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CHAMPAIGN – All together now, take a deep breath and OVERREACT!
Fire the staff. Bench the quarterback. Blame the media.
Like, oh yeah, Illini Nation is not accustomed to disappointment on the football field. Like, a shutout loss to Ohio State – the Illini have failed to score 19 times in the series – is a shocker.
It is not, of course, the fact that Illinois is 1-2 and by most estimates heading for a 1-3 start. There was always that fear. It is, rather, the shoddy, mistake-prone manner in which the two defeats have been absorbed.
It is sufficiently difficult to deal with Ohio State's superior talent without throwing three interceptions, dropping passes and being called for eight penalties. What is Ron Zook doing? Is he the right man for the job?
Well, the Illini have tried Michigan men (Pete Elliott, Gary Moeller) and an alumnus (Jim Valek). They've looked east (Bob Blackman), invaded the NFL (Mike White, John Mackovic, Ron Turner) and promoted an assistant (Lou Tepper). Somehow, they seem to wind up right back where they started. The final-season record of the previous 10 UI coaches is 35 wins, 66 losses and 3 ties. Been there, done that.
Can they rally?
The problem this week, after your team has been so soundly drubbed, is to find the positives. They're scarce. The Illini defense isn't forcing turnovers. Even with two first-half downpours limiting the aerial game, the Buckeyes ran the Illini ragged. The offense is struggling.
But that's in the rearview mirror. What we're about to discover is whether Zook can rally a stunned, disappointed squad. Maybe, some say, the Illini aren't as bad as two quality opponents made them appear. Maybe Zook can inspire a turnaround.
But first, let's toss a few darts of reality into the mix. Let's get real.
– Don't repeat past recruiting "guesstimates" after they've ceased to be pertinent. The junior class was ranked Top 20 in 2007, and Zook wasn't happy to be reminded by The News-Gazette that 11 of the 21 original signees weren't in uniform at Ohio State. So stop repeating misinformation. Right now. Stop it! Zook's so-called "best class" shows four current starters and one of those, Daniel Dufrene, is an alternate. Blame the media for overhyping them. But accept the fact that recruits must ultimately be rated on how they perform, and half of these guys aren't even available.
– The misguided projection of the Illini receiving corps as "No. 2 in the nation" was not based on anything solid. Jeff Cumberland has always been an enigma. Florida was no more upset when Jarred Fayson left than when Zook did. Projected All-American Arrelious Benn shows three receiving TDs in the last 15 games. The UI freshmen were modest producers in 2008 and have shown nothing to get excited about in 2009. It's a good receiving corps, but let's keep things in perspective.
– Juice Williams' near-record career numbers in total offense don't necessarily translate into victories ... not when turnovers are figured in. He doesn't scan the field as well as some others, and he isn't consistently accurate. That said, he is good enough to win with, and he has beaten every Big Ten opponent except Purdue, which didn't play Illinois the last two years.
There's still time
The point today, rather than jumping off bridges, is to understand that the next nine games will tell the tale. If this is truly a bowl team, of which there is little evidence, there is time to do it.
Perhaps it is only talk, but team leaders seem to be hanging tough.
Said Williams Monday: "That (the 30-0 loss at OSU) was a nightmare that you hate to have and want to wake up from. There is nothing that happened that can't be corrected. It's tough (absorbing the blame) but that's the nature of the beast. I understand when things aren't going well, it comes down to me. I can handle it."
Said Benn: "Weather conditions were tough at Ohio State, but that's no excuse. We didn't execute, and penalties held us back. We have to stay together. That's the main thing, to focus on Penn State. It all starts today. We know what we need to do, and we don't need to keep talking about it."
Offered tackle Josh Brent: "We're not in panic mode. We get another chance Saturday. Iowa put a lot of pressure on (Penn State QB) Daryll Clark and he got happy feet and wasn't as accurate in the second half. Even with our loss at Ohio State, there are things for us to be confident about."
For those of us on the perimeter, confidence is not overflowing. But, as Brent says, this is no time to panic, no time for rash decisions. The coaches will play the individuals who give them the best chance to win. With the rest of us, there is a heart-thumping inclination to flail wildly at real or imagined shortcomings but, when the season results are in, there'll be plenty of time to analyze and re-evaluate.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.