Illini reach imperfect 10
IOWA CITY, Iowa – While watching ESPN last weekend, Steve Willis saw the nasty words flashed on the screen: Nine-game losing streak.
The Illinois safety couldn't believe it applied to his team.
"It hurt me," Willis said.
The pain got a bit worse for Willis and his teammates Saturday. No. 11-ranked Iowa pounded the Illini 38-10 at Kinnick Stadium, and the backward streak hit double figures.
The skid is the worst at Illinois since Jim Valek's 1968-69 teams dropped 11 in a row.
The first six losses of the current streak belong to the 1996 team and head coach Lou Tepper. At the end of a 2-9 quagmire, the Illini were outscored 206-95.
The Illinois players are trying to distance themselves from last year's finish and look forward to better days.
"Of course, when you lose it's frustrating," offensive lineman Chris Brown said. "You've got to bear down all the more. Correct the mistakes. I'm aware that there is a streak going on. I wouldn't want to be part of that, but I am. I want to help start something here."
"We know what we've done, and people are aware of it," defensive end Fred Wakefield said. "We're thinking about this season. We're not thinking about last season."
"I've totally forgotten about it," linebacker Danny Clark said.
The four latest losses belong to first-year coach Ron Turner. This is not the way he expected to start his UI career.
"I didn't think we'd be 0-4," Turner said. "We've got a lot of work to do. We'll work our way through this thing and get it turned around."
Until Iowa, the games had been closer. Three losses by a combined 42 points.
But Saturday's game was different. Illinois hadn't seen a team as good as Iowa, which was coming off three blowout wins.
"That was a football team that played with a tremendous amount of confidence against a team that had some doubt and was hoping to do it," Turner said.
After the game, Turner pointed to the Iowa program as a model for his own. He wants his players to expect victory. He wants them to feel confident.
He's also realistic. He didn't yell at his team like he did after the Sept. 20 loss to Washington State, a game he felt it could win.
"We got beat by a better football team today," Turner said. "Believe me, I'm not pleased. Last week, I was angry because we gave the game away."
Part of Turner's answer included changing quarterbacks. Redshirt freshman Tim Lavery made his first start, replacing Mark Hoekstra.
It wasn't pretty for Lavery, who completed 8 of 31 passes for 75 yards and a touchdown.
Turner didn't blame his new quarterback for the loss. Lavery spent most of the day on the run with Iowa sacking him seven times.
Iowa's offense inflicted its own brand of pain. Four of Iowa's five touchdowns came on plays of at least 16 yards.
"Big plays have killed us all year," Turner said. "Hold them, hold them, big play."
The Illinois defense made the big plays early. First, Danny Clark sacked Matt Sherman for a 12-yard loss. Iowa's star running back, Tavian Banks, lost a yard on second down. Sherman was almost intercepted on his third-down pass from the end zone.
The Iowa defense stuffed Lavery and the Illini from the start. The first Illinois series lost 12 yards, ending when Epenesa Epenesa sacked Lavery.
Banks gained 12 yards on his first four carries. But the fifth try set up Iowa's first score. The senior took the ball at his own 20 and went to the left side of the field. He juked past Willis and outran the Illini defense until Trevor Starghill pulled him down at the Illinois 4. Two plays later, Banks plowed over from the 2 for a 7-0 Iowa lead.
Illinois' only score of the first half came on a 13-play, 47-yard drive early in the second quarter. Lavery kept the drive going with a 2-yard pass on fourth down at the Iowa 36. The Illini had first down at the 10 but couldn't move and had to settle for Neil Rackers' 27-yard field goal.
Leading 7-3 midway through the second quarter, Iowa hit Illinois with one of its big plays.
After an Illinois drive stalled, Tony Collins took Ryan Tabloff's punt at his own 39. With a block from Tim Dwight, Collins broke toward the right side of the field. Rob Thein took out Willis, and Collins danced through the Illinois defense for the score with 8:08 left in the half.
Iowa put the game away with 10 points in the final 1:47 of the first half. The first three came on Zach Bromert's 40-yard field goal.
Lavery tried to make something happen on the next drive. With 31 seconds left, he fired a deep pass to George McDonald-Ashford that was intercepted by Iowa's Eric Thigpen.
"Tim held the ball way too long and gave the safety an opportunity to make the play," Turner said.
That wasn't the end of Illinois' problems. Iowa quarterback Matt Sherman completed passes for 11 and 18 yards, moving the ball to the Illini 43. With 12 seconds left, Damon Gibson got behind Starghill in the end zone and caught Sherman's pass for a touchdown.
"Twelve seconds, no timeouts, we let them get behind us is just absolutely ridiculous," Turner said. "We can't play that way."