Analysis: Illinois Still Could Have Big Year

A day later, the loss still stings to many Illini faithful whose hopes were so high. That includes Coach Ron Zook, who told me today the Illini have to "take the next step". But as hard as it may be to see through the fog of disappointment, that stride has begun. It is clear on so many fronts.

Yeah, they lost the game -- 52-42 to rival Missouri. And it is always better to win than lose. But this four-year rebuilding project under Zook continues to move forward. There were far more signs of that in the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis than many want to admit.

Sure, there were bad signs, too. Poor tackling, wide open Missouri receivers, no running game, special teams breakdowns, playing from behind the whole game. Allowing 52 points. Mostly, not stepping up when the whole nation is watching.

"It happened in the Rose Bowl," Zook told me today. "We get in games of this magnitude and we sort of wait around to see what is going to happen rather than making a stand, making a play, making it happen. That's my fault.

"We've got to change that. That is the next step. When we get on a stage like this, we've got to make it happen."

I believe they will. There are far too many signs. Sure, the defense got torched much of the game. But they kept fighting. Remember, this group was without two of its three defensive tackles in Josh Brent and Sirod Williams, the latter of whom is gone for the year; as well as its most talented, albeit newest, safety, in Donsay Hardeman and, for a half, it's third cornerback, Miami Thomas.

Still, despite digging a 45-20 hole in the third quarter, the defense buckled down. Missouri would not score another offensive point after the 2:50 mark in the third period -- and it is not as if the Tigers shut it down and tried to run out the clock.

Meanwhile, Illinois would score 15 consecutive points to cut it to 45-35 and had driven it to the Tiger 20, with a first down and a threat to make it a three-point game.

The Illini got no closer, but to say the defense finally found itself would be fair. That you shut out this Missouri offense for the final 17:50 of the game says something.

More noticeably, the one thing Illinois has lacked in the Ron Zook era -- a legitimate, vertical and dangerous passing game -- may finally have arrived. I assure you Missouri thinks so. Do you think Tiger secondary has any interest in doing this again? Just ask the cornerback that Will Judson ran by three times on go routes.

Quarterback Juice Williams, coming of age with the help of nifty, lightning quick if not particularly big receivers Chris Duvalt and Judson and ever steady Arrelious Benn, threw for 458 yards and five touchdowns. That didn't result in a win this time, but what will those numbers result in next time?

Despite what happened Saturday, Illinois will play good defense. The return of Brent means two solid tackles inside, meaning Will Davis can return to his end spot where he was projected to be an All-Big Ten talent. Hardeman getting healthy means the Illini will have their biggest, fastest safety on the field.

Offensively, big, fast Jeff Cumberland will be back for the Big Ten schedule. So will running back Troy Pollard, who will split time with Daniel Dufrene, making both more effective.

The Illini will not face another offense nearly as good as Missouri's all year. The Tigers could play for the national championship. In fact, if they win Big 12 championship game -- which I am convinced they will be in -- they probably will.

"They really were good," Zook said. "We knew they were going to be, but they were good."

Yet there were the Illini, stride for stride with them, an eyelash from making it 45-42 midway through the final period. And playing without a host of important players. All signs that they can take to the road for a spectacular season.

The road isn't easy. Happy Valley and The Big House are tough places to play, particularly in back to back weeks. Camp Randall is tough as well. But if you can win in The Horsehoe, as the Illini did last year, you can win anywhere.

I'm not saying Illinois is headed to 11-1. I don't believe that. I do believe this is a very good team -- with a newfound, scary passing game to go with defense and a running game and everything else already in place. And a mad, somewhat embarrassed team -- which makes them that much more dangerous.

All of which means that all is not lost. Even if it doesn't feel that way.

Illini Inquirer Top Stories