The Fighting Illini football team secured its spot at the bottom of the Big 10 with a 37-3 loss at Purdue last Saturday. The embarrassing loss cast doubt on a program that is struggling to mature and improve enough to compete on equal terms in the Big 10.
After a day or two to pause and reflect, it is still hard for many Illini fans to let go their pain and frustration of another season gone bad. There are reasons for what has happened this year, but explanations are unwanted by those too angry to listen. Still, an analysis is necessary if we wish to find any glimmer of hope for the future.
In what is a complete reversal of fortune, the Illini defense, so weak and vulnerable early in the season, is actually showing signs of improvement while the offense went from promising to non-existent through the course of the season. The way the defense played Saturday, the Illini had a chance to compete and possibly win the game. But the offense completely tanked. This forced our defense to stay on the field too long and fight against atrocious field position, making the final score appear a blowout.
So what is happening? Is it bad coaching, bad luck, dominant opponents, a lack of athletes, or what? Certainly, our coaches and administrators are asking the same questions, and there is no easy answer. However, it is easy to imagine why our offense is struggling so mightily if one considers the emotions and other intangible factors.
Our defense knew it was weak to start the season, and early games reminded them of their weaknesses. Since they couldn't get much worse, each game gave our defense a chance to show improvement. Little by little, fewer mistakes were made, more playmakers were substituted, and some small amount of confidence was instilled. The defense knows it can't stop all teams all the time, but it has made significant strides that could help us win games. Our defenders weren't expected to be good, so they have gained confidence through the season.
But while the defense was trying to hold up its end, the offense lost confidence throughout the season. Before teams began exposing our weaknesses and showing other teams how to defend us, we moved the ball fairly well and scored enough to win some games. At that time, the onus for losses was mostly on the defense, with the offense feeling the pressure to score more to counter opponent scoring.
But once the losses mounted, so also did our offense find itself in a vicious circle that became a downward whirlpool. Perhaps the first sign of problems was a porous offensive line. Once teams discovered they could blitz Illinois effectively, they started sending numerous defenders against quarterback Tim Brasic. While Brasic made some good plays escaping the rush, he also was the recipient of numerous hard hits that damaged both his body and his psyche.
In addition, teams began keeping their defenders close to the line even in passing situations because they discovered Brasic did not have the arm strength to throw long with accuracy, especially against the wind. And they came to realize that Brasic began to flush early from the pocket in response to a heavy rush, which made it almost impossible for him to do anything except run because his passing accuracy suffers when he is on the run and/or feeling panicky.
In an effort to counter opponents, the Illini began to limit their offense. They often began to send receivers no more than 10 or 15 yards downfield so Brasic could make quicker passes to anticipate and neutralize the rush. This allowed opponents to pinch up even closer to the line of scrimmage, filling all the short passing routes with defenders and neutralizing our running game.
Many fans have clamored for a stronger running game since Pierre Thomas, E. B. Halsey, Jason Davis and Rashard Mendenhall comprise one of our strongest positions. But an inconsistent and young offensive line needed help opening holes for the runners. Unfortunately, Ron Turner recruited no blocking tight ends to help Ron Zook establish the run. Thus, no power I, two tight end formations were possible.
The Illini began to assign receiving tight end Melvin Bryant and often a running back to help block the pass rush, but all this did was reduce the number of receivers filling the pass routes. And since we have been behind early in all games, we have had to resort to more passing and less rushing to catch up. This allowed opponents to throw caution to the wind and rush the passer unabated, which led to more sacks and more vicious hits on Brasic.
The final straw for the offense must have been the Ohio State game. Any confidence they might have still had after moving the ball well against Wisconsin was destroyed by the Buckeyes' dominance. Ohio State has a great defense, so one might think we would take the loss with a grain of salt and play well against Purdue. But the Ohio State game proved to us once and for all that we lack the horses to compete. The emotional damage might have been more severe than any physical damage from being dominated so completely.
On Saturday, the frustrations of our physical limitations on offense erupted in a string of mental errors and turnovers that blocked early drives. When left tackle J. J. Simmons went down to injury early in the game, our offensive line became more porous and inexperienced. We even had Charles Myles playing right tackle some of the time even though he had played only defense earlier in the season. Offensive linemen take several years to develop, so asking a rookie with no preseason training to protect Brasic from Purdue's pass rushers showed our desperation.
Film clips of the Purdue game reveal an offense that was playing tight, fearful of losing. Brasic was uncertain on passes and seemed to be aiming the ball. Everyone was moving with restriction and not the freedom that is possible when confident. This is typical of people who have become so traumatized from failure that they tighten up at game time. Every mistake or problem reminds them of their limitations, and they end up being unable to think clearly on their feet. Pain can be ignored after a victory, but pain becomes magnified through frequent failure. Truly, the Illini offense is feeling much pain today, and the memories of that pain will likely carry over for our last game next week.
Stated simply, the Illini offense is shell shocked, punch drunk. They have taken so many hits and had such little success they appear to be flinching to avoid more pain. Tim Brasic has been a real warrior this year and has made frequent clutch plays (especially with his feet) to keep drives alive. But he is beginning to remind some of former quarterback Scott Weaver. Certainly, Brasic senses and avoids the rush much better than Weaver did, but they both ultimately began to freeze from being hit repeatedly. In what is one of the saddest ironies of the year, Brasic may be both our Most Valuable Player and the person most likely to blame for recent failures.
Normally, a quarterback shows immense improvement from his first to second year starting for his team. But the question now is whether Brasic is damaged psychologically to the point he will be less able to function next year. If so, Illinois will have to start over with another new quarterback next year, making rapid offensive progress doubtful. Hopefully, Brasic has the inner fortitude and self-confidence to heal his wounds in time for next year, but such growth is difficult following such constant trauma.
It is next year that most concerns Illini fans at this point as our last game against Northwestern next Saturday appears unwinnable. Will the Illini be able to recover from another losing season? Will Coach Zook be able to improve the makeup of the team through recruiting sufficiently to make us competitive?
Many fans have grave doubts for the future of the program, but Coach Zook is optimistic he can turn things around. Since true Illini fans still support the team, its coaches and players, they will attend the Northwestern game and cheer for every little sign of growth and hope for the future. That is their role in reversing current trends. Now it is up to the team to demonstrate its willingness to fight for improvement.
Illini's Offense Collapses in 37-3 Drubbing
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