After five losses in a row, We are just assuming this is Zook's last season
It's not as if a home loss to Wisconsin, a one time BCS title contender is the straw that broke the camel's back for Illinois fans, but merely the culmination of what might be the most baffling season in my recent football memory. No, losing to Wisconsin isn't the reason that fans, and media types like me would like to see a change in direction for football, it is the culmination of many many things.
For one, it is how the game was lost. It seems odd to say it in a game that was lost by double digits, but the special teams unit basically lost the game for the team by themselves. As many of us have said all season, the defense this year has been something special, with the ascendance of Whitney Mercilus and Jonathan Brown to stardom, and players like Terry Hawthorne and Micheal Buchanan not far behind, the defense has been more than enough to keep the Illini in contention to win most of their games this season, but have been routinely put behind the 8-ball by the special teams unit, and it was even worse on Saturday against the Badgers. Every single one of the Badgers' scoring drives began inside the Illinois fifty. Including a touchdown that came as the result of a bungled snap by punter Justin Duvernois.
Its stuff like that that kills you. Illinois once again outgained its opponent, holding the Badgers to less than 300 yards of total offense. Not that it would need that many yards, as thanks to Illini punting and interceptions, they didn't have to travel too far to score.
Similarly, the field position is often tilted badly because of punt returns, or lack thereof. Terry Hawthorne called for a fair catch and then we all had to watch as the ball rolled back and back to the one yard line for a 74 yard punt. The team as a whole had no return attempts on punts, and just one kick return attempt, for -3 yards.
The Illinois defense is good, but not so good as to be able to withstand Wisconsin's offense for 33 minutes and with a short field every drive.
On offense a great first half deteriorated into chaos as both Reilly O'Toole and Nathan Scheelhaase came down with Interception-itis simultaneously. The brightest spot on offense was again Donovonn Young, who for reasons we still don't know didn't get a carry against Michigan. Against Wisconsin, with a better run defense, the freshman had 43 yards and two TD's on his mere 8 carries. (Young has gotten half of the carries that Ford has this season, but only has 100 fewer yards overall.)
So suffice to say, on a day when Wisconsin was absolutely beatable, and playing below its abilities, the same problems that have plagued the team for over a month now came back and cost them the game.
As much as there can be said about continuity being valuable in college football, and it is, we have to still consider what the ceiling is as well. I have said before that Illinois fans would be satisfied with a team that can consistently make bowl games and build up the program to a level of basic competence and relevance, and that is still true. But this thing had a lot going for Illinois: the schedule had 8 home games, and six to start the year. The biggest three opponents, OSU Michigan and Wisconsin were all at home, Ohio State is in a down year, the team misses MSU, Nebraska and Iowa completely, and the team returned a ton of starters, as well as the two coordinators that have been so valuable.
With all of that in their favor, the team still now can only hope for a 7-5 season. Recruiting has fallen off dramatically these last three years, and does not seem to be offering a lot of hope for years to come. So, if this season was the absolute best we could hope for in terms of schedule and opponent power, how can we hope for better in the next few years? Powerhouses like Penn State and Ohio State are about to open up their wallets for Urban Meyer and similarly resumed coaches, will Illinois have any better luck recruiting against them then?
Things can be very bad when you have to fire your coach after a winless season, and you have to start from scratch. But there is still quite a bit of talent on this roster, and there is something to build off of. This might be the best possible year to make a move, and not let the team descend into another mid decade slide like we have seen. Either way, we are going to learn quite a bit about Mike Thomas in a week's time.
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