INSIDE SLANT Illini searched for answers during bye week
Since being on the field hasn't helped, maybe taking a week off has solved the Illini's problems.
Illinois takes a three-game losing streak into its bye week. The losing stretch has taken the glow off the Illini's 6-0 start. Illinois is 6-3 overall and 2-3 in the Big Ten. While the week off will give the players some rest, the coaching staff will spend the time looking for answers about what's caused losses to Ohio State, Purdue and Penn State.
"You'd like to have been able to get away with it with a lot more positive mood," coach Ron Zook said in the Chicago Tribune. "They're going to regroup."
The Illini and their followers were thinking big in mid-October. Illinois was ranked No. 16 in the country going into the Ohio State game. A Leaders Division championship, a spot in the Big Ten title game and a BCS bowl bid seemed like realistic possibilities. Those hopes are nothing but a distant memory and Illinois could finish below .500 in the conference.
Zook knows now is not the time to give up.
"We've got to get a hold of these guys and they've got to get over it," he said "There's a lot we can learn from."
The most recent loss -- a 10-7 defeat at Penn State -- may have been the most frustrating. The Nittany Lions scored the winning touchdown with 1:08 to play. The Illini had a chance to send the game into overtime, but Derek Dimke's 42-yard field goal attempt bounced off the right upright at time expired for his first miss of the season.
"It's a perfect week for a bye week," quarterback Nathan Scheelhasse said. "After one like that, you need a little more time to collect yourself."
--The coaching staff spent the early part of the bye week on the recruiting trail. The players were scheduled to return on Nov. 4 to begin practicing for the Michigan game on Nov. 12.
--Illinois has had a punt blocked in two straight games. Justin DuVernois bobbled a snap against Purdue and had his kick blocked that resulted in a touchdown. The defense held against Penn State after DuVernois' punt was blocked, which was due to a breakdown in blocking.
--Defensive end Whitney Mercilus leads the nation with 11 1/2 sacks. The Illini are fourth in the country with 31 sacks and sixth with 54 tackles for a loss of yardage.
--WR Darius Millines returned against Penn State after missing four games because of an injured foot. He had one catch for minus six yards.
BYE WEEK MISSION: Fix the offense. Illinois has been shut out in the first half the last three games. The slow starts put the Illini in a hole they couldn't overcome against Ohio State and Purdue. Neither team scored in the first half of the Penn State game, but the Illini managed only one touchdown in the second half. Illinois has 28 points in the last three games.
"We need to figure it out," offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said in the Chicago Tribune. "We script our plays. We work them hard. It's something we take great pride in."
LOOKING AHEAD: The losing streak has put the Illini in a tough spot, both record-wise and when it comes to the schedule. Illinois has fallen to 2-3 and into fifth place in the Leaders Division of the Big Ten. Following the bye week, Illinois has difficult road games against Michigan and Wisconsin. The Illini will be underdogs in both games, but can't afford to have a 2-5 conference record going into the season finale against Minnesota.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We've played championship defense. We need to build on it and keep getting better from here." -- Illinois linebacker Jonathan Brown.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Illinois has turned the ball over eight times during the three-game losing streak. Not only have the turnovers killed drives, but they have put far too much pressure on the defense. An offense that features quarterback Nathan Scheelhasse, wide receiver A.J. Jenkins and running backs Troy Pollard and Jason Ford has far too much talent to be spinning its wheels. The Illini averaged 34.7 points a game when they opened the season with a 6-0 record, but they haven't been giving themselves a chance the last three games.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The problems on the offensive side of the ball have left the defense with no margin for error. The defense broke down once against Penn State and that resulted in the drive that lost the game for the Illini. The defense's numbers have been outstanding. Illinois has allowed 155 points for an average of 17.2 per game. The Illini have held opponents to 280.1 yards a game while recording 31 sacks and forcing 19 turnovers.
--OL Hugh Thornton left the Penn State game with a knee injury. The guard, who has been a starter, could have a tear of the medial collateral ligament.
--OL Corey Lewis has yet to play this season. He tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in February.
--FB Zach Becker is out for the season. He suffered a broken leg and a torn ankle ligament in the second game against South Dakota State. Becker has been granted a redshirt season and can return for his senior year in 2012.
The TSX Files: Illinois Monday
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