The 6-5 Illini still can win eight football games, a number attained just three times in the past 20 years ... and these athletes could be the only Illini to participate in two bowl victories.
But unlike Saturday's Wisconsin game, which offered coach Ron Zook a lost opportunity to strengthen his uncertain status, the regular season finale at Minnesota has little bearing on the big picture. Whatever comes to pass — whether Zook is retained, extended or replaced — is already firm in the minds of Mike Thomas and those who will make the decision. A win won't change it, nor will a loss.
Thomas gave the first indication of his determination to rework the DIA's leadership when he hired Jason Lener from Miami (Ohio) and gave him the title of executive senior associate director. In other words, his No. 2 man ... the irony being that Lener's boss, Brad Bates, interviewed for the UI job that Thomas got.
Lener's background is impressive, having served as ticket manager and later director of finance at Pitt, and moving to Oxford, Ohio, in 2006 where he handled football and basketball, and served as liaison for finances and the general counsel's office, among other duties.
The next move by Thomas will be the most important of his first year. Up to now, he has been immensely popular. But he now faces the biggest UI controversy since Chief Illiniwek. The majority of UI fans were Chief supporters and were denied in a decision that the administration couldn't avoid. Now Illini fans are packed heavy on the side of a football coaching change and waiting breathlessly to see what happens. Most think it is a done deal. If it isn't, if Zook returns, it'll take a magician to sell tickets for next year's home schedule of Western Illinois, Charleston Southern, Louisiana Tech, Penn State, Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue. That said, it isn't clear that anyone else could, either.
Most overlooked aspect of Saturday's 28-17 loss to Wisconsin was the strong performance of Vic Koenning's defense despite the absence of key starters at linebacker (Trulon Henry) and the secondary (Steve Hull and Supo Sanni).
Even as the mistake-prone Illini kept turning over the ball in unfavorable locations, the defensive unit made the Badgers work for every yard. Bret Bielema's high-scoring Badgers came in averaging 46.5 points, 249 aerial yards and 499 total yards, and they managed just 28, 90 and 285, respectively. Against a patchwork secondary, Russell Wilson came up 159 yards short of his aerial average.
Sanni was in for a few plays before coming out. Hull, who had been the team's fourth-leading tackler, didn't play at all. But the defense, underrated all season, responded as well as could be expected. Wisconsin's four TDs came on short marches.
"Pat Nixon-Youman did a good job at free safety," Koenning said, "and Tavon Wilson moved to cat-safety and got us in the right calls. Terry Hawthorne played like a linebacker who can cover (15 tackles). Some of it wasn't good enough because we had the lead and couldn't hold it. Some things we couldn't control, like when Jonathan Brown got blocked (illegally) in coverage on Wisconsin's TD pass. Our fits were 95 percent good, but that running back (Montee Ball, 30 TDs) ran through some tackles."
If you listen, you'll hear Illini Nation clamoring for a change at the top but wondering whether Koenning might be retained in case of a shuffle. The UI defense is ranked No. 9 nationally in yards allowed (288), No. 7 in pass defense (165.8) and No. 6 in sacks and tackles for loss, and much of it appears to be systemic.
Assistant coaches and players inform that Zook has maintained a positive attitude throughout the five-game losing streak, though he's anything but happy about special teams.
"I don't remember a year this tough," Zook said. Freshman Justin DuVernois dropped snaps that affected outcomes against Purdue and Wisconsin. DuVernois stands 11th in Big Ten punting (38.3 average) and that doesn't take into account his costly fumbles.
"Justin has been getting some bad emails," Zook said. "I don't like it, but that's part of it. He'll learn. We have to stay positive."
"Believing" remains a team theme.
"Negativity brings more negativity," defensive end Whitney Mercilus said. "It's been stressful, but we have to keep believing."
As noted earlier, the defense has sustained a good level. And in what seems like an overnight development, Mercilus is hitting NFL radars with his nation-leading (13.5) sacks.
"It's nice to have that option. We'll discuss that later," Mercilus said. "I didn't think I'd have a chance to break Simeon Rice's sack record (16 in 1994).
The NFL's interest in Mercilus — whatever that might be — raises a question whether Illinois might take another hit like last year when Mikel Leshoure, Corey Liuget and Martez Wilson left early.
"If you asked those three today, I think they'd tell you that they would have been better off to stay in school," Koenning said. "We'd be pretty good with those three. They're difference-makers."
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.