Tate: Illini drawing a blank

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 ltate@news-gazette.com.

Categories (3):Illini Sports, Football, Sports
Tags (1):Northwestern


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DaisyJ wrote on September 27, 2011 at 9:09 pm

Regarding the attendance....I could care less what the other schools charge and get for a seat....the ticket cost for a seat between the 20 yard lines being $40 to $60 and the rip off of the parking now a minimum $15 to $25....well that says it all for attendance...not to mention the suite's. People are out of work, hungry, no jobs, worried about keeping a job,,,and you think they are going to go to a game..NOT.

And as far as Northwestern....they will haveon their mind the pounding they got in last year's fiasco one way field game at Wrigley,,,and they
will make this 4 - 0 team ....0-1 in conference play after Sat.

LoyalIllini wrote on September 28, 2011 at 6:09 am

The lack of consistency over the Zook + years coupled with the arrogant DIA/lack of interest in the average football fan are the attendance killers. There is no bond between fans and the football enterprise. On top of that the too high costs just make attendance lower.

JimOATSfan wrote on September 28, 2011 at 8:09 am

It's the economy. If internet sources are anywhere near accurate, then unemployment is over 40% of the country.

Illini Nation cares, and watches when and however they can. To those who can make it to a game, I say savor, roar for us all and enJOY. Go Illini!

Dan Bloeme wrote on September 28, 2011 at 10:09 am

UI football attendance has been atrocious this season and a deserving team is getting ridiculously low level of support from Illini Nation. Yes, the economy is down and many people are struggling, but is C-U and Illinois THAT much worse off than other states who are able to fill their football stadiums with some topping 100,000 spectators. I doubt C-U areas and UI students are much worse off than other areas of the country. It is more a case of apathy and excuses with Illini Nation.

illini82 wrote on September 28, 2011 at 11:09 am

All the above and more.

1. Inconsistent program over the last 15 plus years.
2. Mostly cupcake schedule at home early
3. Poor economy and high cost of attending games
4. 5 games in a row so fans "cherry pick" better games, fan fatigue
5. A significant portion of the fanbase is over 2 hours away in Chicagoland
6. Poor marketing of product especially in Chicago by DIA in last 15 plus years.
7. Skepticism over Zook being the long term answer.
8. More games available on TV so why travel to them.

In the end lack of a winning program in the last 15-20 years was the killer as MS was filled during much of the White and Mackovic years.
And like it or not we aren't ND, OSU or Michigan and our fan base in modern times has always been lukewarm and more focused on basketball.

That said I'm still shocked we didn't get more for the ASU game and the WMU game. We should be able to get near 55k for Northwestern and sell out OSU, Mich and Wisky provided we win some between now and then with the opportunity to get 8 or more wins.

Still it's sad that it might take a 6 or 7 game win streak and marquee visitors to sellout the place. Speaks poorly for our fan base.

sagan20 wrote on September 28, 2011 at 11:09 am

Wouldn't it be nice to even have the capacity for 70,000 fans?

muckfichigan wrote on September 28, 2011 at 11:09 am

Have to agree with DB.
Illini football fans like to be associated with a winning program, but that does not necessarily translate into actually showing up in the stands. When Mike White made it fashionable to be an Illini football fan, gameday was not to be missed. Recall the NW game with Kurt Kittner and company battling to win the Big Ten on a beautiful Thanksgiving day: 45,000 turned out, which speaks volumes about the level of committment of the average Illinois fan. The economy in C-U is no worse than the Midwest as a whole, and likely better than their Big Ten counterparts in Ann Arbor and East Lansing. Of Course, there are so many things to compete with in central Illinois.......
Our new AD is taking note, and I'm sure he will be addressing the game day experience as well as the ticket packages. My guess is you will no longer be able to cherry pick a single game such as Ohio State, Michigan, etc. unless you purchase a package which would include a NC game in a 3 or 4 game mini season ticket.

cjcohen wrote on September 28, 2011 at 1:09 pm

I live a 3+ hour drive from C-U. All the games are on TV. Game times can change from week to week.
If I choose to attend a game that kicks off at 11:00 AM, have to leave home no later then 6:00 AM in order to get to Champaign in time to find parking in a lot relatively close to the stadium. If it's a 6:00 PM start, need to plan for an overnight stay (which is very expensive given how the local motels jack up their prices on football weekends). Call me an old fuddy-duddy, but I pine for the consistent 1:00 PM kick-offs. Anyhow, I did attend the AZ State game & enjoyed it immensely. Would like to go to another game this season, but will wait & see. In the meantime, will wear my Illini orange tee shirt & fly a UI flag outside the house on Saturday.

crackerman wrote on September 28, 2011 at 3:09 pm

Let's just rip Northwestern apart!

IlliniOllie wrote on September 28, 2011 at 7:09 pm

It'll take years to recover from the damage that Ron "88-132-2" Guenther did to the program. Winning consistently will fix it - and starting 4-0 is on the path to doing that - but it will take time to bring the fans back. They were burned too many times by the football program under RG.

And really, Homecoming isn't much of an event. 11:00AM game times are the worst for a game day atmosphere, especially following a night game and a 2:30 start. The parade is Friday night, when few people will see it. What else is the draw that isn't there for any other game, other than the title off "Homecoming"?

Sure, it's Northwestern, and the rivalry is getting better, but it's still an 11:00AM game against a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team. I'll be there, but I'm not surprised that only 51,000 others will be there.