Loren Tate: Close doesn't count for football
Blowout losses don’t offer much for armchair quarterbacks to chew on.
Many UI fans stopped paying close attention after the Illini fell behind Washington 31-10, Nebraska 30-5, Wisconsin 28-10 and 42-17, and Michigan State 28-3. Fourth quarters didn’t matter. There was little room for strategy discussions.
Not so Saturday. The 24-17 overtime loss at Penn State provided plenty of fodder.
Illinois twice declined short field goals and failed on fourth and 1. Time management before halftime reminded of the Keystone Kops. And what plays do you call from your own 2-yard line with a 17-14 lead and three minutes left?
First, it appears that (1) after all these Big Ten losses, the Illini are mistake-prone in pressure situations, and (2) they lack the needed thrust in short-yardage situations, leaving trickery as their best hope.
By mistake-prone, I am pointing to:
— Two deflected interceptions by Penn State, one early and one in overtime, thrown by an Illini team that has a national-low one interception all season.
— Chilling penalties. A gorgeous touchdown pass to Spencer Harris was recalled due to Alex Hill’s chop block, marking the second consecutive week in which a TD was nullified. And Hill was flagged for an illegal snap when Illinois had first down at the 2 before halftime.
— Somebody ran the wrong route when tight ends Jon Davis and Evan Wilson came together on Nathan Scheelhaase’s fourth-and-1 pass from the 4-yard line early in the fourth quarter.
Opportunity knocked as the UI defense bulked up after halftime, twice stuffing Penn State on short-yardage plays.
Credit the Illini with a gritty comeback from what was nearly a 17-0 deficit — Penn State’s Sam Ficken missed a 37-yard field goal try — but mistakes proved too costly. If nothing else, the thrilling finish brought strategy back into postgame discussions, which is different.
Illini special teams are holding up. OK, side-swiping the punter wasn’t good but, basically, they’ve allowed no long returns or major backfires. It is the overland defense that permits more leaks than its fingers can plug.
In the five losses, Washington’s Bishop Sankey rushed for 208 yards, Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah ran for 225, Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and James White combined for 240, Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford and Delton Williams totaled 182, and Penn State’s Bill Belton produced 201.
Until that changes, it’ll be a long uphill climb. Belton’s previous best was 108 in a 45-7 rout of hapless Eastern Michigan.
The UI’s top rusher, Josh Ferguson, has topped 75 once (114 at Nebraska) for a team that ranks 11th in the conference in rushing and rush defense.
Counting an early Spartan drive that ended with Connor Cook fumbling into the UI end zone, Michigan State and Penn State went unstopped on nine consecutive possessions until a 15-yard tripping penalty stunted the Nittany Lions late in the second quarter.
These were all essentially ground assaults with short completions tossed in, produced against a unit that went to Penn State ranked 115th in third-down stops.
Here’s the catch. The UI secondary will be exposed to a greater extent if opponents find they can’t run ... which likely will be the case Saturday at Indiana.
— When’s the last time Michigan’s Wolverines have been mistreated like they were Saturday? Michigan State’s No. 1 defense assaulted Devin Gardner (seven sacks) and held the Wolverines to a historic low minus-48 rushing in a 29-6 romp. That’s three consecutive games without giving up a TD for the Spartans. By the way, Indiana scored TDs in every quarter against them.
— What’s happening with second-year pro Meyers Leonard at Portland? The 7-footer, who’d be a senior at Illinois if he had stayed, is making a cool $2.2 million this season but suffered a foot sprain during the exhibition season and, while available now, has been demoted to third-string center behind Robin Lopez and Joel Freeland. Leonard has played one minute in three Trail Blazer games.
— UNLV stacks up as November’s stiffest basketball test for the Illini. But the Rebels, who host John Groce’s gang Nov. 26 in Las Vegas, sustained an early shocker when Dixie State, a Division II team, pulled a 71-70 exhibition upset. Bryce Dejean-Jones, the only returnee among UNLV’s four double-digit scorers last season, strained a hamstring and is questionable this week.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.