Zook Job Saved, Illini Still Lose At Purdue

Same old, same old. The Fighting Illini football team lost to the Purdue Boilermakers Saturday in West Lafayette, 24-14. Untimely penalties, inconsistent offensive production, and weak run defense again proved too much to overcome. Not even a temporary reprieve for Ron Zook from Athletic Director Ron Guenther could inspire a victory.

Embattled Illinois coach Ron Zook received a vote of confidence from Athletic Director Ron Guenther, who spoke to the media at halftime of the Purdue game.

"I want to put this to rest. There will be some changes, but there won't be any changes at the top. There's a great deal of frustration, obviously, with the program at the moment. But that's all I'm gonna say."

Guenther always evaluates the program at the conclusion of the season, and this year will be no exception. While he provided a similar statement for Ron Turner in his final Illinois season, there is no indication he is planning to change his mind this time.

"We're still gonna evaluate (at the end of the season), but I think its really unfair to start jumping at the end of the fifth year on the guy. That's what I wanted to put aside. We're gonna sit down and evaluate certainly. But there's no decision on the top."

The Illini needed to get off to a quick start, but that didn't happen. Arrelious Benn had an exciting kick return to the 38 yard line to give hope. But an illegal block and an illegal substitution penalty on the first two plays from scrimmage put the Illini in a deep hole. The team and its fans were experiencing deja vu.

The Illini forced a punt on Purdue's first possession, and the offense started showing some life. The big play was a 65 yard burst by Mikel Leshoure, who cut back from the right side and split defenders to ramble down to the 4 yard line. Daniel Dufrene churned forward for the touchdown to give the Illini a quick 7-0 lead.

However, as in the Illini's other losses, the opponent roared back to neutralize the Illini advantage. With young Illini linebackers unable to meet the play at the point of attack, PU soon realized it didn't need its vaunted passing game to move the ball. It took them only four running plays to cover 66 yards, with Jaycen Taylor speeding the final 44 yards to tie the game.

After another brief Illini possession proved unproductive, the Boilermakers moved methodically downfield. The twelve play drive that included only three passes netted 68 yards and a second touchdown to make it 14-7 Purdue. Travon Bellamy's pass interference call in the end zone aided the effort.

Redshirt freshman Jacob Charest was then given the first snaps of his career, but the Illini went three and out. Zook said afterward they were going to play Charest regardless of the situation. But he felt a starting assignment might have been too much pressure for the youngster.

"We said it would be the second or third series, not later than the third and no earlier than the second. Hindsight is 20:20. I just didn't feel you should put a guy in there in his first start but let him settle down before playing."

Keeping the momentum, Purdue mixed strong runs with short, accurate passing to move 62 yards. Quarterback Joey Elliott ran the final five yards for the TD. On the day, Elliott was 15 for 24 passing and 166 yards while adding 62 yards on the ground.

It was here the Illini began to show some life and give the Illini Nation hope for the future. Charest promptly completed four straight passes, three to tight ends. The big play was a 31 yard strike to Hubie Graham down to the two yard line. However, much to the consternation of the fans, Juice Williams re-entered the game for Charest.

An offside penalty moved the ball to the one. Williams optioned to Benn, who appeared to score. However, a holding call nullified the effort and forced a field goal. When Matt Eller missed the chip shot, the Illini lost their momentum and went to the locker trailing by two touchdowns.

Zook stated the obvious.

"You get a holding call. Any of those gaps could be called holding. We scored, so it comes back. And we missed the field goal. Those are things you can't have. We should have come out at least with a field goal. That could have made a difference in the game."

Zook explained the reasoning behind the quarterback change.

"We got down there passing the ball, but when you get down there, the passing game changes a little bit. Jacob hasn't spent an awful lot of time on that. The running game is the thing that was important at that point."

The Illini came out strong in the second half, scoring on their first possession. Williams and Leshoure carried the load. Williams passed 14 yards to Jack Ramsey and 9 to Chris Duvalt, while Leshoure ran 24 yards in 6 carries.

On an important fourth down and one situation, Leshoure appeared to be caught behind the line but carried tacklers forward for 6 yards. Williams scooted the final 6 yards on a draw to tighten the game to 21-14.

The Illini defense held Purdue to its second straight 3-and-out, so the offense got the ball back on their own 47 yard line with great field position and a chance to tie the game. However, three plays netted only two yards. Anthony Santella's punt forced the Boilers to start on their own 12 yard line.

Elliott completed a 28 yard pass to running back Ralph Bolden and a 22 yarder to Keith Smith to get them out of a hole. The drive stalled deep in Illini territory, so Carson Wiggs booted a 25 yard field goal to produce the final margin of victory.

From there on, neither Williams nor Charest could move the team. Even when the Illini had the ball with time to score two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, they didn't go to their hurry-up offense until it was too late. It may not have mattered since that didn't work either.

On the day, Purdue outgained the Illini 386 yards to 322. Williams completed 9 of 18 passes for 77 yards while running for 38 yards in 14 tries. Charest was 4 for 8 passing for 52 yards, missing all three of his second half tries.

Leshoure led the Illini rushers with 122 yards in 15 carries. Ramsey caught three balls for 44 yards, and Benn added three more for 16 yards. Duvalt and Michael Hoomanawanui added two catches each. Ian Thomas led the Illini with 10 tackles, and Doug Pilcher added 1.5 tackles for loss.

Illinois continues to shake up the lineup looking for answers. Bellamy and freshman Terry Hawthorne started at the corners in place of Dere Hicks and Tavon Wilson. Freshman Walt Aikens now appears to be a fixture at safety. Nate Bussey started at the WILL linebacker.

Offensively besides Charest, redshirt freshman Tyler Sands split time at left guard. And freshman Hugh Thornton started his second straight game. Freshman running back Justin Green had one carry.

Zook is looking for more energy and enthusiasm in practice and games, but he admitted it is tough to play so many youngsters.

"It is, but we're gonna be a better team for it. We just have to keep improving and get better."

As in previous games, the Illini had trouble playing 60 minutes with intensity. Zook is distraught trying to figure out how to reverse this troublesome problem.

"We're frustrated. If we had come out with the same intensity and passion in the first half we did in the second half, it could possibly have been been a different ball game. But we didn't do that."


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