Illini End Season in Loss to Northwestern

The Fighting Illini football team lost its season finale to the Northwestern Wildcats Saturday 27-16. It was another case of mistakes and misfortune preventing victory. Illinisports evaluates the game and season while offering future expectations in this article.

The Fighting Illini football team ended the 2006 football season on a sad note as it was unable to overcome momentum and its own mistakes in a 27-16 loss against the Northwestern Wildcats in Evanston Saturday. The game was a microcosm of the entire season with the same problems that have hindered Illini success throughout the year repeating themselves.

Perpetually bad field position. Turnovers and mistakes at the worst times. Dropped passes. Inconsistent pass protection. Unpredictable passing. More special teams horrors. Emotional letdowns leading to uninspired play. All these factors plagued the Illini throughout the year and again against the Wildcats. So despite showing tremendous improvement over last year, especially on defense, the Illini end up tied for last in the Big Ten.

After six straight heart-breaking losses, the Illini's confidence level was already fragile at best. Whatever enthusiasm they expected to generate took a downturn before the game began as fifth year senior offensive guard Matt Maddox was forced to return home with a knee infection after 45 straight college starts. This no doubt contributed to the Illini being flat in the first quarter.

The Illini had an opportunity to take an early lead, but Jason Reda's chip shot field goal hit the uprights and fell backward. After nine straight successes, Reda missed while bothered by a groin strain. A failure to score early had to hurt the defense's perspective as they allowed two Northwestern scores, one of which was set up by a Juice Williams fumble on a sack.

A tremendoust 86-yard touchdown gallop by sophomore Rashard Mendenhall gave the Illini a much needed emotional burst in the second quarter. This positive momentum swing pushed the Illini to earning a safety and second touchdown for a 16-14 lead.

Northwestern was driving for a score to end the half when J. Leman appeared to gather in an interception. He showed his enthusiasm to sell it to the officials, but a replay reversed the call as the ball clearly hit the turf prior to the catch. From euphoria to despair, the defense trudged back onto the field and gave up a field goal to give Northwestern a 17-16 lead at the half.

With the Illini already emotionally down at the turn of events, Northwestern devised a surprise onside kickoff to begin the second half. When Kevin Mitchell fumbled it back to the Wildcats, Illini enthusiasm and resolve were damaged. Illinois never again scored. They had a chance late in the game, but an E. B. Halsey halfback option pass was thrown a split second too late and was broken up on a good defensive play. And Chris James dropped a catchable pass on fourth down deep in Northwestern's red zone to end the Illini's last hope for victory.

Once again, the Illini defense acquitted itself well. Despite an inconsistent offense, the defense kept them in the game. J Leman was a monster as he led the team with 22 tackles. It was clear once again that maturity, enthusiasm, intelligence, tremendous work ethic and significant film preparation can make a good player into an outstanding one. Leman has a chance for All-Big Ten honors with his consistently excellent play.

But the defense was on the field far too long to be successful. It had little chance to catch its breath as the Illini offense frequently went three and out on its possessions. And poor field position coupled with mediocre punting gave Northwestern many great chances to score. It had to be discouraging for the defense to know the Illini offense could not sustain long drives well enough to counter Wildcat scores. One cannot blame the improved defense for allowing their opponent to score on occasion. They did their best against serious odds.

Offensively freshman Juice Williams, who concluded his first season as a college starter one day prior to his 19th birthday, couldn't display his immense skills. It has become obvious that Williams became shell-shocked over the course of the rugged twelve game schedule, rated 17th toughest in the country.

It wasn't poor coaching that caused Juice to tail off after his impressive play in the Illini victory at Michigan State but a reduction in confidence and an increase in fear. The three game stretch of Penn State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State, all quality teams with outstanding defenses, likely did a number on Juice's psyche to the point he doubted himself and his teammates.

The Illini offensive line struggled all year, and this was magnified Saturday when Maddox, probably the most consistent blocker, was sent home. The receivers also struggled getting separation and making plays on catchable balls. The entire offense lacked the confidence to win.

Opponents learned they could disrupt Juice's passing accuracy by pressuring him with blitzes. Juice became accustomed to running for his life, and he likely found it impossible to locate secondary receivers while anticipating the pass rush. He flushed from the pocket too quickly on several occasions in every game, and he had difficulty seeing the field clearly while running for his life. Juice gained more ground yards than any Illini quarterback in history and gave the Illini chances to win games with his feet, but his passing efficiency suffered mightily.

A vicious cycle was created. Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley learned to distrust his quarterback to run a complex offense and make plays under pressure, so he simplified the offense. This made it easier to defend. Juice came to distrust his offensive line, and his increased fear and doubt led to more inconsistency, which led to a more conservative attack, which led to defenses stacking their players close to the line to stop the run, which led to more need to pass on third and long, which led to more sacks and quarterback scrambles, which led to more three and outs.

Juice also learned to doubt his receivers' ability to catch balls thrown properly. And the receivers learned to doubt Juice's ability to find them when open or to throw the ball with touch so they might catch the ball. Thus, the Illini offense ended up with eleven players playing without confidence. It is no wonder they had trouble scoring.

We recall Illini quarterback great Jeff George as a raw freshman at Purdue. He was forced to start games on a mediocre team before he was ready. As a result, he struggled mightily and eventually transferred to Illinois to get a fresh start. With time, George led the Illini to major successes and became a #1 draft choice by the NFL.

Juice Williams has a similar arm to George, and he is a much better runner. He had little background in high school for the complexities of the college game but still performed extremely well until the rigors of a 12 game college season took their toll. It would be a big mistake to give up on Juice Williams. He will eventually become one of Illinois' greatest quarterbacks ever. Book it!

Illinois played 16 true freshmen this year, as has been publicized repeatedly, and this undoubtedly played a major role in their losing season. Special teams play was shoddy at best all year long, and the Illini need to upgrade that aspect through more recruiting and maturation of players already on the team. Turnovers were a constant problem and must be corrected before next year. These and the factors mentioned above all contributed to a season of almosts and what ifs.

One more aspect must be mentioned. One recalls scenes from the movie The Longest Day where both the Allies and the Germans wondered, "...what side is God on?" Most Illini are religious, and some are superstitious. While most people tend to take personal credit for good luck, they tend to question a higher power when misfortune arrives. No doubt Illini players and coaches are the same.

This year, misfortune plagued the Illini effort. Not just the Northwestern game but the whole year. Weird plays and crazy bounces of the ball almost always seemed to favor the opponents. After awhile, it becomes natural to wonder if we are meant to lose when these things happen game after game.

Against Northwestern, Reda's field goal hit the uprights and fell back while a Wildcat extra point hit the uprights and fell through successfully. Special teams were again the victim of misfortune as a Northwestern player pushed Alan Ball back into E. B. Halsey as he waited for a fair catch on a punt. The ball hit Ball and bounded into the arms of the Wildcats. How often do you see that happen? Opponents' punters pinned the Illini repeatedly back within their own ten yard line, as if there was a wall blocking the ball's penetration into the endzone.

These and other plays Saturday and every other game accumulated in the minds of Illini players, causing them self-doubt and destroying their confidence. We kept wondering when the Illini would receive some good fortune, but it happened far too rarely to win games.

Games are often won or lost on the basis of minute differences. Winning baseball teams hit line drives that land one inch fair, while losing teams hit their drives one inch foul. Basketball players see their circus shots find the bottom of the net if they are meant to win but can't repeat that success at other times. There are a myriad situations in football where success or failure is determined by the slightest differences. Ohio State defeated Michigan by three points last Saturday and can now play for a National Championship. Are the Buckeyes really better than Michigan? How many games would each win if there was a seven game series?

Teams that have misfortune beyond their control often lose, and players know this. Sometimes, teams can overcome adversity and win anyway. But frequent misfortune coupled with a long losing streak becomes a reminder of failure and tends to repeat itself. There is no doubt the Illini became more emotionally discouraged with every misfortune. So by the Northwestern game, it took little failure to make them play tight and lose focus.

Eventually, misfortune will turn to good fortune. In our experience, the longer a team working to improve is kept down, the faster and more mercurial their rise when cycles reverse. Illinois won no games in 1961 and two in 1962, but they came back to win the Big Ten and Rose Bowl in 1963. They were pathetic in 1997 and 1998 but came back to win the Bowl in 1999 and win the Big Ten and play in the Sugar Bowl in 2001.

Illinois loses only two starters each on offense and defense, and their youngsters will be a year older and wiser next year. Another year of maturation and strength gain, coupled with more practice within the offensive and defensive schemes, should help the Illini get over the hump. Add in a recruiting class that is already highly promising and will likely be one of its best ever before it is completed, and you have the makings of a highly successful team in the near future. So even though the schedule will be tougher, optimism abounds.

The passing attack definitely needs to improve next year. But we have seen Juice Williams pass with efficiency in practices where he wears a red shirt and knows he won't be hit. Once he has a chance to recooperate physically and mentally, he will begin to realize the traps he fell into this year and work to prevent their reocurrence. He will have more chance to work on timing routes with his receivers, and they will learn better to catch his bullet passes. The offensive line will likely improve as well, giving Juice more confidence in the pocket. We believe we will see major improvements next year.

We have great confidence in the defense already, but it should be even better next year. There are some freshmen who didn't play this year who will vie for playing time next year and push the starters to improve. And there will be some entering freshmen who may be good enough to help as well. The punting needs improving, and we know Coach Zook and staff are considering recruiting a junior college punter to give more maturity and experience to the position until the two freshmen punters have a chance to develop at their own rates.

We wish at this time to offer a thought for Illini players, coaches and potential recruits. Illini fans love their teams dearly, and they can sometimes place too much expectation on their teams to perform well and win games. Some rely on the Illini to give them excitement and inspiration to help counter otherwise mundane or unrewarding lives. They occasionally get carried away with the frustrations of losing and say things that are counterproductive to the success of the team.

Please don't take these things personally. The loudest fans may want to change coaches, change athletic directors, change players, or find blame anywhere they can. They are desperate to explain away their dependency and lash out in an unconsious and instinctive need to attack those who haven't come through for them. They are still Illini fans, and they will come back for more. But until Illinois wins frequently, they will suffer publicly. We ask you to forgive them and understand they mean well even if what they say may hurt your feelings. This too shall pass.

The Illini came so close this year. They had chances for a four or five win season, but two was all they could muster. Regardless, they are competitive again in a powerful conference. Coach Zook, his staff and players have earned the respect of their opponents, and they have proven they can get the job done with another year of hard work.

Success hasn't come as fast as we want, but Illini fans can still hold their heads high. Success in the won-loss column is inevitable in the near future, and we can look forward to a bright future.

Go Illini!!!


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