At a time like this, it is very difficult to be an Illini fan. Fresh off another embarrassing performance at the hands of Penn State, it looks as if Illinois may be headed towards a dismal season. With their third blowout loss in four weeks, Illinois’ schedule does not get any easier with trips to Madison and Ann Arbor in the coming weeks. Illinois may return home to face Indiana with a record of 2-5.
Like always, lets first look at the positives from this debacle. First, the weather was beautiful in Champaign. Not a cloud in the sky and a perfect 75 degrees supplied the few tailgating fans with ideal conditions. The matte blue helmets also generated some excitement until the opening kickoff. The defense came out with some fire, which they lacked versus Louisiana Tech forcing, Matt McGloin and the Penn State offense to go three and out. The game took a sharp turn for the worst as soon as soon as Penn State punter Alex Butterworth kicked the ball away. A muffed punt by Tommy Davis, a transfer that Coach Tim Beckman brought to Champaign specifically to return punts, started a domino effect that included two more turnovers and a defense that looked liked it stopped trying.
It has become obvious that quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is not the player or leader that Illini fans hoped he would be. He seems to have digressed since his successful freshman and sophomore campaigns. The loss of A.J. Jenkins and lack of depth at wide receiver has killed Scheelhaase’s confidence. He does not look comfortable in the pocket and once again was ineffective as the Penn State defense lead by linebacker Michael Maui kept the Illini out of the end zone until Beckman drew up a little trickery to finally get there. Scheelhaase’s stats were not bad, as he threw for 270 yards, but the offense’s inability to score is unacceptable. They need to make big plays and sustain drives that end in touchdowns. Drives of eight to 10 plays that results in 40 yards and a punt is fine but eventually the offense needs to score touchdowns. It cannot rely on this shockingly poor defense to keep the game close.
Defensively, the Illini continued to struggle. With Supo Sanni and Steve Hull returning, most fans thought that the secondary would get the boost that it so badly needed, but it never came. The defense that quarterbacks feared last season was porous as Zack Zwinak ran for 100 yards and two touchdowns. This defense needs to get its act together or the rest of the Big Ten will embarrass this unit all season. Senior leaders need to step up and prove that last year’s success was a result of good talent, not good coaching by Vic Koening.
It’s safe to say that after a 6-6 season last year Ron Zook needed to be fired. But I am extremely confident that a Ron Zook coached team would not have been embarrassed at home by two unranked opponents. Sure, Zook may have had some terrible clock management and questionable decisions, but he got the players excited to play. Beckman cannot seem to get through to the players and motivate them. Will this change when Beckman is able to bring in his own players? I have no idea, but something needs to change and it needs to change fast.
The negativity around this program and around this campus is spreading like a virus. While I was sitting in the press box at the game I turned to the guy next to me after long run by Donovonn Young inside the 15-yard line and told him that we would miss a field goal on this drive. Even after a 40+ yard run I can’t seem to get excited. That is the atmosphere of Illini football right now and Beckman must change this statewide mindset, or his days in Champaign may be limited. And by the way, Taylor Zalweski did end up missing that 26-yard field goal.
Next week, the Illini travel to Madison to take on an average Wisconsin team. Look for this game to be a blowout from the get go. My prediction….Wisconsin 42 Illinois 10. Let’s hope that I’m wrong.
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