Rutgers Dominates Illinois

The Fighting Illini football team collapsed on the road in the face of a talented and inspired Rutgers team last Saturday. The young Illini saw everything go against them, making the result extremely frustrating. Illinisports reports that fans and players alike are searching for answers on how to salvage a decent season.

The Illinois football team was overwhelmed by the talented, mature and aggressive Rutgers Scarlet Knights in their home opener last Saturday in Piscataway, New Jersey, 33-0. The Illini had major breakdowns on offense, defense and special teams, and all players and coaches must accept responsibility for this embarrassment.

Illini fans are searching for answers. After experiencing humiliating losses far too frequently in recent years, blame is being thrown around like candy at a parade. And suggestions for massive changes in game plans and personnel are bandied about in a desperate attempt to turn defeat into future victory. Such knee-jerk reactions rarely if ever do any good, but fans are frustrated and impatient and feel they must vent their anger somehow. Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions or cure-alls.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment to this writer was the lack of leadership provided by the two quarterbacks who toiled against a speedy and aggressive Rutgers defense. Freshman Juice Williams got extensive playing time and demonstrated his inexperience repeatedly. He played as much as he did because Tim Brasic played like a nervous freshman and needed replacing.

As speculated last week, Illinois needed their quarterback to demonstrate the confident leadership necessary to inspire young teammates, many of whom were on their first college road trip. They needed someone to encourage his teammates to keep fighting even after Rutgers blitzed the Illini for two quick touchdowns and established a strong early momentum. They needed a playmaker who could get first downs, take time off the clock, keep the defense fresh, and spread the Rutgers defense by exposing its weaknesses.

Unfortunately, Brasic did not have the ability to muster confidence on this day. After throwing a tipped interception for a touchdown that might have been an interception even without the tip, Brasic soon panicked under a heavy rush and flung a dying quail that ended in another interception. He waited too long to release passes designed for quickness, fixated on one receiver without utilizing other options, and seemed sluggish and confused throughout. When Tim is on his game, he is competent. But he is an all-or-none player, and he is incapable of winning football games, at home or on the road, on his "none" days.

Juice Williams responds to stress differently than Brasic. He has shown an ability to pass with touch and accuracy daily in practice, but on this day he tried to overthrow the ball. Perhaps he was fearful of Rutgers' outstanding rushers. Whatever, he was like the 100 mile-per-hour baseball pitcher who loses control the harder he throws. He tried to force the ball to his receivers as if he had to throw through a brick wall to reach them. Needless to say, his strong will overcame his touch on this day, and he became totally ineffective as a result.

We don't wish to single out Brasic and Williams for blame because everyone played below their capability. But Illinois needed an inspired performance from its quarterbacks on this day to have any chance of winning. Unfortunately, Illini fans saw their best two quarterbacks at their worst, and they now presume the sky is falling. Practice observers know these quarterbacks are better than they showed Saturday, but Brasic and Williams must show their ability in games before fans will trust them.

What made things even worse was a game plan designed to emphasize much running from the tailbacks. More than half the plays evolved from a direct snap rather than the typical shotgun formation. The Illini practiced plays to exploit the running game all week, which limited Brasic and especially the young Williams. This would have been a good plan if they could have carried it out. But getting behind early left Illinois in the vulnerable position of needing to run plays it hadn't practiced all week.

A disappointment just as obvious as quarterback play was the effort of the offensive line. Rutgers put strong pressure on the quarterbacks all day with little need for their blitz packages. Usually, they rushed Illini quarterbacks with only four or sometimes a fifth defender, leaving more of their linebackers and defensive backs to cover Illini receivers. Illinois has an improved offensive line, a group that should be one of the team's strengths. But on this day, they struggled mightily.

One is tempted to ignore the special teams play because it was too embarrassing to discuss. But two major special teams blunders early in the contest set the tone for the whole day. After the Illini defense stopped Rutgers on its first possession, the Rutgers punter boomed a long one that EB Halsey failed to cover. The resultant long bounce pinned the Illini within its own 10 yard line. When three safe runs failed to obtain a needed first down, freshman Kyle Yelton was asked to punt the ball out his own endzone. A blocking breakdown allowed a Rutgers player to penetrate untouched up the middle. The resultant block was recovered in the end zone for a touchdown.

Punting woes continued all day for the Illini. The Illinois offense never penetrated past the 50 yard line, and part of the reason was the great field position Rutgers had all day. Yelton averaged only 32 yards per punt despite two low sailers that bounced untouched for 50+ yards each. And receiver DaJuan Warren was asked to try several soccer style punts designed to bounce down the field away from the Rutgers punt returner. Suffice it to say, neither punter proved worthy of acclaim.

The Illinois defense played reasonably well for the most part. After all, Rutgers has a potent offense and was expected to score frequently. Holding Rutgers without points on several possessions, each beginning within or near the 50 yard line, was an accomplishment. The Illini defense was on the field far too frequently with little rest, so this result might be as good as could be expected. Of course, Rutgers just played out the clock the last half since they had a big halftime lead. But Illinois did battle defensively, giving some hope for continued improvement.

As hard as it was for any Illini fan to watch this game, a writer's perspective was balanced by certain signs that reminded of other similar games in the past. From the opening kick Illini players seemed to be running uphill with concrete boots while the Rutgers' athletes seemed to be gliding downhill. Illini players were tight as drums, a sight predicted for the freshmen but consistent among the upperclassmen as well. Obviously, the Illini have not yet learned how to desire a win strongly while still remaining relaxed and confident. They wanted to have a peak performance, but they haven't had the experience of knowing how to accomplish that.

In contrast, the Scarlet Knights were playing at a peak of emotion enhanced by the confidence of last year's Bowl trip and an early victory on the road against a decent North Carolina team. They desired payback for Illinois' overtime victory last year in Champaign, a game they probably should have won. They were at home and knew they had playmakers on both sides of the ball who could be trusted to play well against Illinois. And they had their fans eager to support a major victory over a Big Ten team. They had everything going for them.

There were two games in the 1983 Illini season that were similar to last Saturday's game, with Illinois on both sides of the ledger. In the fourth game of the season, the Illini pounced on a highly ranked Iowa contingent to the tune of a 33-0 result. Illinois built a big early lead thanks to some extreme momentum going their way and coasted the rest of the way. And then in the Rose Bowl game January 1, 1984, Illinois was spanked by an underdog UCLA team enjoying a peak performance, 45-9.

Was Illinois really 33 points better than Iowa? Was UCLA 36 points better than Illinois? Of course not! But on the days these games were played, it appeared this way. The smart Rutgers fan will not get too arrogant from this result, and the wise Illinois fan will not become overly distraught. Rutgers would probably win 7 or 8 out of a ten game series, but most games would be significantly closer than last Saturday's result.

The Illinois team must look within itself and decide how much it wants to erase the bitter memories of the Rutgers game. If the players come together as a team and dedicate the rest of the season to supreme effort, this adversity can have a positive long term benefit. But only they can save their season with some strong performances against stiff odds as the season progresses.

Illini fans have doubts this team can turn things around, a product of the failures of the last few seasons. Let's hope the Illini players and coaches have more internal fortitude than that and prove the fans wrong. If not, it will be another long season.

Go Illini!!!

Illinisports, illinisports@illiniboard.com


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