Wisconsin Runs Over Illinois, 41-24

Illinois cannot declare a moral victory from its 41-24 loss to Wisconsin in Memorial Stadium last Saturday. But as Illinisports reports, perhaps both the team and its fans gained a measure of self-respect and improved hope for the future from its efforts.

Illinois showed some sparks of life Saturday while succumbing to the Wisconsin Badgers 41-24 at Memorial Stadium. We still have a long way to go to be competitive consistently against the rugged Big 10, but fans and alumni left this particular game feeling much better about the future than after last week's debacle against Penn State.

True, Wisconsin did some things to help us stay close. For example, they kept mostly to their vaunted ground game and let running back Brian Calhoun run roughshod through and around Illini defenders who lack his great speed. This type of offense allowed the play clock to wind down faster than a passing offense, making the game's final score appear closer than it might have been. And they dropped their linebackers deep on most Illini passes, allowing quarterback Tim Brasic to gain considerable ground yardage and continue drives on unplanned scrambles.

But the Illini showed signs of improvement, especially on offense. Brasic had arguably his best day so far, a sharp contrast from last week. He missed some receivers, and some passes were dropped. But he set a single-game rushing record for Illini quarterbacks, and his combined passing and rushing yardage totals were exceptional.

On this day, Brasic made some key plays to sustain drives and showed the kind of leadership-by-example that encourages teammates to play hard. Brasic has some limitations relative to the timing of his throws, his ability to throw long passes (especially against the wind), and his reduced ability to scan the field while scrambling. But he was a playmaker in a way not seen at Illinois since Kurt Kittner.

True freshman Kyle Hudson played like a star as well. He showed separation speed and an ability to catch a wide variety of throws under pressure. He also gave us 24 positive yards on an end-around, showing his running ability and quick feet. One must hope his slight frame can stand the pounding that will undoubtedly be thrust his way next week by Ohio State's aggressive, strong defensive backs and in the future by opponents who will try to manhandle him to break his momentum. Hudson was the go-to receiver on this day, and Brasic has learned quickly to look for his #21 first on many pass plays.

If it wasn't for a number of mental mistakes at inopportune times, a common problem for teams as young as the Illini, the Illini had the chance to take this game down to the wire. We missed two field goals, and we were stopped on at least two additional drives by penalties and mistakes at the worst times. Had we scored on all these possessions, we might have found ourselves near to or in the lead late into the fourth quarter.

Wisconsin is young on defense, so this was undoubtedly part of the reason we outgained them on the day. After seeing so many great Big 10 defenses loaded with upperclassmen, it was nice to see how effective our youngsters on offense could be against the Badgers' youngsters. This is a sign that bodes well for the future, if we can get our present players more experience, strength and coaching and then add a few stud recruits to the mix.

Defensively, Illinois was still consistently outmanned. Wisconsin could have burned us much worse than they did if they had chosen to pass more, but a strong south wind induced a conservative run offense for two quarters facing that wind. And they undoubtedly limited their play calling simply because they didn't need more complexity.

However, through a combination of blitz packages and occasional aggressiveness, Illini defenders did stop Wisconsin's offense a few times. Of course, gambling defenses can be burned, and the long pass to Brandon Williams for a touchdown on Wisconsin's second possession was one example. With six defensive backs in the lineup, no one remembered to cover Williams while two of the defensive backs blitzed. But when our play calls fit the situation, and when we executed properly, we did occasionally do the burning. Given the total lack of defense against Penn State, one can hope this is a sign of improvement.

Special teams also suffered some breakdowns again, a constant source of frustration for special teams expert Ron Zook. Two missed field goals, a blocked punt that set up a short touchdown march, and some questionable play against Wisconsin kick runbacks all prevented the Illini from staying close. It is believed that our special teams will improve once Coach Zook has the chance to stock the team with more of his recruits as they will hopefully be more athletic.

To win consistently in the powerful Big 10, teams must be practically perfect in their execution. Their players must be mature enough and poised enough to avoid penalties and mental errors. Illinois is not yet ready to play that way, but they must learn to do so as quickly as possible. Our errors Saturday on offense and defense were obviously at the heart of our problems. Mental errors, poor decision-making and a lack of athleticism contributed to our problems on defense.

Wisconsin was clearly the better team. But we played much better against them than against Penn State, the team tied with the Badgers at the top of the Big 10 at this time. Just as we outgained Wisconsin Saturday, so too might we have won with better execution. Victory does not always go to the team that is favored but to the one that plays the best on a given day.

On this day, Illinois may have learned it could win against superior foes if they play with more consistency and maturity. If so, their improved confidence can help build a better future.

Go Illini!!!
Illinisports, illinisports@illiniboard.com

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