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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.