"I thank God for the success I've had. I'll keep faith in myself and this program."
– Illini Robert Holcombe
IOWA CITY, Iowa – There was a feeling that if the hard-charging Holcombe could break some runs, if he could throw Iowa off guard, new quarterback Tim Lavery might have a chance to make some plays.
Holcombe banged out 157 yards on 32 carries before 70,397 fans Saturday at Kinnick Stadium, but the Illinois offense never really had a chance.
Lavery dropped back to pass 42 times, was sacked on seven of them, scrambled for plus yardage four times, and completed 8 of 31 passes for 75 yards. The net profit on 42 drop-backs was 44 yards, just over a yard per snap.
In determining "where we stand in the Big Ten," coach Ron Turner found the same problems that plagued the Illini in three earlier losses.
– The offensive line can't protect consistently on passing downs, particularly when the opposition blitzes. Understated Turner: "I don't think our line blocked very well today."
– The wide receivers are having a frightful time getting open, and the tight end and fullback positions became glorified guards Saturday, combining for one reception for two yards.
– The Illini again lacked the power to pound out a yard when needed. Illinois was 3 for 19 on third down conversions.
No relief in sight
Combine those problems with a defense that is susceptible to the Big Play and a punting game that has permitted two touchdown returns this month, and you have the formula for a 10-game losing streak that is going to get longer.
Turner points to confidence – Iowa had it, Illinois didn't – and that's partly correct. But it's more than confidence. It's talent. It's mobility. It's creativeness under pressure. It's speed. For Illinois, it's like sitting on a ticking time bomb and knowing sooner or later it's going to go off.
"We hold 'em, hold 'em, and then Banks breaks loose for 76 yards," Turner said.
Then it's hold 'em, hold 'em, and the Hawkeyes erupt with 17 points in the last eight minutes of the half. And, from the Illinois perspective, both touchdowns in that span were uncalled for.
First, with a sheet of well-spaced Illinois tacklers covering Ryan Tabloff's long punt, all the UI's Michael Young had to do with maintain his outside position and force Tony Collins back into the thick coverage. But Young made a fatal step, lost contain and allowed Collins to get to the sideline for a 61-yard return.
Then, on the last play of the half, senior Trevor Starghill let Damon Gibson get behind him for a 43-yard TD bomb. Turner was so incensed he benched Starghill in the second half.
"To let somebody get behind you with 12 seconds left is ridiculous and unacceptable," said Turner. "We can't get beat deep in that situation. It's not enough to play hard. We have to play smart."
Starghill acknowledged he was "a half-second late," explaining: "He (Gibson) gave me a little shove, and when I tried to get my arm up, I couldn't. That prehalftime sequence really hurt us. Did I lose my job? I have no clue."
Benching doesn't hide problems
Turner benched safety Ivan Benson for his mistakes a week ago (just as he did Mark Hoekstra), demonstrating he won't accept mistakes.
But it is becoming a case of where does he start and where does he stop.
Turner benched Hoekstra and got an 8 for 31 passing performance from Lavery. He moved Chris Brown back to his 1996 position (regular center Tom Schau was injured) and got shakier pass protection than ever. He is alternating wide receivers but got only five catches out of the position, and no big plays.
On the opposite sideline, 68-year-old Hayden Fry could afford to be frisky in commenting: "I would rather have the big plays than a sustained drive. Why fool around? This team is developing a personality of its own, and they are a big-play team."
Perhaps. But we still don't really know how good the Hawkeyes are. Except for Holcombe, this game was a mismatch. The Hawkeyes' next two games are at Ohio State and Michigan. Then we'll know.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette.