Illini Suffer Frustrating Loss to Ohio

The Fighting Illini football team suffereed yet another indignity as it watched the Ohio Bobcats kick a last second field goal to secure a 20-17 win at Memorial Stadium Saturday evening. Illinisports summarizes the major breakdowns that led to this frustrating loss in this article.

Which is more difficult to endure, a 50 point loss or a last-second loss? That is the question facing many Illini fans as their favorite University of Illinois football team lost a last-second squeaker for the second week in a row, this time to the Ohio Bobcats 20-17.

Last year, blowouts occurred frequently as Illinois was at one of the lowest points in its proud history. This year, the team is much improved but still has only two wins to show for it. Sometimes, a last-second loss is more depressing and difficult to overcome than a blowout. How do the Illini finally get over the hump and begin to win the close games?

We reported last week the game with Ohio would be a battle to the end, and that is exactly what happened. While some fans assume Illinois from the mighty Big Ten must always defeat a team from the Mid America Conference, most Illini upperclassmen were never rated higher as potential recruits than the Bobcat players. In fact, former Illini quarterback starter Brad Bower is now a second-stringer for Ohio and played only two brief series Saturday. The two teams were evenly matched, and they played like it.

Ohio is not a formidable offensive team, but its defense is strong, mature and highly aggressive. One or two linebackers were blitzed on practically every Illini snap, making the running game sputter at times and putting extra pressure on Illini quarterback Juice Williams to make quick passing decisions. Williams had 16 completions for 186 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. But several of his incompletions were the result of throwing off balance while trying to avoid sacks.

Illinois knew what was coming and prepared for it, but Juice is a freshman and needs to learn through experience how to exploit an overplaying defense. He continues to make big plays on occasion and show his vast potential for the future. But he also makes mistakes that snuff out drives or put the offense in difficult positions. We are actually quite amazed at how well Juice is playing under the circumstances, but it is asking too much of him to expect superstardom as a freshman. His up and down cycles are normal and predictable, and the Illini's fortunes show the results of that inconsistency.

Juice deserved a better fate on this day, but again several of his passes were dropped. The fact remains that Illinois lacks the big, strong go-to receiver that makes a quarterback look good by performing great under pressure. Many of the present receivers on the team lack both size and the breakaway speed to get open consistently. But they must catch the passes near them when they are open, and drops remain a concern. Of course, some of those drops were contested by Ohio defenders who stayed with Illini receivers throughout their routes and disrupted the plays.

Offensive line play also contributed to the problem. Once thought to be a team strength, the offensive line remains an enigma. Left tackle Akim Millington is likely still hurting from an ankle injury three weeks ago, and right tackle Charles Myles developed a hip pointer that sent him to the sidelines early in the game. But Illini struggles trying to neutralize Ohio blitzes forced Coach Zook to burn the redshirt year of guard Jon Asamoah, who replaced Martin O'Donnell at left guard part of the time. Without consistent blocking from the offensive line, both the Illini running and passing games suffer.

The Illini defense played extremely well most of the time, although Ohio was usually predictable in its offensive approach. But just as in all previous games, the defense had a temporary letdown that allowed Ohio to march for a long touchdown in only four plays. And this was right after the Illini's Jason Reda had kicked a field goal to take an early lead. A broken coverage allowed a 58-yard pass completion that set up the Ohio touchdown. The defense gave up only 238 yards of total offense, but it remains inconsistent.

Special teams play continues to be the biggest concern for most fans and the coaches as well. Coach Zook is an expert with special teams and oversees that part of the operation, so he must be pulling his hair out with the breakdowns that continue to occur. The Illini are not talented or mature enough yet to win despite a blocked punt and long kickoff return that set up Ohio scores. Illinois works hard on special teams in every practice, but one little breakdown destroys the good efforts of everyone else.

Reda had previously kicked off deep into the end zone with the wind at his back, so there was every reason to believe he would do so again. But he got too far under his kick, and it was returnable. Someone left his lane to allow a big opening up the middle for the Ohio returner, who came close to breaking it all the way. Reda also missed a makeable field goal that would have given the Illini at least a tie.

The blocked punt resulted from a senior and freshman missing blocking assignments. These things are taught repeatedly in practice, but sometimes people have temporary lapses that prevent them from executing properly in games. Why it seems to happen more to the Illini than their opponents remains a mystery. And poor field position continues to haunt the Illini as other teams all have stronger punters, and EB Halsey continues to have trouble deciding whether to catch punts down close to the endzone.

Turnovers also contributed mightily to the defeat. The Illini lost the ball four times on fumbles, and winning is nearly impossible under this circumstance. Most hurtful was the strip from slender receiver Kyle Hudson that set up Ohio's winning field goal. One wonders if the responsibilities of being a two-sport performer has caused Hudson to miss time in the weight room that might have helped him hold onto the ball better. Regardless, these things seem to happen more often to the Illini than their opponents despite contant coaching to the contrary.

Another hurtful turnover occurred at the end of a brilliant 30-yard scamper by the exciting Rashard Mendenhall. The Illini were marching for a possible touchdown when Rashard had the ball knocked from his hand from behind. Numerous fans have insisted on seeing more of Rashard, and he provided the extra burst to get through small holes quicker than starter Pierre Thomas. But they also saw a big reason he is still second string as he tends to carry the ball out away from his body when he runs. Rashard will need to overcome this tendency to show his full potential.

The Illini continue to show improvement, and all hope is not lost. But fans are impatient, and they will continue to put great pressure on Illinois to do better. Hopefully, the players and coaches will use the adversity to become more unified and keep each other optimistic and confident. Senior cornerback Alan Ball eluded to fan negativity in his postgame remarks, saying he believed the team would ignore the boo birds and keep fighting for victories.

We certainly hope so, but the path ahead is frought with peril. A long trip to Happy Valley for Penn State's homecoming awaits next week, followed by a jaunt to Madison to challenge the rejuvenated Wisconsin Badgers and a home game with the nation's number one team Ohio State. The Illini will be big underdogs in all three contests, and it is likely many fans have already placed these games in the loss column. As the theory goes, if the Illini lose three blowout games in the next weeks, they will lose the confidence necessary to challenge Purdue and Northwestern to end the season.

Of course, that is the pessimistic point of view. Sure, Illinois right now is no better than Indiana (who beat Iowa this last weekend) and Ohio, but rational people knew that all along. The Michigan State upset gave us renewed hope, which makes these last two losses even more difficult to bear. But Illinois has most of its players healthy, it has a quarterback who is growing by leaps and bounds every week, and it has a large number of talented youngsters eager to improve and win.

The Illini players and coaches are encouraged to keep their heads up and keep fighting. One of these days, the odds will be in their favor to end this losing pattern once and for all. The ball will bounce their way for a change, and players will find ways of making great plays. Then, the close games will end up on the positive side of the ledger.

In the meantime, fans will need as much perseverence as they demand from the players. If a few unforgiving fans fall by the wayside, so be it. This team is perhaps no more than a year away from demonstrating a major turnaround, and those fans who stick with them now will benefit from their patience and continued support at that time.

There is light at the end of the tunnel. Last year, it was hard to find the tunnel. Close losses are far better than blowout losses even if they are harder to tolerate at the time. Things are improving, but growth is often painful and filled with as much sadness as happiness. Right now, there is sadness. But all hope is not lost.

Go Illini!!!


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