Tate: Illini must shine up their finishes

CHAMPAIGN — Ron Zook's Illini haven't had to play a challenging fourth quarter yet this season.

That's important to recognize because it is the final 15 minutes that determine who's going to be good and who's not. That's when the Kurt Kittners step up, and the faint-of-heart falter.

Looking back over recent years, the most frustrating aspect of UI football is the inability to produce when the chips are down.

In a 7-6 finish last season, Illini triumphs were clear cut. Six were routs by margins of 32, 20, 30, 34, 21 and 24 points. Closest was a 28-22 defeat of Northern Illinois in which Illinois led 21-12 in the fourth quarter.

On the loss side, Illinois fell to Missouri 23-13 in a game tied 13-13 into the fourth quarter; came up short 24-13 against Ohio State after marching to the Buckeye 13 in the last 4/12 minutes with the score 17-10; led Michigan State 6-3 at half but succumbed 26-6; lost 67-65 to Michigan in a three-OT marathon that offered numerous opportunities; collapsed 38-34 against Minnesota after carrying a 34-24 lead into the final eight minutes; and fell 25-23 with the last 14 minutes scoreless at Fresno State.

With the NIU game seemingly under control, you could make a case that Illinois was 0-5 in the fourth-quarter showdowns. And this was nothing new.

Take 2009, somebody! A 3-9 season saw (1) Illinois lose to Indiana after trailing just 13-7 into the fourth quarter; (2) rally too late from a 21-3 deficit in falling to Northwestern 21-16; and (3) lose 53-52 to Fresno State when 350-pound Devan Cunningham turned a deflected pass into a two-point conversion at :02. The one close win, 35-32 against Minnesota, saw the Illini nearly blow a 28-7 halftime lead in giving up 22 fourth-quarter points.

Or 2008: Same story. Illinois led Louisiana Lafayette 17-3 and survived 20-17. The Illini beat Iowa 27-24 on a Matt Eller field goal even as they were outscored 15-10 in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, they were within 31-24 of Penn State and lost 38-24; gave up a fourth-quarter TD fumble return in falling to Minnesota 27-20; led Wisconsin 17-10 before the Badgers ruled the last 23 minutes to prevail 27-17; and threw four incomplete passes from the Western Michigan 18-yard line in the closing minute of a 23-17 loss.

Part of the lethargic attitude within the Illini Nation fan base stems from atrocious fourth-quarter play ... hopes up and then dashed. Hopes up again, and dashed again. What we've seen may be the most uninspired fourth-quarter play in the nation. And the fans' helpless feeling wasn't enhanced by the tendency of the Illini basketball team to stumble in similar late-game situations.

Close counts

There are a lot of 2-0 football teams feeling good about themselves ... by the flimsiest of margins.

The Big Ten was typical. Ohio State scratched out a scoreless fourth quarter to edge Toledo 27-22. Nebraska, down 20-14 after the break, beat Fresno State 42-19 with a 21-9 run in the last 15 minutes. Michigan tallied 28 fourth-quarter points to dump Notre Dame 35-31 (those who thought Ray Charles and Ronnie Milsap weren't eligible were wrong; they were in the Irish secondary).

Among the legions at 2-0, Arizona State outlasted Missouri 37-30 in OT; South Carolina tipped Georgia 45-42 and has scored 73 fourth-quarter points; Iowa State came off a 20-19 squeaker against Northern Iowa to upset Iowa 44-41 in OT; North Carolina outlasted Rutgers 24-22.

Also, Kansas completed a TD pass in the last :06 to bump Northern Illinois 45-42; Cal nipped Colorado 36-33 in OT; Texas produced the only last-period score to edge BYU 17-16; Rice blocked a 31-yard Purdue field goal try as time expired to survive 24-22; and San Diego State had the ball just 18 of 60 minutes against Army but won on a last-stanza field goal 23-20.

Without boring you with a recitation of more scores, it must be obvious that every team's goal is to win the fourth quarter. Every championship team has its scares. Auburn won the national title that way in 2010, and now has 10 close wins in a 17-game win streak. Using a fortunate bounce on an onside kickoff, Auburn beat Utah 42-38 with two TDs in the last 2:07, and repulsed Mississippi State 41-34 on Saturday by halting the Rebels' last drive at the 6-inch line.

Rise and shine

So it's win the close ones or take a back seat. When October rolls around, nobody will ask the scores, only the record. You're 4-0 and in the big bowl hunt or you're 2-2 and consumed in doubt.

The Illini have a good, healthy football team that will be judged by how the Zookmen handle the inevitable tight finishes. They have the critical leadership at quarterback in Nathan Scheelhaase, game-breaker receivers and a solid ground attack. We'll wait to judge the defense — can anybody stop good passers? — but the belief is growing that Vic Koenning will give his athletes the best chance for success.

Few nonconference games here have carried such import as the Arizona State visit.

The night affair will attract a big TV audience, and many opinions will be formed. With numerous high school prospects on the fence, an Illini victory would give a much-needed impetus to recruiting. It would awaken perhaps 15,000 fans who have been sitting on their hands and wondering (there might even be someone willing to drive from Chicago). With Arizona State favored in the South Division of the Pac-12, an Illini triumph would raise national awareness and possibly earn the Sun Devils' spot in the Top 25.

So there is a great deal at stake. And Illinois is overdue for a break. These guys have been winning too many games by clear margins to keep losing the close ones at the rate they have.

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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OrangeAndBlue wrote on September 13, 2011 at 9:09 am

Loren-

Instead of highlighting past short comings and unfortunate outcomes, wouldn't it be more beneficial to write positive words about where the Illini football program currently is and also heading towards (which is in the right direction)? As a recent alumni and loyal fan, I must say that it is exhausting to read your consistent pessimistic views of Illini football and basketball. At times it seems like you almost don't want us to win. For someone who is probably the most notable and read Illini sports writer, I would expect at least a casual positive article, yet it's really hard to find it in your writing.

I hope I'm not being disrespectful here; that's not my goal. I just want to see you write some optimistic articles for our Orange and Blue! Go Illini!

TheGallopingGhost77 wrote on September 13, 2011 at 10:09 am

OrangeAndBlue,

I don't know what kind of praise you expect Loren to shower the Illini football program with when the team has only played scrub teams in its first two games and hasn't even been tested yet. As far as heading in the right direction, everyone thought Illini football had nowhere to go but up after the 2007 Rose Bowl, but we all see how that turned out. Loren is just pointing out the facts, that's all there is to it. If you watched the team last year then you know how much the 4th quarter killed our team. We were in EVERY game last year and had a chance to win them all, and for the most part, it all boiled down to our 4th quarter performance. You gotta give props to Loren though, while everyone else may be chugging the kool-aid, he takes his drinks slowly, pausing to reflect how each sip tastes and thinking about how good or bad the next sip may be....

OrangeAndBlue wrote on September 13, 2011 at 3:09 pm

GallopingGhost-

If you re-read my post you'll notice I'm not asking Tate to praise the Illini just yet. I'm only asking him to occasionally write an optimistic, positive view of our Illini. Everyone is allowed to drink the so-called "kool-aid" slow or fast; that's your freedom. Although I rather choose to look at it from a different angle than perhaps you or Loren does. For example:

1. You said we played scrub teams our first two games and haven't been tested. These wins do prove something though. We beat an Arkansas St. team that beat Memphis last week 47-3, which proves Ark St is not only an offensive power, but defensive too. We put up 33 points and held them to one touchdown. That's worth noting. We also beat SDSU 56-3. I know it's what you call a "scrub" team, but we beat them by a score you usually see in a Nebraska or OSU match up with the same kind of teams. Those "power houses" schedule the same kind of games and win by similar scores, which also says something about the potential caliber of our offense and/or defense.
2. You said Loren is just pointing out facts. You are right, that is what he's doing, BUT they're only past statistics that paint out team in a negative light and are discouraging. Let me put it this way- if the second half of the article was spent on the many positive things we've seen in Illini football this year and it built a positive outlook, I wouldn't have posted.
3. You challenged the fact that I watched or didn't watch the games last year. I watched almost all of them and here's some plays I remember:
A. A good defensive play in overtime to tip a pass that ends up in a Michigan player's hand and bails UM out.
B. A dropped lateral pass to Leshoure that gets called incomplete. If allowed like it should have been, #5 picked it up off the bounce and ran for a first down inside the ten yard line and we probably score securing the game. (A similar play was called correctly for USC in the Rose Bowl leading to them gaining 50 yards or so and changing the entire outlook of the game).
C. A face mask penalty called on us on 3rd and long when OSU was on their final drive of the game. Reply showed it was NOT a face mask. If played is called correctly we get the ball with plenty of time for a potential game winning drive.

What if we had won these three games with those one plays going differently? We're 9-3 in the regular season.

Overall, I don't blame you at all for drinking the "kool-aid" slowly. But be somewhat excited because there's good reason to be. All I'm asking from Loren is to do the same and write some positive stuff. He doesn't need to praise them just yet so if that's how you understood my post I do apologize. I've been reading his articles and others on this website almost daily for a year and a half and I finally chose to make my first comment today. So I've read and reflected on plenty of Loren's writings as well as your comments on this website too.

Go Illini!

OrangeAndBlue wrote on September 13, 2011 at 3:09 pm

The play I'm talking about in part C is from the Minnesota game.

jruss62 wrote on September 13, 2011 at 11:09 am

The past is just that the past,let be more worried about the game at hand.The game is played for sixty minutes not fifteen but the forth quarter is what we rember the most, Some times you can point to one play that changes the game tipped ball fumble ect....... So maybe just maybe the ball bounces the ILLINI way in this game.

DevilsAdvocate wrote on September 13, 2011 at 4:09 pm

We are looking forward to the game on Saturday. I'm expecting it to be a hard fought thriller.

GO DEVILS!

JimOATSfan wrote on September 13, 2011 at 7:09 pm

Great post Loren: who else but you has the 50 years of 'big picture' experience watching the Illini to assemble these facts. You make a solid point - the guy's can't be gassed in the 4th quarter, mentally or phsyically so they close out strong and win the game.

That's why the importance of the 2's on the defensive side of the ball are so critical to the success of the entire season. When the 2's on defense are as good as the 1's then the Illini will roll thru their entire schedule this season.

Great to see the 2 backup qb's get game time experience in the first 2 games. I beleive that if Caleb Hanie had any gametime experience with the Chicago Bear's 1's on offense last seson, the Bears would have won the Super Bowl.

Excellent 2 games players and coaches. The ASU game should be winnable if the players stay focused on their assignments the entire game. When all aspects of a team contribute regularly, it is a great joy to be a part of as a player and for fans. Go Illini!

Illinigrad wrote on September 13, 2011 at 11:09 pm

Loren does a nice job telling it like it is. Our 4th quarter failures under Zook are obvious. He is right, in close games this team needs to step up in the 4th quarter to win. I think what he does not say is the poor coaching decisions on the sideline that have really hurt is in trying to make comebacks beginning w/clock management. What kind of coach lets 30 seconds run off the clock in the last min. when you need to score to win. Note the MN game last season. It is incomprehensible.

illinizeeman wrote on September 18, 2011 at 9:09 pm

I agree that under Zook, we have blown some winnable games. While Zook is ultimately responsible, look at the quality of coaches he was dealing with on the offense and defense. It's a miracle we won as many games as we did in '07.