Turnovers Lead to Illini Loss to Purdue

There can be no more frustrating way to lose a game than turnovers. But after giving the ball away five times, including four straight in the second half, Illinois had no chance to defeat Purdue Saturday at home on Senior Day. Illinisports summarizes the 42-31 loss in this article.

The Fighting Illini football team continued to find new ways of turning victory into defeat as Purdue came from behind to defeat the Illini 42-31 last Saturday at Memorial Stadium. This time, turnovers doomed them as they lost four of eight fumbles and threw one interception.

As has happened several times this year, Illinois played evenly with a quality team and suddenly saw a momentum shift so severe that, in the space of just a few unbelieveable minutes, all hope was lost. Momentum is an intangible that cannot be defined statistically, and such extreme momentum shifts drive statisticians crazy. This time, the Illini gave up four touchdowns in the second half while having only four offensive plays of their own. That is how quickly they coughed up the ball to Purdue, giving them short fields to convert mistakes into points.

Two fumbles, one by Juice Williams and Rashard Mendenhall, an interception tipped at the line by a Purdue defender, and a muffed fair catch by Justin Harrison on a short kickoff all gave Purdue scoring chances. With the Illinois defense on the field too much without rest, the Boilermakers converted their great momentum advantage into easy scores. Combined with a first half gift where outstanding Purdue defensive end Anthony Spencer blindsided Juice in the end zone to force a fumble and freebie touchdown, Purdue had all the points it needed to win the game.

As a Purdue defender predicted prior to the game, Illinois' running game was much more a problem for Purdue than their passing game. Senior Pierre Thomas had a glorious game to end his home career, rushing for over 100 yards and one touchdown while gaining sufficient yardage on kickoff returns to become Illinois' all-time kickoff return leader. Pierre was not involved prior to this game in kickoffs to save his body for running from scrimmage. But Coach Zook wanted Pierre to have a chance at the record, and he complied by helping Illinois to some decent field position.

Quarterback Juice Williams was again outstanding on runs but frustratingly inconsistent on passes. Juice gained 142 yards on the ground, most of which was gained from scrambles to avoid a big rush. He had Purdue on its heels all day with his running threat. However, Juice's 42% season passing percentage, by far the lowest in the Big Ten, suffered even more as he completed only 31% on this windy and cold day. It was perhaps fortunate Juice found daylight for running from his scrambles because he had great difficulty completing passes on the run.

Incompletions were not all Juice's fault. As has been true all season, the offensive line struggled with pass protection. Juice needs to stand in the pocket longer in some instances and not let his fear of being manhandled prevent him from finding an open receiver. But in his defense, he sometimes was under so much distress it was all he could do to scramble to avoid big losses.

As always, there were a few drops by receivers as well. But most passes this day were too offline to catch. Williams is more accurate in practice, but it appears the game is still too fast for him to relax and trust his linemen and receivers. And he still tends to throw a ball that is hard to catch when under duress. These are things he will work on in the offseason, and he will be a much more accurate passer next year. But he will need to examine each play to see what he could have done better, and he will need to work tirelessly with his receivers to improve timing. Once he realizes that completions are imperative and dedicates himself to do that, he will become an outstanding quarterback.

The Illini defense was not as dominant on this day as it was against Ohio State, but Purdue leads the Big Ten in total offense. Their wide open offense spread out the Illinois defense, giving them many options to defend. At times they did well, but Purdue sometimes came with great play calls that were indefensible. And once Illinois became tired in the second half from being on the field too much, it became vulnerable. As we predicted prior to the game, the Illini needed to play mistake-free ball and score frequently to outscore the Purdue offense. This didn't happen.

Some pundits and fans delve on individual plays and coaching decisions as they look for someone to blame for the loss. But from this view, the game was not lost on the decision to pass on 4th and 7 deep in Purdue's redzone late in the game, or on the timeout taken to plan that play. Illinois needed a touchdown, two-point conversion and field goal to tie, and Coach Zook decided it might be harder to get that close to the end zone on a following possession against a strong wind. If the call had worked, Illini coaches would have been credited with a great decision. It didn't.

The game also was not lost just because Illinois didn't call a timeout with around 20 seconds to go in the first half and deep in their own end of the field. Fans watch other college and pro games and want the Illini to try to score again before halftime just like teams with great passing offenses do. But asking a freshman quarterback to move the team 70 yards in so short a time, when he is already struggling completing passes, is asking for trouble. The Illini were happy to enter halftime with a 16-14 lead, and with good reason.

Coaching is not an exact science, so decisions that have both merit and drawbacks regardless of the call will have critics when the plays fail. But it was turnovers that decided this game.

This was Senior Day, and it is sad to realize the departing seniors enjoyed only one home Big Ten win in their entire careers. They may not have been the most talented class, and the level of attrition was immense, but they are loyal Illini who deserved a better fate. They worked their tails off for 4-5 years and will remain loyal Illini alums. Our hearts pour out to them and wish them the best in the future.

On another sad note, fans attending the game may have witnessed the last performance of Chief Illiniwek at a home football game. Unless some compromise with the NCAA is reached between now and next fall, the Chief as we have come to recognize him may be no more. It was especially fitting the current Chief passed a line of 19 former Chiefs, including Bill Newton from the years 1931-1935, on his way to the field. If it was his last performance, he undoubtedly gained strength from the strong support of his predecessors.

Chief Illiniwek has always represented the Spirit of the Illini. Since many Native Americans believe their grandfathers watch over them from the Spirit realm, this important Illini symbol was represented as an Indian leader. He was said to depict a ghost manifesting through a fog. His purpose was to represent the Spirit of all Illini past, present and future. Thus, he represented all those Illini who died in World War I and wars since. And he represented alums from every religion, nationality and culture, both living and dead.

Even if Chief Illiniwek never appears again on the field, whether as an Indian Chief or any other representation, his Spirit and that of every other loyal Illini will always exist around Memorial Stadium to give strength, confidence and determination to all who labor in their memories. May all fans who mourn the possible loss of the Chief be buoyed by this knowledge.

The Illini have one game left this season, a road game with Northwestern. We sincerely hope these fine players will find a way to win their last game, not only to give themselves one last positive memory on the season, but also to serve as a stepping stone for next season and beyond. There is great hope for the future, and that belief can be strengthened by one last great effort at Evanston.

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

Illini Inquirer Top Stories