stick with their men.
Keeping the game close may appease some alumni, but it will not help us learn Zook's system for the better days that will occur sometime in the future. Just like the Mike White years, an aggressive style is a gambling style that can get burned on occasion. But also just like those years, big victories are also possible. Zook is preparing for the day his offense and defense can prove their worth to Illini fans. In the meantime, some frustrating days are inevitable.
Unfortunately, the mental health of this team is at a low ebb. The game last Saturday snowballed so badly against the Illini that frustrations began to show on the field. Late in the first half, Illinois had two personal fouls called on the same play, and one of those led to the ejection of a player. This type of emotional breakdown is a frustration reaction to dreams being shattered. It is a sign our players are suffering.
One must now hope the Illini players don't begin to turn on each other. If they seek someone to blame for their collective failures, they will play even worse than last Saturday. It is easy to imagine, for example, the offense giving up when it sees its defense unable to stop or even slow opponents. The offense knows it must score every possession to win, but it also knows that is a physical improbability. Even Penn State punted once in the first half despite their clear dominance. If frustrations boil to the surface, team unity will be destroyed.
Up to now, the one biggest factor favoring Illinois was its good fortune relative to injuries. But not any more. Starting receiver Jody Ellis broke his collarbone in practice this past week, and promising defensive end Xavier Fulton may miss the rest of the season with a knee injury suffered Saturday that might require surgery. In addition, starting guard Martin O'Donnell damaged an ankle, forcing the burning of a redshirt year for freshman Eric Block. A team lacking experienced depth cannot afford injuries.
While singling out individuals for criticism is counterproductive after a blowout loss, it is obvious the Illini need major improvement from the quarterback position. The entire offense revolves around a quarterback capable of inspiring his teammates, reading defenses properly, finding and hitting open receivers, and generally making clutch plays under pressure. It needs someone with the arm strength to connect on deep routes and the timing and touch to make short passes catchable. It needs someone the rest of the offense can trust to make plays and keep the team focused and confident during the heat of battle. It remains to be seen whether such a quarterback is presently enrolled at Illinois.
Yes, Illinois has a long way to go to return to respectability, and Penn State exposed every one of our weaknesses in a most embarrassing way. But this game was also a recruiting tool for those athletes who seek early playing time and the thrill of helping lead a team from the throes of a long losing streak to a position of dominance. How could quarterbacks, receivers, tight ends, linemen, linebackers and defensive backs not see opportunites at the U of I? Coach Zook and his staff will place great emphasis on this in their upcoming recruiting battles.
In the meantime, we must keep the faith while acknowledging our present weaknesses. This is a difficult time for fans, but it is an even more difficult time for the players and coaches. They are suffering most of all. One can only hope the nightmare ends soon and we can awaken to a bright new day in the near future.
Penn State Rolls Over Illinois on Homecoming
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