Illini football working to end weak finishes

Illini football working to end weak finishes

CHAMPAIGN — One item holds true for each game of Illinois football's current seven-game losing streak: It wasn't wildly out of hand when the Illini went into the locker room at halftime.

Illinois was tied with Minnesota at the break on Oct. 21. Trailed Iowa by four points on Oct. 7. Was just a field goal behind Purdue this past Saturday in West Lafayette, Ind.

But the end result was all the same — a loss — as the Illinois offense stalled out and its defense largely couldn't keep the opposing team out of the end zone. The Illini enter Saturday's 11 a.m. kickoff against Indiana at Memorial Stadium having been outscored 99-37 in the second half in their last seven games.

"It's been kind of the story a few weeks," Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. "We've played pretty good football for moments in time. Not being able to put together a full four quarters of football has really hurt us. ... Some things we're doing just won't allow us to finish the game."

Those things? It's a fairly long list from Smith. Mistakes. Penalties. Decision making. The coaches putting the players in better situations.

"When you're losing football games, it's all that," Smith said. "We've got to do a better job coaching. Players have to handle the situations better. Our preparation has to get better. All these things we're working on behind the scenes."

Illinois offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said he hopes the Illini's inconsistency from the first half to the second is a reflection of the team's overall inexperience. Twenty-two true freshmen have played this season. Sixteen have started.

Halftime has been Illinois' tipping point.

"That's when winning or losing begins — right there — and we have not been able to come out on the field in the second half or in the fourth quarter and raise our level of play to the point we can get over the hump and win," McGee said. "I'm going to keep pressing forward and stay on them because we've got another opportunity this weekend that's probably going to come to that moment of the game again where somebody has got to go make a play."

McGee challenged his offense to make that play Saturday against the Boilermakers. What it was didn't matter as long as somebody made a catch or broke a tackle or leveled a defender with a block. A scoreless second half followed.

"When that pressure starts to build, that seems like when we start making a lot of mistakes or just not doing things right," McGee said. "You can't beat good teams like that."

Redshirt senior running back Kendrick Foster — back on the field as Illinois' No. 1 running back — served as a captain at Purdue. He said the Illini have to remain locked in, step up and make the plays to finish a game.

"We had chances to win (Saturday's) game, and it's been like that all season," Foster said. "It's been frustrating, but new week, new focus. I'm still confident in this team and this coaching staff. I'm confident in my abilities to help us win, so I'm going to continue to stay at it and stay on the grind."