Tate: It's not as bad as it seems for UI football
Sometimes we overreact. Close losses do that to you. Sometimes it ain't quite what it seems.
It seems like the UI running game has run aground ... but the Illini are still No. 4 in the conference behind Nebraska, Michigan and Wisconsin in rushing, and last Saturday Jason Ford joined Alabama's Trent Richardson as the only individuals to run for 100 yards against Penn State. Richardson tallied 111 in a 27-11 Tide triumph, and Ford reached 100 in 24 carries.
It seems as though pass efficiency has ceased to be an Illini asset ... but as a team and individually (with Nathan Scheelhaase), they still rank No. 4 in the Big Ten after nine games. Of eight interceptions, one was a desperate throw by Tim Russell on a failed field goal and two others were pre-halftime heaves by Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole.
It seems like Illinois is doing poorly on third-down conversions ... but Paul Petrino's unit ranks No. 4 in the conference with nearly 50 percent success (65 of 133). Six league members are at 40 percent or lower.
It seems like Scheelhaase has slipped in running the football ... and it's true. Petrino projected him to top 1,000 yards rushing after he hit 868 as a rookie. Scheelhaase stands at 501 yards, is down a yard per carry, 4.7 to 3.7, and his per- game rushing stats are down from 67 to 56 yards.
It seems like the Illini are losing ground in the kicking department ... and that's obvious. In addition to having critical punts blocked the last two weeks, Illinois ranks 12th in Big Ten kickoff returns, kickoff coverage and punt returns, and is 10th in punting. Illinois tops the league in field goal percentage (7 of 8), but Derek Dimke's boot that caromed off the upright was huge because it would have sent the Penn State game into overtime.
Plenty of incentive
The UI squad reported back Thursday, unhappily sitting on a three-game losing streak in a bye week.
"We still have a bad taste in our mouth," defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said. "Losing never stops giving you that feeling.
"What hurts in digging up last Saturday is that it would have meant so much to these players ... a (repeat) win at Penn State that they could remember for the rest of their lives."
The shame of it, from the UI standpoint, is the game plan worked for 57 minutes. With Petrino emphasizing the run on a snowy day, Illinois took charge in the third quarter and led 7-0 until a fourth-quarter blocked punt led to a Penn State field goal. Then a holding call snuffed an Illini drive at midfield, and Penn State pulled it out 10-7 with an 80-yard march featuring four key completions.
"When we studied the film," Koenning said, "we had just 10 defensive plays that needed corrections, and six of them were on that last Penn State drive. Our guys were having fun throughout that game. We played hard. But we didn't get the win."
Said Petrino: "We killed ourselves in the second quarter with penalties, a touchdown called back (for motion), and the field goal fumble. But I thought we really played well in the third quarter. We just need to score points when we have the opportunity."
Remember last year?
Next Saturday presents a different challenge. Michigan, which plays Saturday at Iowa, is more explosive, more offensively skilled.
"Last week, based on the way Penn State plays soft and gives up underneath, we emphasized the run and ball control," Petrino said. "We used the tight end more as a blocker at times, and we kept the running back in as well. Bottom line, that gave us a chance to win.
"Next week is different. We have to make some big plays. Michigan is more aggressive and will blitz and pressure, so we should have big-play opportunities. We have to get A.J. Jenkins back making big gainers. We need to get Darius Millines involved. He was open several times at Penn State, but we didn't get him the ball.
"First off, we need to play better early."
Michigan offers the same (but different) powerhouse offense that foiled the UI's Top 25 dreams a year ago, 67-65 in triple overtime. Some say that loss, devastating physically and mentally, contributed to late-season losses to Minnesota and Fresno State.
"Denard Robinson is exceptional," Koenning said, "but they also have a strong runner (Fitzgerald Toussaint, 170 yards against Purdue) and the same receivers that embarrassed us last year. Michigan has some of the best offensive players in the nation. We ranked 12th in the nation defensively before we played them a year ago. With new coaches, we see some of the old and some of the new."
Michigan is constantly evaluated as to whether the team is returning as a national power. The Wolverines will be favored on the road against Iowa and Illinois before the huge home finales against Nebraska and Ohio State.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.