Given the choice, I would have kicked an early field goal
TV color analyst Bob Davie and various ESPN gurus questioned UI strategy Saturday and said coach Ron Zook "must answer" for his fourth-down decision late in the 17-7 loss to Ohio State.
That's not entirely fair. There were two reasonable approaches to a near-hopeless situation as the clock ran down. In either case, Illinois would need to recover an onside kickoff. And it was Zook's view that it would be preferable to score a quick touchdown and follow it in the closing seconds with a field goal to tie.
But we've all seen how the pros do it, and that's the way my mind works. From the moment Illinois moved within field goal range, I was thinking: "The pros wouldn't wait until fourth down. They'd kick it now in order to save as much time as possible." And furthermore: "It won't matter if Illinois punches it in for the TD if it runs down the clock inside 20 seconds."
Here's how that would have worked Saturday.
Jon Davis took an 11-yard pass to the Ohio State 24 with 1:25 remaining. That would require Derek Dimke to boot a 41-yarder, easily within his range.
If the Illini then regained possession around the UI 45 on the ensuing kickoff, it was reasonable to assume Nathan Scheelhaase could complete the same kind of short passes that had worked against the Ohio State prevent defense in the previous drive (he completed 14 of his last 21 passes). He would have needed only two or three first downs to get into range to attack the end zone on the final plays.
That's one scenario. Once they trailed 17-0, it was a long-odds quest at best. It boiled down to what to do upon reaching the 24 with 1:25 to go. Those who agree with Zook's strategy are correct that a quick TD would have made the last bid to tie easier. But when it became fourth down at the 17 with 1:14 showing, a kick deserved strong consideration because a failed fourth-down play would end the game, and that's what happened.
And yes, I'd foul with a three-point lead under 10 seconds in basketball. Not everyone agrees on these strategies.
Earning their pay
There were those who pontificated that the Phillies put together the best-ever pitching rotation when they spent $56.5 million of their $173 million payroll for Roy Halladay ($20M), Roy Oswalt ($16M), Cliff Lee ($11M) and Cole Hamels ($9.5M). Some experts considered this fearsome foursome even better than the 1997 Braves quartet of Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Denny Neagle, and the Orioles' four 20-game winners in 1971: Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar and Pat Dobson.
This Phillie quartet appeared to be a rotation for the ages. The team won 102 games. And with pitching always the No. 1 playoff consideration, the NL pennant was considered a lock.
Isn't it ironic, then, that the Cardinals came along with a bunch of underpaid no-names to rock the baseball world. In 5-4 and 5-3 playoff wins over the Phillies (prior to Chris Carpenter's 1-0 masterpiece), the relievers gave up one run in nine clutch innings. Against Milwaukee, the bullpen was masterful in hurling 28.2 innings (the starters 24.1). In order the set this table, the Redbirds had to pay a prorated share of Octavio Dotel's $3 million salary, a portion of Mark Rzepcynski's annual $429,000 and all of Jason Motte's $435,000. Fernando Salas and Lance Lynn got free peanuts and drinks.
And yet, with Tony La Russa matching and mixing, these are the guys who carried St. Louis into the World Series.
Meanwhile, ace Adam Wainwright is sidelined, starter Jake Westbrook ($8.5 million next year) was dropped from the playoff roster due to ineffectiveness, and Kyle Lohse ($11.8 million) and Jaime Garcia (newly signed through 2017) are so shaky that La Russa jerks them at the slightest hint of trouble. As for Edwin Jackson, he was removed after two innings Sunday with long Brewer explosions ringing in his ears.
And here the Cardinals stand, a team with championship ambitions. Well, maybe the Rangers have similar problems. In the last 10 games, they've had one starter last six innings or more.
My advice to the starting pitchers: Chuck and Duck!
— They may be No. 1, but Kevin Hambly's UI volleyball team can't be considered a clearcut Big Ten favorite. They reached 19-0 with a sixth five-set win here Saturday — there's nothing like winning the close ones — after Michigan State appeared to take over with dominant performances in the third and fourth sets. Nebraska kept pace by edging Minnesota in five sets, and has the advantage of playing Illinois just once at home Saturday. That's the bad part of not having a double round-robin schedule.
— Ron Guenther's expertise on bowl matters has allowed the Big Ten office to keep him busy on issues related to football's postseason. The conference has eight bowl tie-ins, assuming eight teams qualify with at least six wins. For those who want to see Illinois play in January, there are five Big Ten tie-ins Jan. 2.
— Wisconsin must finish 13-0 to have any hope for the championship game. With strength of schedule weighing in, seven more wins would probably push the Badgers past Boise State, but the winners of the LSU-Alabama (Nov. 5) and Oklahoma-Oklahoma State (Dec. 3) games would have to lose to an underdog. And, remember, there is no Big 12 playoff game this year.
— Committed Illini basketball recruits Michael Orris, Jalen James and Malcolm Hill will be at the Assembly Hall for the seven-game shootout Dec. 10. But no Simeon or Whitney Young. Simeon will travel instead to play in Rupp Arena at Kentucky and in Cameron at Duke, offering a reminder of how difficult it is to recruit those Chicago Public League stars.
Loren Tate writes for The News- Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com