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Whistling Past The Graveyard October 22, 2011

It was the question we were all asking two weeks ago. Is this a good team that finds ways to win close games at the end, and will build on that to have a special season (like Iowa in 2002)? Or is this a bad team that has been really, really lucky – a 3-3 team that was 6-0 because a few plays went our way (like Minnesota in 2008)?

Looks like it was the second.


There were cracks in the armor everywhere, but none of us wanted to see them. Only 17 points against Arizona State and 23 against Western Michigan? That’s OK – a few plays went the other way and kept our point total down. We rebounded for a huge outburst in the second half against Northwestern and then torched the worst defense in the Big Ten, and suddenly the town crier is screaming “all is well”.

All is not well. We haven’t scored in the first three quarters of the last two games. Our next three games are against defenses much better than Purdue, and we’ll be heavy underdogs in all three.

The signs were there that this dropoff was approaching, yet there I was, predicting wins in the last two games. When I should have been listening to those whose football opinions I really respect. Like GHD over at IllinoisLoyalty in responding to my post on Thursday:

I knew that our special teams and turnover problems were really hurting this team, but didn’t quite realize the extent to which we have been whistling past a graveyard.

Fantastic defense has really saved our bacon. With a more consistent running game, elimination of the turnover problem, and decent special teams, this could be a top 10 team. If wishes were fishes….

Whistling past the graveyard. Yep – that’s it. Signs all over the place that this team had serious issues, yet there I was last night, with a Zookian “we’ll get that fixed” Stream Of Consciousness post. We’ll get that running game going. We’ll fix those special teams. Whistle whistle whistle. Wishin’ fishin’.

Now, well, now I feel normal. My son came in with his usual “how are you, dad?” after we lost, and I told him I was fine. Because I was. I’m totally fine right now. I feel 100% completely totally the way I expect to feel every fall. THIS is what it is like to be a fanatical fan of this football team. This is my normal.

To the game:

+ Five things that could fix our offensive issues right now:

  1. Mikel Leshoure chooses last winter to return to school for one more year.
  2. A completely healthy Darius Millines.
  3. Interior blocking communication between Pocic and the guards.
  4. Nathan stops pressing.
  5. Mikel Leshoure wears Josh Ferguson’s jersey next weekend and nobody notices.

As we kept putting ourselves in third-and-more-than-5 positions, today, I couldn’t help but think of Feeding Five. I watched the Texas Bowl again the other night (yeah, so what – I like bowl games), and it’s amazing to watch Mikel run the ball. Focused. Bursting for the hole. In control. Great decisions, even when there’s no hole. Turning a 4 yard gain into 13.

And that’s the issue, to me, right now. We can’t put ourselves in second and short enough, so we can’t put drives together. We can’t find a rhythm, so we punt EIGHT TIMES in the first three quarters against Purdue. Find our running game, and we can stop this slide. Run the ball like this, hello Detroit.

My score prediction last night was 31-20. The defense did their job and held Purdue to 21. The offense was a pile of fail. Paul Petrino is the second highest paid coordinator in the Big Ten, and in the next 4 weeks, it is time to earn that money.

+ I haven’t seen any post-game comments yet, but I’m sure Vic Koenning saw what I saw – three opportunities to force field goals, 3 touchdowns. If Spence’s penalty doesn’t happen or we don’t bite on a WR screen, that would have been a 13-0 game entering the fourth quarter. Instead, it’s 21-0 and we really had no shot.

So maybe “the defense did their job” above was too kind. They got a big turnover. They forced third and goal. But they couldn’t turn 7 into 3 when they needed to.

+ We’ll never return a punt. We just won’t – ever. I’m giving up hope. I’m not going to expect a single punt return for the next 3 years. We have no idea how to block the “new” punt formation, and our returners will face a minimum of 4 unblocked tacklers the second they catch the ball. It will never happen, and I am an idiot for expecting us to.

I’m secretly hoping that Mississippi had a few solid kickoff returns today. Because if they did, it will drop us to 120th out of 120 teams. 120th can’t be argued with. 120th can’t be looked past. 120th hits you square in the mouth. On the “overall athletes on a college football team”, we’re probably around 30th in the country. Teams like Alabama and Oklahoma are much more athletic than we are, but we’re still in the top 3rd.

And we’re 119th in kickoff returns and 112th (and falling) in punt returns. Unbelievable.

+ The one play that sticks out in my mind: Caleb TerBush is nearly tackled for a sack on third and 21, stumbles away and throws and absolute duck… and they complete the pass for a first down and eventually push it in for a touchdown. I was still watching the game on tape-delay at that point, and I had to rewind it 3-4 times before continuing to watch what was certain to be a touchdown drive. Two chances to turn the game around, and we allow a duck from the worst QB in the Big Ten.

+ I just realized I’m kicked out of the top-25 meeting this week. And I might not return (for years).

Alright, I’m not OK. I just remembered that “normal” means “insignificant place in the college football landscape”. Here we go again.

chief23 October 22nd, 2011

I never want to hear anyone complain about the fans again. Games like today are the reason that fans don’t show up for games, they are the reason that fans complain about Zook as a heard coach. Awful special teams, vanilla playcalling, terrible time management, and no emotion, just another typical Illini game under Zook. Tepper and Turner set this program back 10 years, I am afraid that the same thing will happen with Zook. I have absolutely no faith in him as a head coach.

Also I don’t want to hear about head coach say ‘we’re still 6-2’, yeah we are 6-2 going on 6-6. Today we played like we were 0-6. All of the momentum from the 6-0 is totally gone, we will be very lucky to finish 7-5. I am predicting a 6-6 record and a Detroit bowl that will do nothing for recruiting. I think that part of Zooks problem is his inability to push aside his own ego and admit what doesn’t work. How many more games do we need to see Lankford running away from a punt like it’s a ticking time bomb? 21 points in the last 8 quarters, and 0 points in the last 2 first halves, is just an absolute joke. Rice scored 24 points on Purdue, Rice. If you have to take all the coach responsibilities from your head coach, then you need to fire the head coach.

illini125 October 22nd, 2011

“Mikel Leshoure wears Josh Ferguson’s jersey next weekend and nobody notices.”

Our offense would have to be really bad before we put a guy with a ruptured achilles in there : D

But I get what you mean.
I don’t think we were as good as we seemed the first six weeks, and we aren’t as bad as we’ve looked the past two.
“Normal” is OK. Finishing 7-5 or 8-4 doesn’t make us insignificant. A team that can go to bowls in consecutive seasons is not insignificant.

illini125 October 22nd, 2011

“vanilla playcalling….and no emotion….just another typical Illini game under Zook.”

Yeah, uh, Petrino calls the plays. Thanks for playing! And if you want to criticize Zook for things, you can’t argue that he shows no emotion.

Nice to see another fan give up though. I’ll bet you’re one of those fans who want O’Toole to be starting, and have Petrino as the head coach. Hahaha…

chief23 October 22nd, 2011

Illini125 – The team played with no emotion. The head coach should be able to inspire his players but I did not see an inspired effort on the field today. That’s fine that Petrino calls the plays, he is also to blame. Zook makes 1.75 million a year, sorry if I think that the head coach should be held responsible, give me a break. Petrino is light years away from a head coaching job at this point.

slogue2 October 22nd, 2011

125- Zook is the head coach. It is his job to make sure his squad is ready to go for each and every game. Once again, he failed that very basic duty. It has gotten old very, very fast. My lord it doesn’t make sense why some fans still go to bat for him.

illini125 October 22nd, 2011

I apologize, I was harsh on you there. Frustration over today’s game. Emotion doesn’t win football games, talent does. Our players shouldn’t have to rely on the coaches to get them to want to play. Having the opportunity to win should be motivation enough.
To me, it’s just annoying that people seemed to believe that we only won the first 6 games because of Petrino and Koenning, but now that we’ve lost 2, the blame is nowhere to be found for them. It’s selective criticism.

thegoah October 22nd, 2011

I don’t think I posted it here–but I’ve been telling everyone who would listen that we WILL beat wisconsin, and we will lose to Minnesota. That’s what we do in a good year. We accomplish the impossible and then lay eggs on the easy ones.

Turns out I meant to say Purdue instead of Minnesota. Glad to know we’ll stomp Minny now.

That above is what I would write if I were still trying to put a polyanna spin on this. After two weeks of absolute and complete offensive ineptitude, to go with the horrific special teams and the now-not-dominant-enough defense, I’m not sold on anything more than 6-6 now. Last week was hard, but predictable. This week, a loss was possible…but to see us get completely dominated like we did…a complete gut punch.

illini125 October 22nd, 2011

“Zook is the head coach. It is his job to make sure his squad is ready to go for each and every game. Once again, he failed that very basic duty. It has gotten old very, very fast. My lord it doesn’t make sense why some fans still go to bat for him.”

Because he’s the head coach of a 6-2 team, maybe? In your mind, you seem to think that any loss is a failure because the coach didn’t have them ready to go. Well what the hell is he supposed to do? Give them all pats on the back and say “Are you ready to go?”
Like him or not, we’ve put together a decent season so far. So he if he didn’t have them ready to go for today’s game, I guess that means he had them very ready for the first 6 games, eh? What’s Scheelhaase gonna say tomorrow? “Well I thought that I should have been ready to go, but, uh, the coaches never told me to get ready to go, so I went out there and overthrew Jenkins multiple times.” NO!
So it’s his fault that Scheelhaase can’t escape the pocket under pressure, that the line couldn’t block anyone, that the defense couldn’t do anything right in the first half, that Duvernois can’t hold on to that punt, that Spence grabbed a guy on the facemask?
Your last line goes both ways. I honestly can’t see why some fans find it necessary to go to bat for everyone but him. To refuse to criticize anyone but him, and to pin every problem on him.

chief23 October 22nd, 2011

Illini125 6-2 doesn’t mean anything. What matters is the end of the season, frankly it looks like we will finish 6-6 right now. You have to see the writing on the wall. We just lost to an awful purdue team, a purdue team with the worst QB in the big ten, a team that lost to Rice and a team that we beat 44-10 last year. Much like a CEO, the head coach of a football team is going to take most of the blame. He makes the most money and ultimately has veto power over all the decisions that are made. You say that talent wins football games, that is true for the most part. That is just all the more reason to criticize Zook, recruiting has been his main calling card and if Purdue has more talent than Illinois, then we are in big trouble.

illiniranger October 22nd, 2011

Today’s game was brutal and I agree with Chief23 that it contributes to an apathetic fan base. One of my good friends said today, “7-5 is ok, it’s how you get to 7-5 that matters.” And this team is going to STUMBLE to 7-5. Question here is whether or not Mike Thomas will have the courage to fire a guy after two straight bowls because, frankly, this is as good as it is going to consistently get under Zook and I can’t accept that.

Illinigrad October 22nd, 2011

Did anyone mention that we have gift wrapped 21 points on careless turnovers in two games (I count the muffed punt today as a turnover)? How many teams would win evenly matched games with that many gift wrapped points? The bottom line question is: What can reasonably be expected of a Zook coached team any given season? What is the career pattern? 7-5 and a bowl is the likely answer, if that. Is that the best Illinois can do? Only the new AD knows the answer.

Steve October 22nd, 2011

I didn’t watch the game. I was playing golf and my kids warned me that unless I had some major sins to atone for, there was no reason to watch this roadkill.
What I find interesting is that I’m somewhat ok with Zook, not because of any of the current events on the field. I’m disgusted by them. In fact, BEFORE the Texas Bowl last year, I said “win or lose, we have to fire Zook”. I don’t think he is doing any better job this year than he did last year. So, why am I singing a different song now?
The reason that I’m ok is that it has become clear to me that right now, we are not a destination job for a good coach. Anyone good is going to go through us like Chizik (however you spell it) went through Ames. We need to have some success, move on to become, if not a top drawer program, a program with the clear potential to become a top drawer program in the coach’s first 2-3 years. So, my feeling is that if we get rid of Zook right now, we might get a better coach, we might not. If the new coach is better, he won’t stay. Be serious. . . . He won’t stay.
So, given my bias that we won’t just keep moving up the line by getting rid of Zook, I’m inclined to bitch and moan about Zook, all the while tolerating his presence for a few more years, while we hopefully build a tradition of winning. Not winning enough, but winning a lot more than we won with Zook’s precedessors.
Can you think of a top drawer coach who will come to C-U to stay?
I’m afraid that we have to walk first, folks.

GrogsBBQPepperoni October 22nd, 2011

Guys/gals – I guess I was right and at the same time wrong. It was a ‘reversion to the mean’. And the ‘mean’ is the average. And we are completely average. And whoever said it was right – minimal turnovers caused by our D and HORRIBLE special teams play may be the ‘mean’ (or the norm) for us. Another reversion to the mean that I didn’t even intend was that we (and our record) were way ahead of ourselves. With this year’s schedule, we’re a 7-5 team – maybe 8-4 with a really lucky game in the next 4 games. But to go 8-4, we would have to outplay what is some painfully horrible coaching.

YET ANOTHER GAME WITH A TOTALLY EMBARASSING COACHING GAFFE AT THE END OF A HALF OR GAME! I was there and am pretty sure I was red-faced by shame when I saw our coaches signaling in to spike the ball with :01 on the clock in the 2nd half. Seriously? This is college football, not 5-year old Pop Warner where they don’t keep score. Unreal. I can’t take this coaching ineptitude any more. And you other posters are right – this team was completely unmotivated and as flat as a piece of plywood.

To quote the great (not really) Dennis Green “They are who we thought they were!”. That’s the country speaking, folks. Everyone out there knew we weren’t the #15 team in the country and that we weren’t bound for the Big Ten title game (or even 3rd or 4th place). Except us. And now at least we’re all on the same page.

And I can handle losing. But I can’t handle losing due, in part, to horrible coaching. Zook has to go. We’re an embarrassment in terms of game/clock management (and special teams – holy cow, the punting game is COMPLETELY INEPT – receiving and kicking). Hopefully it’s just midwestern common knowledge what charlattans we are/were. I fear our “cup of coffee” in the Top 25 makes it national, though.

Oh well, a bowl will be nice. Maybe it will be in Detroit. I assume they have a nice climate control system in that dome………..

GrogsBBQPepperoni October 22nd, 2011

fyi, I meant :01 left in the 2nd quarter, not 2nd half

AHSIllini32 October 22nd, 2011

Robert –

I check this blog probably at least 3x’s a day so I respect your opinions and your ideas.
However, separate yourself from these last 2 games, as hard as it is, and ask yourself, if this was the beginning of the season, “would I be happy with 8-4″?
I still don’t fear PSU or UM enough to chalk them up as losses. Remember how you felt after Minny at home last year?? Predicting we wouldn’t make a bowl game? Then BOOM, NW at Wrigley…and BOOM Baylor in the Texas Bowl and you were happy as pie for 8 months, well really about 10 up to about last weekend.
I would feel bad if you allowed yourself to give up on this year based off the last two weeks.

BigGame67 October 22nd, 2011

*Attention Athletic Director*
Is this what you want?

Also, I apologize to Jason Ford. He seemed to want it a little more.

Also, also, Scheelhaase is injured, right?

wimble October 22nd, 2011

Watched only the second half, and we looked half decent. What on earth happened in the first half??

Jason Ford is a fantastic receiving back. We need to use him like that a LOT more. I liked John Davis’ toughness too. Purdue’s corners did a great job on our receivers – NS had tons of time but couldn’t find anyone. Purdue was clearly the team that wanted this more, even in the second half.

AHS captured my sentiment well. I can’t stand that Zook’s Illinois teams come out so flat once or twice a year and lose in a game they should absolutely win. I’m thinking Minny last year, Indiana two years ago. But, at the same time Zook’s Illini have come out and occasionally win games they shouldn’t win.

I guess I’ll take volatility (with upside) over consistent mediocrity – which is what we got for years under Tepper and Turner. Illinois has and will always be a team that can beat anyone, but that can lose to anyone, under Zook.

ATOillini October 22nd, 2011

Caveat emptor

GrogsBBQPepperoni October 23rd, 2011

One last thing: I’ve watched football for many years but I can’t ever remember having less hope for a certain aspect of a team than I do for Illinois’ Special Teams. I know I’m beating a dead horse but Robert put it great – I guess we’re just never going to return a punt. Ever. And I think we all knew that in the back of our minds. But now our punter isn’t even getting the kick off. So, as bad as punting special teams was, it inexplicably took a step BACK. And it was already on occupying a gurney in the ER.

Hoppy October 23rd, 2011

I’m with you Robert. I’m back in “Illinois Football Mode” where I don’t expect anything anymore. We’ve locked in the bowl game, and instead of that motivating us, it seems we have taken our foot off the gas and are trying to coast to the game.
Zook’s responsibilities:
-Inspire Confidence in fans/players/superiors – Doesn’t seem to be doing well
-Demand Respect from opposing teams – As a man, maybe, as a head coach, no
-Special Teams – hahahaha
-Teaching/applying clock management – Haven’t seen many positives here
-Football/game awareness – See Special Teams above
-Recruiting – Success in the past, last I saw he is last in commits so far…end of season will tell
-Creating Mike T’s vision of the Illinois National Image – He did it, in a comical way that makes us look like clowns, getting Zookered is a household term now I believe
Anyway, tell me if there are any responsibilities he has that I’m missing. Maybe he is doing something really well and right now I’m too pissed to think of them. But basically he is not doing his job. Would you keep someone on the payroll that hasn’t done their job for 7 years?
Any by the way this has nothing to do with wins/losses or who we win/lose to. If we go 8-4 this year I’ll be happy with it no matter who the wins came against. However, most of the things above won’t change no matter our record.
Zook’s new recruiting line “You should come to Illinois. I’ll get you on national television and then help you embarrass yourself against Purdue. Interested?”

Joe John October 23rd, 2011

According to Zook’s quote after the game, Darius Milines was healthy he just didnt get in the game.

This offense has numerous problems.
#1. Michael Heitz has no business starting at tackle. He’s simply not good enough.
#2. No elite running backs. Donovan Young is just a guy. He has no burst. Ford has no burst. These guys are nowhere close to Mendenhall/LeShoure.
#3. If you double AJ Jenkins, what else can Illinois go to? Nate scrambles?
#4. Kawaan Short dominated the interior line yesterday. This does not bode well for the rest of the season given the d lines Illinois will go up against.

The defense is decent – but its not a shut down defense.
#1. Hull/Sanni are not good players. And when Hawthorne/Wilson get beat, they arent good enough to cover up for it.

Special teams has already been addressed by everyone above.

For the life of me, I have no idea why you’d hang on to Zook. I hear the argument that “I dont want Illinois to go backwards”….but this is about as low as its going to get. If the AD wants to schedule 4 non conference wins a year…he can do that regardless of the talent level or coach. Yes, there are weak enough D1 or D2 teams that Illinois can schedule to get those wins. Then you factor in that Indiana, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue are on the schedule most years…Does anyone think getting rid of Zook would mean becoming so bad that Illinois cant even beat those teams? I dont.

Sometimes I think the Ron Turner era permanently scarred many Illini fans. Its as if replacing Zook, and we’re destined to get another Turner. i dont believe that. I think there are coaches that are way better than both Turner/Zook that can and should be given the keys to the Illini football program.

I dump Zook at the end of the season and I thank him for the Rose Bowl year, and for improving the program (marginally) from the Turner years. Now its time to go to the next step.

Thats getting a good coach. Good coaches build programs.
Not easy schedules.
Easy schedules just mask the underlying problems.

uofibonehead October 24th, 2011

Here’s the glass is half full guys:

The bar is now set so low for our 2011 Illini that any win we get the rest of the season is AWESOME!

Harry Lime October 24th, 2011

“this is about as low as it’s going to get” Joe John? You have obviously not been an Illini football fan for long.

rml October 24th, 2011

One other job for the head coach? Look after the players, acting as a surrogate dad for them while they’re away from home for the first time.
I wasn’t a big Zook fan. Then I saw the interview with him after the Northwestern game last year, when he learned that LeShoure had set the school rushing record. His excitement for Mikel was amazing; he reacted as though Mikel was his own flesh and blood. It hit me how nice it was to have a coach who seems to care so much for and about his players.
I’ll tell people now, I am proud (yes, actually proud!) that we have that guy looking after our players.
Yes, I wish we would win more games. Yes, I wish we had a better national profile. But I think our kids have somebody looking after them who really cares about them. And, so long as we’re decent on the field, I’m content with that.

Hoppy October 25th, 2011


I respect your opinion about Coach Zook’s compassion for his players. And yes, I did leave that out but it is something he is excellent at.

However, I guarantee there is someone out there that can be both an excellent coach that leads us to great seasons and also cares for his players. I mean c’mon. We aren’t trying to build a “Let’s all feel good about ourselves even though we have 6-6 seasons and heartbreaking losses to rivals” program. We are simply trying to build a successful football program.

If all it took to be the Illinois coach was to be compassionate than I could do it. And we don’t want that because I’m sure we would never win a game. But I would care for those kids like crazy. So, although Zook has one good part of coaching down, he just isn’t firing on all cylinders when it comes to the rest. It’s nothing against his character, I just don’t think he is going to be a good coach for us.

Let’s let him finish out this season and unless he gets us to the 8-4 we wanted than it’s time to search for the replacement. And as someone said above, thank him for the good times, then send him on his way.

Hucklebuck October 27th, 2011

I was good by the time I walked out of MS – this is normal. And that is pathetic.