Tate: Time for AD to look around
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – The Big Ten cellar has carved out a place for Illinois again. It is a familiar spot. If the 2009 swoon continues, it'll mark the fifth last-place finish in seven years, and the seventh in 14.
And there is nothing to indicate it won't happen, what with Indiana demolishing the Illini 27-14 Saturday night and with Purdue, shocking conqueror of Ohio State, next on the slate.
It's broke. And coach Ron Zook has no idea how to fix it. A team with ample returnees from 2008, when the Illini ripped Indiana 55-13, is floundering in Zook's briar patch. They've been outscored 116-45 in four conference losses, and most UI points came after the games were decided.
The defense is awful and the offense is no better.
It is only the middle in the season, but we've reached the jumping-off point. And so, as athletic director Ron Guenther motored home late Saturday night, he had no choice but to consider the unthinkable ... to mull over coaching prospects on his short list ... even as he insists, as he should, that no decision will be made prior to the end of the the season.
Previous losses were perhaps understandable. But this was an Indiana team that lost by 40 at Virginia a week earlier and, in building a 27-7 lead over Illinois early in the fourth quarter, showed a 470-275 advantage in yardage.
No passing this test
Illinois' pass defense was again the shortcoming that gave Indiana heart and momentum.
We reflect on the fact that Curt Mallory caught the coaching bug from father Bill Mallory, who was Indiana's all-time winningest football coach. But Bill seemingly forgot to hand his son, fifth-year secondary coach for the Illini, a primer on secondary coverage.
The basic idea is: When receivers veer out into the secondary, it is their intention to catch the ball. This is a concept that has escaped Illinois defenders for years, and was apparent again Saturday night.
Indiana's Ben Chappell, who showed up for Indiana homecoming with a 64 percent completion rate, passed Illinois dizzy with 23 bull's-eyes before pulling back in the fourth quarter.
The problem was apparent from the outset when the hosts broke out a tricky multi-receiver set with Chappell sharing direct snaps with "wildcat" Mitchell Evans. The confused Illini were pushed straight backward on all five of Indiana's first-half possessions, which ended thusly:
(1) Tandon Doss dropped an easy slant near the Illini 5-yard line, requiring Indiana to try a 38-yard field goal which Nick Freeland missed, (2) IU soon returned to the Illini 11, where two penalties jammed the gears, and Freeland missed again from 32, (3) IU came roaring back to the Illini 18, and Freeland finally made one, (4) the sixth pass completion in the fourth drive found receiver Demarlo Belcher beating Illini Tavon Wilson and sidestepping Dere Hicks for a 29-yard TD and (5) Chappell hit three passes for 19, 13 and 6 yards to set up another field goal that ended the half: Indiana 13, Illinois 7.
Forecast: Really cloudy
Point is, these completions were much too easy. The Illini's routine four-man rush (others blitz frequently; Illinois doesn't) and soft coverage permit a level of unchallenged pitch-and-catch that puts little stress on the opposition. Oh, rival passers misfire on some, and their receivers drop some, but the odds are such that Illini fans wince every time the opponent goes into passing mode.
Most bewildering was a 24-yard catch by tight end Troy Wagner near the end of the first quarter. Indiana had been penalized and it was a sure passing down. Wagner ran over the middle and was equi-distant from four defenders, all 10 yards away.
If you check the game statistics, you'll see that Illinois rallied with substantial yardage after falling behind 27-7. But it was over from the moment Juice Williams fumbled on the Indiana 6-yard line midway in the second half with Indiana hanging on 13-7. Chappell finished off the Illini with a 44-yard TD pass to Tandon Doss, and the Hoosier quarterback threw his third TD pass after Williams fumbled again on a sack.
There is no way to paint this with a happy face. Indiana was better in every aspect. And Illinoisans are asking themselves, where do we go from here?
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.