Tate: Illini drawing a blank
CHAMPAIGN — Ron Zook's 4-0 Illini took advantage of a favorable September home schedule but, as expected, ever-suspicious Illini Nation continued to take a wait-and-see approach.
The four-game average of 45,430 paying customers — the turnstile count was well below 40,000 — isn't half what some other Top 25 teams — Texas, Alabama, LSU — are drawing. On a perfect autumn day, half the UI students in the north stands were AWOL early in the fourth quarter with the score 20-20. Even if we accept inflated numbers that the UI has filled three of four seats, the UI ranks in the nation's lower 10 percent in terms of meeting stadium capacity.
For their Saturday blowouts, even with big-draw Nebraska on the road, six Big Ten programs attracted between 70,000 and 110,000. Then comes the gap, the Illini finding themselves lodged in the general category with Northwestern, Purdue and Saturday's embarrassed losers, Indiana and Minnesota.
Fan turnout, as important as it is, does not necessarily affect how a team plays. While Alabama drew 101,821 and Oklahoma 85,547 in impressive home wins Saturday, four members of the Top 25 announced fewer than Illinois: TCU (33,825) and Boise State (34,019) filled their smaller stadiums, while South Florida drew 39,628 and Baylor 40,088. Georgia Tech was just above at 46,849.
Illini attendance will pick up slightly for Northwestern on Saturday. Even though it's homecoming, even though Northwestern will bring a following, even though the Illini have a shot at a special season, only 51,000 tickets were sold as of Tuesday.
More was expected, even in a down economy. This Illini schedule is for the ages, and the five-game October lineup is only slightly more difficult than September's was. The perennial obstacle, Ohio State, is struggling to get its aerial game going, passing for 35 and 110 yards the last two weeks. The Buckeyes are no bigger challenge than was Arizona State, which beat Missouri earlier and clobbered Southern Cal 43-22 on Saturday night.
So let's weigh the positives and negatives of the UI's 4-0 start. First, the positives.
Illini show promise
— This remains a healthy and well-conditioned squad that, after a slow start Saturday, gained momentum and had second-half possession for nearly 22 of 30 minutes in edging Western Michigan, 23-20. An up-to-then porous offensive line came alive even after senior tackle Jeff Allen was banned at halftime. Option pitches caught the Broncos off guard, and two UI rushers topped 100 yards.
— Hey, the Illini are winning the close ones. What could be bigger than that?
— Vic Koenning's run defense is allowing 56.5 yards per game and a meager 2 yards per carry. Pass-oriented foes provide part of the reason, but these invaders would run if they could, and they can't. Both UI ends, Whitney Mercilus and Michael Buchanan, have been exceptional. And it makes a difference when Supo Sanni and Terry Hawthorne are healthy in the secondary.
— Illinois has permitted five touchdowns in four games.
— In a positive reaction to emergencies, the UI has permitted no points following six turnovers this season. Nathan Scheelhaase has thrown just two interceptions, and one was a fourth-down Hail Mary heave from midfield as the half ended Saturday.
— Illinois has produced points in the red zone (inside the 20) on 18 of 19 tries.
— Derek Dimke has been deadly. He is 6 for 6 on field goals and 15 for 15 on extra points. He provided the margin of victory Saturday as Western Michigan's John Potter went wide on two field goal attempts.
Now, the concerns
— If there was no such thing as psychology, it wouldn't be in the dictionary. That has always been Northwestern's edge, particularly in less-meaningful late-season games (the UI and Northwestern are 22-22 in last-game showdowns since 1941). Recently, Northwestern has won six of eight in the series, falling last year without star quarterback Dan Persa, who is expected back Saturday.
— In Saturday's win against Western Michigan, the Broncos showed stronger legs, a better arm and, for a time, stouter interior defenders. No surprise. In two games here and one in Detroit, these teams are tied in points, 70-70, and no one could argue with coach Bill Cubit when he said his players "went toe to toe" with the Illini on Saturday.
— The Broncos brought the opening kickoff back to their 40, and gained better field position than the Illini on returns. Bronco punter Ben Armer averaged a solid 42.5 with no returns, while the Illini were erratic. One of Ryan Lankford's sidewinder boots went 21 yards. The difference in kicking-game exchanges was roughly a first down.
— For the second game in a row, Illinois reached the 1-yard line and couldn't punch it in. Saturday's quick-hit by fullback Jay Prosch was a good call, but he met a wall.
— Illini quarterbacks located their tight ends (five catches) Saturday, and the accuracy on passes through four games is nearly three out of four (72.6 percent). But overall yardage, 182 per game, is only so-so. There is a reason Reilly O'Toole is being inserted in some passing situations.
In a nutshell
The UI's starless defense is hanging in and may be just as efficient as when Corey Liuget and Martez Wilson were the stars. There is overall good speed, but it will be tested by a steady lineup of quality throwers. Offensively, the scoring should improve because the elements are there. But, face facts, a running-passing Scheelhaase is the key to everything, including the options when he laterals. So the No. 1 priority is still keeping him healthy and productive.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.