Tate: Not good enough

Tell Loren what needs to be fixed here

CHAMPAIGN – You wanted turnovers? You got turnovers. Seven of them.

But if the spring game performance speaks well of Vic Koenning's rejuvenated Illini defense, what does it say about ball security by the UI offense?

"Turnovers ... that was the one (disappointing) thing," coach Ron Zook said after his regulars swarmed and dominated the reserves 24-6 Saturday. The threatening clouds, which emptied later, kept the turnout down to a reported 5,832 but it seemed smaller, and offered a stark comparison to the incredible assemblage of 91,312 for Alabama's spring game last week.

If, as Zook said, "The team has a long way to go," so does the UI fandom. There is doubt in the air. You could feel it at the football reunion Friday night. Three bowl appearances in the last 15 years saps the confidence.

And nothing about this day indicated that Illinois is ready to challenge Big Ten contenders Iowa and Wisconsin – thankfully, neither is on the 2010 UI schedule – much less the perennial favorite, Ohio State.

To be honest, this intrasquad game was the first baby step of a spanking new football operation. And that's not to say a turnaround from 5-7 and 3-9 seasons is impossible. Most of Saturday's errors are correctable. And if the defense is really improved without the help of Martez Wilson, Clay Nurse, Josh Brent and Miami Thomas, that's a good thing. Tackles Corey Liuget and Glenn Foster were dominant against the No. 2 unit, and slashing end Michael Buchanan played bigger than his 225 pounds, but ... we keep coming back to that BUT ... the fork is the road is awaiting in St. Louis on Sept. 4, and Illinois has gone the wrong direction five straight times down there against Missouri. Everything must be weighed and judged against an annual opener in which Illini defenders have been repeatedly driven to cover.

Scheelhaase in charge

Competing quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Jacob Charest threw interceptions in the opening minutes of Saturday's contest. Charest, working mostly with a drastically overmatched second unit vs. Liuget, Foster & Co., completed two passes in eight tries with two interceptions. Given a late opportunity with the No. 1 unit, he couldn't handle a high snap, the fumble setting up a game-ending TD pass by freshman Chandler Whitmer, who capped a 7-for-8 aerial showing.

But this is Scheelhaase's team. Even though he threw into coverage (Aaron Gress intercepted) in the second quarter, he took advantage of his situation with 11-for-20 accuracy and handed off to the alternating juniors, Mikel Leshoure and Jason Ford, for TD runs of 75 and 56 yards in the second half. Scheelhaase wore a no-hit jersey which limited his running, but it didn't prevent him from executing as a lead blocker on two downfield runs.

"Regardless of the type of offense, we have to be able to run the football," Zook said. "That sets up our play-action pass. A.J. Jenkins has had a great spring (six catches for 95 yards Saturday). His early fumble near the goal line was his biggest blunder of the spring."

Paul Petrino said Scheelhaase's best showings were on the two days that he was "live." According to the new offensive coordinator, "It hurts Nathan when they're not tackling him, especially on those rollouts where the defense can hang back. Sometimes the officials call him down when somebody reaches out and touches him, but that doesn't mean they would be able to tackle him.

"I'm encouraged. It was 3-0 at the half, and I challenged them to toughen up. There are some base things that we're good at."

Making things happen

On the defensive side, Koenning has stressed turnovers for a team that has lagged far behind in that category. The Illini had just five interceptions last season. The defense has been getting picks against young QBs all spring, and each side had two Saturday.

"We continue to work for takeaways, and I don't know if those were turnovers by the offense or takeaways by us," Koenning said. "There were two other interceptions that we should have had. Our running backs are good. They force you to have more than one person at the point of attack."

Koenning has been generally critical, giving credit only up to a point. Liuget, who broke through from his tackle spot on the first play, looked throughout Saturday like an all-conference contender.

"He's good until he gets tired," Koenning said. "I nicknamed him Tap Out. He's good until he taps out. That's why we design our practices to gas them out. When we get tired, little things become big things."

Even though Gress and Evan Frierson have progressed at middle linebacker, Koenning left little doubt that Martez Wilson (withheld following neck surgery) will be the starter in the fall.

"I'll steal a line from Dan Disch (fellow coach) who said, 'Wilson and (Ian) Thomas are like Batman and Robin.' Martez has showed us what he can do in our 'thud' (no tackling) practices."

With autumn additions, a defense that permitted 102 points in the last two games surely will be better. That said, just being a little bit better won't be enough.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com

Categories (3):Illini Sports, Football, Sports

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Illini1973 wrote on April 25, 2010 at 6:04 am

I'm afraid it's going to be a long year. B10 cellar dweller is more than a remote possibility.

TotalIlliniFan wrote on April 25, 2010 at 6:04 am

This is a helpful reality check.

JimOATSfan wrote on April 25, 2010 at 9:04 am

Seems like Chandler Whitmer was the best QB today. 7 of 8 is 88% completion rate with ZERO pics and ZERO fumbles playing with the 2nd unit - and he has only been around 3 months.

Nathan Scheelhaase was 11 of 20 (55% completion rate and he played with the 1st unit)with TWO pics and possibly one of the three 1st unit fumbles - and has been around 1 redshirt season playing with the scout team.

Jacob Charest struggled with the 2nd unit - 2 of 8 (25% completion rate and TWO pics and ZERO fumbles).

Note the coaches called for 20 pass plays from NS but only 8 for CW, and 8 for JC. I would like to see CW & JC play with the 1st unit, get equal amount of pass plays as NS, and see the stats from NS while playing with the 2nd unit. Remember our last QB ran for a ton of yards too. Doesn't always translate into wins and draft picks.

I think all of the QB's will improve greatly over the summer and the starter shouldn't be selected until Sep1st. It will be interesting to see Miles Osei play in the fall.

peterborich wrote on April 25, 2010 at 11:04 am

Don't be surprised if the Illini surprise in 2010. If Nathan can get the ball downfield on a regular basis for some 20-yard-plus completions (a big "if"), the running game just might be devastating. The defense already looks vastly improved through the hiring of a real defensive coordinator.

And kudos to Loren for yet another incredibly negative article as part of his Spring-Summer series entitled "The Illini Can't Win" Loren seems intent on shooing as many high schoolers away as possible from the basketball and football programs through his sad sack musings. (for example, his need to compare the Illini football spring game attendance with that of Alabama's)

RPeterE wrote on April 25, 2010 at 11:04 am

Illini fan turnout WAS atrocious and pitiful.

Scheelhasse, Leshoure, Ford and Jenkins show offense will put points on the board in fall, defense will force more turnovers than in past. Still Illini have a long way to go. Hopefully all of the players will work hard this off season and come to Rantoul next fall ready to put together a complete team.

MyTurn2Raze wrote on April 25, 2010 at 12:04 pm

Fan turnout was a good thing. When the university kept Zook, the university declared that football doesn't matter to them. Why should it matter to the fans then?

Illinigrad wrote on April 25, 2010 at 12:04 pm

I am still hopeful for 6-6 and a minor bowl. That would be an immense improvement over 3-9. Zook: He is obviously in over his head as a BCS head coach. It will take superb coaching by the new coordinators to turn this program around. Let's hope they meet w/success.

kfj wrote on April 25, 2010 at 4:04 pm

I wonder if "z" and the other negatives posters were even at the spring football game? The Illini looked much improved from last year's sfg, even though Martez wilson and others could not play in the game. 2010 will be a better year for the players and coaches. There are supporters of Ron Zook that will counter the likes of "z". Go Illini!

jjohnson wrote on April 25, 2010 at 4:04 pm

What else can people do in Alabama?

kfj wrote on April 25, 2010 at 5:04 pm

Mr. Tate: This article of yours is "Not Good Enough." Why do you always write toward the negative? That style of writing era in sports reporting has been over for quite a while. The spring football game was really positive, given the context they had to operate under. The 2010 team is going to be much improved from last year. Credits go to all of the football coaches and Head Coach Ron Zook for allowing them to do their jobs and coach the team to success after success throughout the spring game. That's why we in attendance at the spring football game witnessed a much improved team to that of 2009. Lets support our players on to victory in 2010! Go Illini!!

PeoriaIllini wrote on April 26, 2010 at 10:04 am

Personally I appreciate Tate's perspective that there is still a ways to go. I am, and always will be, a glass half full Illini sports fan, but it is nice to hear a different perspective from time to time.

Wenalway wrote on April 26, 2010 at 9:04 pm

"Why do you always write toward the negative? That style of writing era in sports reporting has been over for quite a while."

What? We are in the most negative era sports reporting has ever seen. Most of the writers are convicting without proof; trying (and failing) to be comedians; and closing their eyes and launching into factless rants.

We do have exceptions like Klee, who simply immerses himself in the belief every Illini team is GREAT! after the first home win over Alabama Peninsula State. But that is not really a positive.

Try this for proof: Take some spare change and buy a few different papers, not just the N-G, over a span of about a week. Then go through the sports sections and highlight, circle, or underline all of the opinionated attacks on various players or coaches. You should find quite a few if you look in the right places.

kfj wrote on April 28, 2010 at 8:04 am

"z" your language...wow...shame, shame, shame...