IOWA CITY, Iowa – The question that now needs to be asked, after 10 consecutive losses to competition both ranked and rank, is this:
Why be surprised?
Every mistake the University of Illinois makes on the football field should not be greeted with shock, but a sigh. Monkey business as usual.
You go to the stadium or turn on the television expecting certain teams to step up to the tee and fall for the exploding golf ball trick. The Cubs. The Saints. The Clippers. The Washington Generals.
They're not there yet, but trying hard to join the group, like a pledge causing mischief to impress future fraternity brothers.
Even the plays that work look more like an accident than smart planning. It sums up the UI's plight when Saturday's highlight – a goal-line fumble recovery of a Tim Dwight fumble – is caused by a late-arriving linebacker sneaking in from the Illini sideline as the ball was being snapped.
More of the same
We sensed trouble long before Lou Tepper's final team popped a rod, and we sensed Ron Turner would be hard-pressed to turn it around so soon.
We were right. Turner is a coach, not a magician. If folly was a touchdown, the UI would lead the Big Ten in scoring.
– The Illinois quarterback lines up behind left guard, not the center.
– The offense bungles its two-minute drill, wasting 30 seconds before calling a timeout to set up an interception.
– The defense does it one better, allowing Iowa's quarterback to march his team 72 yards in 19 seconds for a score a tick or two before halftime.
– The punter boots it 60 yards when a 30-yarder is called for, and 30 yards when a 60-yarder would work.
– The special teams miss tackles and assignments as if on purpose.
– The smallish Dwight jumps between two taller Illinois defenders and comes away with the ball.
"Some of our mistakes are the kinds of things you do when you don't have confidence," Turner said.
Illinois, of course, has every right to be confidence-free. Its losing streak has reached double figures with the next rest area miles away.
What went wrong
"I remember when they had Simeon Rice and Kevin Hardy," Iowa defensive tackle Jared DeVries said. "Right now, they're missing superstars. And superstars make programs."
DeVries is old enough to remember when Illinois was competitive. And like most people you talk to, he thinks the Illini will one day snap out of their stupor.
"You'd think they'd be able to keep their tradition – their semi-tradition – going," Iowa quarterback Matt Sherman said. "Great athletes, good system. They'll be OK."
An optimist would remind us the Cubs won a World Series (89 years ago), the Saints and Clippers have made the playoffs (and that's about it) and the Generals did upset the Globetrotters (promoter's idea).
Perhaps the UI can slam on the brakes before it causes more accidents.
But the forecast remains bleak with Penn State due in town Saturday and the lower division teams weeks away. Remember, too, that Illinois has shown itself to be an equal-opportunity loser (Louisville proved that), so don't faint if the Indianas and Northwesterns of the Big Ten stretch the UI's losing ways to 1998.
If that's how it plays out, the skid will have bridged three years. It already includes three different conferences, nine different teams, six different stadiums and two different UI coaching staffs.
Disappointing for sure. But not surprising.
Until proven otherwise, losing is expected.
Jim Rossow is sports editor of The News-Gazette.