Illinois won the second half of the MSU game Saturday, 14-7. In fact, the defense shut them out. But a poor first half sealed their fate. Illini head coach Ron Zook is still searching for answers, especially offensively.
"Offensively, we're still not hitting on all 8 cylinders. We've got to continue to work on that. I don't think we're as far away as everybody thinks. We've just got to make some things happen, and we're not doing that right now. I know these guys will keep working. I have no doubt about that."
There continues to be confusion at the quarterback position. In his first start, Eddie McGee couldn't generate any offense. He was only 2 for 11 passing for 31 yards, and he gave the Spartans their only second half touchdown, throwing the ball to MSU safety Dan Fortener, who returned the interception 45 yards to the end zone.
Zook replaced him with Juice Williams midway through the second half.
"I looked into his face, and I just didn't want to throw him into the wind," Zook acknowledged.
Williams did some good things, passing for 109 yards on 7 for 17 passing, and he ran for a net 33 yards despite losing 20 yards on sacks. He threw a swing pass to running back Mikel Leshoure, who completed the 41 yard touchdown. Williams felt the benching was beneficial.
"It definitely took pressure off. It gave me an opportunity to sit back on the sidelines and see what was going on with the defense. So by the time I came in, I had a great feel for what they were trying to do. So I knew exactly where to go with the ball."
Afterwards, Zook would not speculate on who earned the starting nod for the upcoming Indiana game.
"I'm not gonna comment on who will be our quarterback next week. We'll look at the tape. I don't know what I'm gonna do. It may be the end of the week before we decide."
McGee was given a conservative script, probably to help him keep his emotions in check early. But two short runs and an incompletion were McGee's only plays of the first quarter before Michigan State had pushed out to a 14 point lead. Instead of developing confidence, he was put behind the proverbial 8-ball.
The Illini defense was extremely porous at the start. MSU had possession of the ball for almost ten of the first 15 minutes of action. Strong runs from Glenn Winston and Larry Caper, combined with effective play-action passing from backup quarterback Keith Nichol, made the outcome appear inevitable.
Anthony Santella had one of his best days as an Illini, punting for a 44.8 yard average and pinning two punts inside the 20. But his shank late in the first half set up a Brett Swenson field goal as time expired to end the half. At that point, MSU had outgained Illinois, 281 yards to 60.
The second half was a different story. The Spartans might have let down and tried to protect their lead, but the Illini defense finally rose up and asserted itself. According to Zook, it is something upon which to build.
"Number one, they really came out and played. They tackled. Those were the same guys that played the first half. And that's a football team that's been better in the second half. Our guys came out and said, 'That's it, we're tired of it.'
"I thought the leadership showed. I thought the defensive coaches made some great adjustments at halftime and were able to keep them off balance."
Michigan State added only 91 second half yards and were stymied consistently in their efforts. In addition, cornerback Tavon Wilson made a big interception at the MSU 30 yard line, which set up Illinois' first touchdown, a three yard plunge by Leshoure.
Part of the problem for both offense and defense was the field position. Illinois consistently had bad field position. With the exception of the interception, the Illini began their possessions on the 32, 20, 9, 2, 24, 9, 20, 13, 20, 11, 33 and 33 yard lines. A combination of good punting by MSU, a stagnant offense and a couple blunders on kickoff and punt returns all contributed.
It is hard for any offense to score points when it is pinned back against its own goal line all day. And then, when the Illini would generate some first downs, a penalty or mistake would set them back.
In a repeat of previous games, Illinois got down to the 24 yard line late in the first quarter. But a false start on 3rd and 7 plus a sack on McGee took the Illini out of field goal range. It was a microcosm of the whole season.
Penalties continue to frustrate Zook and his staff. Six penalties for 58 big yards hurts everyone.
"I don't like any penalties. We cannot make foolish penalties. It's not that we don't coach it, it's not that we don't demand it. It happens."
Illinois also wasn't able to use a couple of its best players. Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui didn't dress after spraining his ankle last week. Offensive coordinator Mike Schultz had to alter his game plan.
"Anytime you lose a guy like Michael Hoomanawanui, (it hurts) not only in the pass catching but what he does for us physically and blocking-wise. It always hurts you when you lose one of your best players."
Arrelious Benn was hurt on Illinois' first kickoff return. He played until midway through the second half, but he wasn't 100%.
"Rejus opening kickoff hit his head on the turf," Zook explained. "He was kind of dingy from then on out. Doctors looked at him at halftime and felt like he could go. But that's one thing they're pretty cautious about. Rejus was having trouble."
The offensive line had perhaps its worst performance of the year as well. Both McGee and Williams had to scramble frequently, especially in blitz situations. Zook is still looking for answers there.
"I've got to look at the tape, but this is the first game I felt we had some struggles up front. We knew we would have some struggles, and we're trying to play more people to keep them fresh. We've got to be better than what we're playing."
The Illini ended with a measley 272 yards of offense. Jason Ford led the running backs with 40 yards, most of it coming on a 27 yard run that set up Leshoure's first touchdown. Daniel Dufrene added 26 yards in 7 carries, and Leshoure 22 in 3. Chris Duvalt and Benn each caught three passes.
Tavon Wilson had perhaps his best game as an Illini. Besides the interception, the sophomore led the team with 13 tackles including one behind the line. Freshman safety Walter Aikens, replacing Garrett Edwards after his previous neck injury started bothering him, played well in his absence with six tackles. According to Zook, he is good enough to tolerate an occasional mistake.
"I said all week I thought Walt was making some progress. We're gonna have to learn to live with some of his mistakes, but he'll get better and better. I was really pleased with the way he played."
Donsay Hardeman, Ian Thomas and Corey Liuget also added six tackles apiece. Hardeman was credited with 1.5 tackles for loss. Doug Pilcher and Russell Ellington added five tackles. Pilcher had the only sack.
Schultz still has confidence in both his quarterbacks. But continued offensive ineptitude is something that frustrates everyone.
"I don't feel good about anything right now, to be real truthful," Schultz explains. "This is tough times. I remember an old saying, 'Tough times never last, but tough people do.' We all have just got to be real tough.
"I still think we can find a way through this. And truthfully, we don't have an alternative. It's time to keep fighting and stay focused and trying to get better."
Zook felt his Illini made some progress today, especially on defense, and believes that growth can give the team more confidence. But he still has more questions than answers. All he can do is keep working at it.
"I think our football team is at a crossroads. I don't mean that in a derogatory manner. There was a lot of good things that happened out there today. But we didn't come out of the shoots like we've got to come out.
"Offensively, we've still got to get that thing going. We do some good things and then shoot ourselves in the foot. We're not gonna quit, and they're not gonna quit. We've just got to keep going. Eventually, we'll get through this thing."