Illini football has faced this crossroads before.
At the risk of repeating a half-century toboggan ride, we’re reminded that the Illini lost 11 consecutive league games ending in 1962, stumbled through a 16-for-17 tailspin under Jim Valek, went 19 games without a Big Ten victory (three ties) under Gary Moeller, snapped a 15-game league losing streak in 1998 and dropped 30 of 32 as recently as 2003-2006.
So heading to Ohio State with a 10-game conference slide is familiar ground. But this one is different. The surrounding mood has changed.
When Moeller was struggling in the late 1970s, drawing 30,874 (paid) for his final game, a defiant Illini Nation could be heard: “Give us an inspirational coach and we’ll come storming back!” Neale Stoner hauled Mike White from the West Coast, and voila! He energized the fandom and, within a couple of years, crowds topped 70,000 and the Illini won all nine Big Ten games in 1983.
There was a prevalent feeling that, with the right leadership, Illinois could be a persistent challenger, and this was verified again by John Mackovic’s four-year reign.
That feeling has tapered down and faded out. Bold defiance has been replaced by an attitude of helplessness. Cocky self-assurance has been supplanted by doubt and worse yet, indifference.
A new coach, Tim Beckman, hasn’t been able to stem the tide. In fact, team performance has gotten worse. Home crowds appear headed back toward the sub-40,000 range as local hotels report upcoming cancellations this week. The Quarterback Club started the season with an enthusiastic turnout of 300 and barely hit 140 Monday. Beckman’s Wednesday night radio show draws few callers.
This is a new low because, unlike the Moeller era, which was prior to the arrival of Penn State and Nebraska, and prior to the revivals of Michigan State and Wisconsin, it looks hopeless. Gloom covers the campus as thoroughly as the planned smoke ban. It has reached a point where a home win against Minnesota or Purdue would only slightly uplift the attitude.
The joke making the rounds goes as follows:
“I wanted to give away my two tickets for the next game. I left them on the counter. When I returned, there were four.”
Illinois always has enjoyed temporary rebounds. And the work of Bill Snyder at Kansas State shows it can be done. But how long will it take for the next one?
Not so special
Special teams — the kicking game — reveal a lot about a football team. For the Illini, all aspects are not bad. Justin DuVernois has them first in the Big Ten in net punting, and they’re third in kickoff coverage and perfect on PATs (18 straight).
But in punt and kickoff returns, the Illini display dismal numbers that are carrying over from one year to the next. They’re 117th of 120 in punt returns and 115th in kickoff returns.
Consider that North Carolina has 482 yards in punt returns and two TDs, Florida State 421 and three, Missouri 354 and three, and there sits Illinois with 23 total yards and no TDs. Forty-one teams are averaging 10 yards or more, which is a first down in my book. Northwestern is averaging 21 yards per return, Illinois 1.8. This means the Wildcats will have an advantage of two first downs when they exchange punts Nov. 24 in Evanston.
Beckman brought in one of the nation’s leading special-teams coaches, Tim Salem, to fix this problem. Salem put Central Florida in the upper echelons of the return game the last few years, leading the nation in kickoff returns and ranking 12th in punt returns in 2010.
What is it? Why is Illinois so ineffective in returning booted balls?
Beckman calls it “failures to block in space,” noting that “two punt fumbles were (in part) because we didn’t win on the line of scrimmage. We have to coach the basics better, hand placement and feet.”
Beckman is impersonating the Dutch boy who lacks enough fingers to plug the dike. He has divided practices for several weeks in order to spend time with the offensive and defensive units.
Blocking’s the key
Blocking and tackling in space are elements that separate football teams.
Salem sees the problem and is trying to deal with it. He said:
“In studying 12 games last year, plus the bowl game and this season, it is apparent that open-field blocking is a weakness, and that is critical to returning balls. We spent time last spring and this fall making sure we knew our assignments and trying to get a body on a body. But as we’re seeing on offense and defense, we often have 10 guys doing it right and one doing it wrong, and that screws up the whole play. If you watch the video clips, it’s one guy and not the same guy blowing an assignment. We’re giving it due diligence, and it’s not showing up on Saturday.
“We’re using the same schemes that Coach Beckman found successful at Toledo, the same schemes that were effective at Central Florida and Arizona State. Our preparation is not showing up on Saturday. That’s the bottom line.”
Salem held open tryouts Tuesday and Wednesday for punt and kickoff returns. He declined to say who’ll take over, while offering positive comments for Northern Illinois transfer Tommy Davis, who fumbled his second punt against Indiana.
“Tommy Davis is a self-starting, high-motor guy who feels worse than anybody,” Salem said. “It hurts him inside, but he pushes on. He loves to compete.”
Davis’ fumble on the first punt Sept. 29 set up Penn State for a go-ahead TD. His fumble last Saturday put Indiana in position to break a 14-14 tie before halftime. On those he has returned this season, he is averaging less than 2 yards per try.
Thus a change is called for. Either Darius Millines or Terry Hawthorne is expected to replace him at Ohio State. But if they don’t get open-field blocking, they won’t do any better than Davis did. For the record, in three seasons of returning punts at NIU, Davis averaged nearly 8 yards per return. It must be in the water here.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.