Illini Nearly Upset Badgers

The Fighting Illini almost pulled out a major upset last Saturday against the nationally ranked Wisconsin Badgers in Madison 30-24. It was another frustrating loss that might easily have been a victory, but Illinisports claims it was further proof the Illini are developing into a formidable team.

Deja vu all over again. For the fourth week in a row, the Fighting Illini football team fought valiantly against a quality foe, had a chance to win it near the end, but still came up short as they lost at 17th ranked Wisconsin 30-24 Saturday. And for the fourth week in a row, the Illini players, coaches and fans need to regroup, let go of the sting of defeat, and prepare for another outstanding foe coming up next weekend.

This is life in the Big Ten, and Illinois' youngsters are getting quite a baptism of fire. They are growing and improving, but they are still struggling to get over the hump and replace excruciating defeat with uplifting victory. Each week, they find new ways of showing their potential while simultaneously making crucial mistakes at the worst times.

The pessimists remember only the mistakes: poor punts; another punt return mistake and resulting turnover; Jeff Cumberland's drop of a sure touchdown pass just before halftime; Juice Williams' interception at the beginning of the second half and his overthrow of a wide open EB Halsey on a third and one situation that might have secured the victory; the defense's inability to stop Wisconsin on two fourth down pass plays; poor pass protection at times by the offensive line; etc.

However, the optimists realize the Illini did much right in this game and choose to remember how they had the Badgers on the ropes and nearly pulled a major upset. Freshman Travon Bellamy ran his first ever interception back for a 41 yard touchdown. Derrick McPhearson became more involved with the offense and had a nice 52 yard pass catch and run to set up a touchdown. The Illini defense held Wisconsin's potent ground game to less than 100 yards and knocked their star running back P. J. Hill out of the game twice with vicious hits. J. Leman, Chris Norwell, Kevin Mitchell, Justin Harrison, Vontae Davis, Antonio Steele and other defenders all made outstanding individual plays. Juice Williams looked like a confident upperclassman in the first half, mixing run and pass and keeping the strong Badger defense on its heels.

Each person decides whether to remember the bad or the good, but it is hoped the Illini players and coaches will remember the good and keep their confidence up. They still have only two wins and are no longer eligible for a bowl game, but they are possibly the best two-win team in the country and will give each of their last three opponents major headaches. There is still a chance they can rise up and win one or more of their remaining games, and the future looks increasingly bright.

Illinois dominated the first half. They used a creative offensive attack led by the exciting Williams to keep the Badgers wondering what was coming next. After the first few running plays, the Illini defense caught onto the Badgers' attack and stopped the running game cold. The 24-10 lead at halftime could have been even better, and it forced Wisconsin to regroup.

However, just as has happened in a number of previous games, the Illini tightened up in the second half while their opponent rose up to meet the challenge. It has become obvious that the Illini are not yet confident enough to play well with a lead. More than likely, they want to win so badly they worry about winning instead of continuing their fine play from the first half. They know the other team will play harder after halftime, and they are trying to keep from losing rather than finding ways to win. Thus, they can't seem to relax and play their best in the second half.

It is also true that experienced teams make adjustments at halftime to counter what they have seen from their opponent. It is difficult for Illinois to react to these adjustments, especially on offense, because of their youth. The coaches work all week to prepare the team to carry out their game plan, but they don't always have the time to teach the team a second set of plays to counter changes anticipated by the opponent. Experienced teams remember the whole play book better and can utilize every option much better than rookies.

Wisconsin's defense went from a zone coverage in their secondary to a man to man at the beginning of the second half. This freed up at least one additional defender for run responsibilities. And Illini receivers had difficulty gaining separation from close coverage by the Badgers' athletic and mature cornerbacks. Thus, both the Illini's run and pass games suffered, and they were much less efficient with plays designed to attack this defense than they had been in the first half.

Still, the Illini defense played well enough to win. However, poor field position throughout the second half coupled with the offense's inability to sustain drives put the defense on its heels. They tired from being on the field so much, and Wisconsin found it much easier to move in for touchdowns when they had a short field with which to work. Despite being outscored 20-0 in the second half, the Illini still had almost identical statistics to the Badgers for the game. And the Illini still were fighting to get a winning score when time finally ran out. Other than pulling out the win, that is all that can be asked of this team.

If there is one obvious area that has not improved, it is the play of the punt and punt return teams. Kyle Yelton averaged only 28.3 yards per punt Saturday in the strong, swirling winds of Camp Randall Stadium. He is a freshman so perhaps he can be excused, but it seems each opponent has possessed a punter capable of kicking farther and with better hang time. Kyle will undoubtedly improve, but the Illini suffer when he is not at the top of his game.

And while we personally love what EB Halsey brings to the Illini team (his versatility and leadership are without peer), he is obviously snakebit on punt returns. Halsey has the best hands of those who have tried out for punt returner, and he has four years of experience knowing which punts to field. Unfortunately, circumstances this year have snowballed against him to the point he now doubts himself.

Saturday, he was confused whether or not to catch one punt, and it ended up bouncing through his legs. He claims it didn't touch him, but replays were not at the best angle to confirm his view. Thus, Wisconsin was allowed a fumble recovery that led to a field goal. Halsey is having such poor luck this year he now is thinking too much and not using his God-given talents to best ability.

As much as we would like to see Halsey have chances to shine in his final year with the Illini, we now recommend strongly that someone else be given the job. Someone who has no nightmares of previous mistakes is less likely to doubt himself during crucial moments. At this point, there is nothing to lose to try someone else back there. There may be no one better than Halsey for the job, but someone else might be enjoying a more positive cycle right now and be better able to perform on punt returns. Regardless, our heart pours out to EB because he deserves a better fate.

The Illini must now prepare to host the nation's number one team the Ohio State Buckeyes next Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Again, they will be a decided underdog. But again, the Illini will give it their best shot. And their best shot is more impressive with each passing week.

Even if they must endure another loss, we hope all Illini fans get out and support the Fighting Illini against the Buckeyes. Of the Illini's previous losses, only Syracuse is not on its way to a likely bowl game this year, and Rutgers is still undefeated. If there is such a thing as a good loss, the Illini have had several. They have earned the support and enthusiasm a large crowd can generate.

Go Illini!!!

Illinisports, illinisports@illiniboard.com


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