While the Illinois defense bent repeatedly, this loss can be placed directly on the offense. Juice Williams played the whole way at quarterback, but he is not making the plays expected of a senior leader. He missed open targets, failed to take advantage of opportunities, and put the ball on the ground late to seal the Illini's fate.
Illini coach Ron Zook benched Williams the previous game in favor of Eddie McGee, but that experiment failed. He is at a loss to know how to improve the quarterbacking.
"Obviously, you can't have turnovers," Zook understated. "I think he did a couple good things, and he did a couple bad things. We're not getting the play out of him we gotta get. I'll be honest with you, I'm not sure exactly what we're gonna do yet."
Indiana dominated time of possession in the first half, mixing quarterback Ben Chappell's passing with receiver/quarterback Mitchell Evans' option game to keep the Illini defense on its heels. They moved easily between the 20's, but they missed two straight field goals before finally taking a 3-0 lead on a 35 yard kick by Nick Freeland.
Illinois came right back and gave their fans something they hadn't seen since the Illinois State game, a lead. Williams passed to A.J. Jenkins for 22 yards, Mikel Leshoure ran consecutively for 12, 10, and 7 yard gains, and Jenkins finished the drive with a 29 yard reception from Williams to give the Illini a 7-3 lead.
It appeared the Illini were finally witnessing favorable momentum when Nathan Bussey stripped Tandon Doss of the ball on the following kickoff, and kicker Derek Dimke recovered on the IU 29 yard line. But with a chance to take a sizeable lead, the Illini reverted back to their inglorious selves.
Williams hit Leshoure for 14 yards, but consecutive runs by Jason Ford, Leshoure and Williams lost three yards. Matt Eller's field goal attempt from 37 yards was pushed slighly left.
The Hoosiers immediately mounted an 80 yard drive, culminated by a 29 yard touchdown pass from Chappell to Darius Willis. Illinois would never again lead. Two incomplete passes and a failed scramble forced the UI to punt with a half minute left, and Chappell moved them downfield for a 37 yard field goal to end the half 13-7 Indiana.
An exchange of punts opened the second half. However, when Evans shanked his punt, the ball caroomed off the leg of defensive tackle Rahkeem Smith, giving the Hoosiers the ball on the Illinois 18 yard line. They didn't score, but lousy Illini luck put them in a dour mood and gave them poor field position. Zook lamented how momentum has always seemed to be with the opponent this season.
"It's just like the punt. They miss it and it hits us. Those kinds of things have happened all year."
After another exchange of punts, Illinois was driving with a chance to take the lead. Daniel Dufrene ran for 7,6, and 5 yards on the drive, and Williams hit Arrelious Benn twice, first for 18 yards and then for 31 yards. With second and five from the IU 6 yard line, Williams fumbled the ball on an option and Indiana's Ray Fisher picked it up and returned it to the 31 yard line. On the fifth play thereafter, Chappell hit Tandon Doss for a 44 yard touchdown, making it 20-7.
That long post pattern was set up by the fact Illini safety Donsay Hardeman was carted off the field with a possible neck injury in the second quarter. Junior safety Garrett Edwards not dressed due to a neck injury, so the Illini were playing inexperienced sophomore Supo Sanni and freshman Walter Aikens at the two safety spots.
For IU, it was easy pickings as they lulled the youngsters into thinking run and then lured them into play action, allowing Doss to run free over the middle. As for Hardeman, who had major neck surgery last fall and whose career might now be in jeopardy, Zook says the prognosis was uncertain Saturday night.
"They took Donsay and did a bone scan, and there's no damage there. They're doing an MRI, but we don't have the results of that yet. Because of the issue he had, they didn't want to take any chances. When we lost Donsay, we lost an awful lot."
After a run lost three yards, Williams was stripped of the ball by Jammie Kirlew, Larry Black, Jr. recovering for the Hoosiers on the Illini 21 yard line. Tight end Troy Wagner caught a 13 yard touchdown pass to give Indiana an insurmountable lead. Williams led the Illini on a 71 yard drive, culminated by a three yard alley oop to Jeff Cumberland, making the final score 27-14.
The Illini never really found offensive consistency. They gained 443 yards on the night, but most of that was in the last few minutes when the outcome was no longer in doubt. Unlike the creative Hoosier offense, the Illini stubbornly continued their game plan of running on first down.
It worked part of the time, but Williams seems unable to find consistency with downfield passing on third and long situations. Even when he had open receivers, he often overthrew them. It is hard to know who is more at fault, the quarterback with his mistakes or the offensive coordinator with his lack of imagination. Both probably must share the blame.
Williams ended the night completing 22 of 37 passes for 258 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 54 yards. Leshoure was the leading Illini rusher with 78 yards in 12 carries before going out with a sprained ankle. Dufrene and Jason Ford also went out with ankles, although Ford returned later.
Benn was heavily involved in the offense despite a noticeable limp. He caught 9 passes for 95 yards. Jenkins added 77 yards in 4 receptions but incurred a 15 yard penalty for taunting. Tavon Wilson and Aikens led the defense with 7 tackles each. Chappell was the offensive star for IU with 23 completions in 38 passes for 333 yards and three touchdowns.
Illinois keeps finding new ways to lose. The loss of Hardeman, coupled with the earlier loss of Martez Wilson, puts the Illini in a tremendous bind defensively. Benn and the running backs' injuries, even if mild, do nothing to help the offense's mood or potential.
Zook has many problems trying to reverse the damage. Right now, the biggest one of all might be keeping the team's morale up so it won't give up on the season. If it does that, it may not see victory again this year.
Zook says he and the team will keep working. It remains to be seen how effective that effort can be at this point.