Tate: It can't get much worse
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COLUMBUS, Ohio – The noise emanating from Illini Nation will make this another difficult week for Ron Zook, Mike Schultz and Juice Williams.
Not much can be said in their defense. As with the 37-9 opening loss to Missouri, the Illini ventured onto the big stage and laid an egg Saturday. Ohio State won 30-0 without completing a pass in the first half and without allowing Illinois so much as a field goal try. This was a total shutdown reminiscent of 30-0 loss to Clemson in the 1990 Hall of Fame Bowl.
It can't be laid entirely in the lap of Schultz, the new offensive coordinator. This trend began at midseason 2008. Disregarding the recent Illinois State game, an offensive juggernaut that set offensive records in three stadiums last season has scored 17, 20, 10, 9 and zero points in a stretch of mounting ineptitude.
Williams, throwing erratically and finding little running room on the ground, is nearing the school record in total offense an inch at a time. All-America candidate Arrelious Benn had four receptions and completed his seventh consecutive game without a touchdown.
Yes, Juice got squeezed. But before you could say Eddie McGee, he entered with 5:22 showing and threw an interception on his first play.
What were they thinking?
When the game settled down in the early rain-soaked stages, Ohio State attacked Illinois at its strength, the defensive line, and took control.
So give the Buckeyes credit. They dominated in the trenches and deserved to win.
That said, the Illini seemed disengaged. They contributed to their own downfall. Maybe "dumb" is too strong a word. Let's just say the Illini didn't use their heads ... repeatedly ... when the game was still in the formative stage. Count the ways:
– When a flubbed Ohio State punt put Illinois in early position at midfield, the Illini punched out two first downs and reached the 24 where a penalty was assessed for 12 men in the huddle. What were they thinking?. After being set back, Williams threw directly to linebacker Brian Rolle who returned 39 yards.
– After Aaron Pettrey boomed a 50-yard field goal, Illini A.J. Jenkins caught the kickoff in the end zone, started to run, stopped and then made a fateful step over the line. He was swarmed at the 10. What was he thinking?
– Unable to capitalize as Williams' passes went awry (he was 6 of 15 for 30 yards at the half), the Illini nevertheless had the Buckeyes back on their 20 early in the second quarter. Pryor was trapped near the sideline when Clay Nurse unnecessarily grabbed his facemask. Fifteen yards! Then Pryor ran to the other sideline and Illini Supo Sanni hit him much too late. Another 15 yards! What were they thinking? Ohio State, without so much as a completed pass in the half, marched in for a 13-0 lead.
– The next time Ohio State punted, Jarred Fayson stood under the high boot around the 20, and stepped away from an obvious fair catch, allowing the ball to bounce to the 6-yard line. Again, what was he thinking?
– The Buckeyes made an uncharacteristic turnover just before halftime, a fumbled punt giving the Illini the ball at the Ohio State 45. Three penalties and a Fayson drop found Illinois punting from the 50. Three penalties! What were they thinking?
Hits keep coming
When the second half opened with another major UI penalty, we were presented with more of the same. Too many mistakes. A sputtering offense. A defense just trying to hang on.
Thus, a mystery team that opened the season in St. Louis without inspiration hit another low in front of 105,219 in the Horseshoe. And the mystery is clarifying in a way that doesn't look good for the future.
It isn't simply that the Illini lost to Ohio State. That was expected. It was the way they lost. Now, in two big-stage outings, they managed one touchdown, and that in the fourth quarter of a rout. They reached the Buckeye 24 on Saturday's first series, were repulsed and never got that close again.
The offense was so overmatched, so error-prone, so lacking in a vertical aerial game that it left the entire team looking stagnant. Even so, Illinois showed signs of moving the ball at times and we are left to wonder, with nine games remaining, whether they simply had a bad day mentally or whether they can't play without making a rash of ... OK, dumb ... mistakes.
It was a dreary, cloud-filled day that left us with dreary thoughts for the five-hour drive home.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.