Tate: Illinois on wrong side of thin line
For Illinoisans, the "thin line" between winning and losing seems wider than the Mississippi River these days.
Ron Turner's footballers haven't come closer than 12 points all season and are losing by an average margin of 33 points in Big Ten Conference play. The streak of setbacks has reached 13.
How critical is today's shootout with 1-7 Indiana? Well, discounting the Hoosiers, Illinois has dropped 11 straight Big Ten games and shows a 20-game audit of 2-17-1 against league members other than Indiana.
So, Tim Kish, after spending the last two seasons with Big Ten champ Northwestern, is there really a fine line?
"Yes, it's never as good as it seems when you're winning, and it's never as bad as it appears when you're losing," the Illini defensive coordinator said.
"What the fans don't see is the improvement in practice. It's not carrying over to the games yet, but from experience, I know it will come."
The current problem stems from two uncommonly weak classes at the top.
Take offense. The only seniors on the two-deep are tailback Robert Holcombe, the team workhorse; tight end Matt Cushing, two slow to be a pass-catching threat; center Chris Brown, forced by an injury to play a position that isn't his best; and reserve guard Brent Taylor.
It's bad enough to have only four seniors among the top 22 offensive members, but that unit boasts just one junior starter in former walk-on lineman J.P. Machado. That is a frightful upper-class situation. And defensively, benched corner James Williams is one of only three seniors in the top 22.
Contrast this with Purdue, which takes a six-game win streak to Iowa today with a red-hot offensive unit that has featured seniors at quarterback (Billy Dicken), both receivers, both running backs, both tackles, tight end and left guard. Lost in the hoopla over Purdue's rise is the fact so many vets must be replaced next year, just as NU (now 3-6) was forced to remake its club this year.
Losing coaches 'pull trigger' faster
If there is a compounding factor of optimism that sets in with success, the opposite happens in defeat. Losing coaches tend to pull the substitution trigger faster. Kish stuck with two safeties, Mike Nelson and Eric Collier, all 12 games at NU last season. This year, the Illini have started six different safeties, six defensive ends, four wide receivers, three quarterbacks and a mishmash of guards and centers.
When receiver Michael Dean, safety Bobby Jackson and defensive end Jason Eberhart moved into the lineup last weekend, that brought to 11 the number of Illini with freshman eligibility who have started. Nobody is successful with that kind of youth on the field.
"When you're winning, there's no reason to change," Kish said. "You'd like to think the criteria doesn't change, but there is a tendency to make changes when you're not having success.
"There's a world of difference when you're winning. The players fly around and expect good things to happen. Those fumbles that cost us at Louisville just don't happen. You don't drop easy interceptions like we did against Purdue. And then we have that fumbled punt bounce right up to us (Steve Willis) on the 1-yard line, and we drop it."
It becomes an attitude thing
Kish said it was just like that when he joined Gary Barnett at NU in 1992. The Wildcats won seven games in three years.
"We had a special class that came along and became the leaders," Kish said. "They believed in each other. In the tight situations, it was 'run at me' or 'throw to me,' and 'if the play doesn't come my way, I know the guy on the other side has the same mind-set.'
"This year, we've had good players leave the framework of the defense and try to make plays without reading the keys.
"At the same time, we've played a particularly tough schedule. Except for Louisville, the other six teams are 36-7. Penn State and Washington State are undefeated."
Regardless of what happens today and this month, Kish claims the staff hasn't wavered in its belief the tailspin can be reversed.
"It's obvious what we need," he said. "Our linemen have to get stronger, which they will, and we need to add some speed. I can see a JC cornerback playing immediately because of the nature of the position. He just needs to be fast and competitive."
First item is getting the losing streak off the team's back. If that doesn't happen today, it could reach 0-17, and that's no way to enter 1998. It makes that fine line appear too wide.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette.