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It’s In The Way That We Lose It October 29, 2011

Boy don’t you know.

A field goal off the upright. The failure to recover a great onside kick at Purdue.  Ohio State completing one pass and beating us.  Fresno State getting that first down.  Minnesota scoring with 16 seconds left.  A failed two point conversion after we scored in the third overtime at Michigan.

And that’s just in the last 365 days.

I could go further back and mention a Fresno State offensive lineman catching a deflected two point conversion on the final play of the game.  Or outgaining Minnesota at home by 250 yards and losing.  Or an 83 yard touchdown to beat Iowa that gets called back on a penalty.

We don’t just lose.  We lose excruciatingly.  We lose in a way that delivers a simultaneous punch to the gut and kick to the boys.  Illini teams in the Zook era have rarely been blown out.  And maybe that’s a compliment – I don’t know.  But to lose this way so many times – well, let’s just say I understand our negative fanbase better.  I still wish the anger wasn’t directed toward the players, but whatever.  This is a bruised and beaten group of fans.

A group of fans with no confidence in the coach.  It might be the anger talking, but I think it’s time to hit the reset button.  Maybe as soon as Monday.

Yes, Monday.  This season is off the rails.  Ron Zook is 34-48 as the head coach at Illinois. I don’t see how our new athletic director doesn’t look at that, see that our season collapsing, see that we can’t sell out a game with a 6-0 team, see that we’re the worst team in the country on Special Teams (not hyperbole – statistically), see that our current recruiting class is ranked 12th out of 12 Big Ten teams, see that the word “Zooked” is an actual word that has entered the sports writing vernacular, and not make a move.  As I said earlier in the week, Thomas’ decision will be to fire or extend at the end of the season; after this loss, I’m thinking that the firing might come sooner rather than later.

Would Mike Thomas really do that?  Would he pull the trigger during the bye week?  Probably not.  But after the next three games, he’ll be making that decision (fire or extend).  There might be some benefits to making that decision sooner rather than later.

6-3.  Who would have thought that I’d ever be this distraught after a 6-3 start?

+ I feel awful for our players.  Just awful.  This wasn’t for a lack of effort, in my opinion.  A rookie punter made a mistake, a green holder made a mistake, and that was pretty much the ballgame.

Jason Ford ran like a man possessed.  Nathan Scheelhaase gutted out a bad first half to really crank it up in the second half against a solid defense. Jonathan Brown played like a future Butkus winner.  The whole defense played like warrior poets.

Mistakes, penalties, and some coaching gaffes cost us this game.  When it happens in the pros, I want to pay new players and hire new coaches.  When it happens in college, I feel sick (and I want to hire new coaches).  Tim Russell had to be over the moon when he won the holder job.  And he’s just a walk-on, paying for his college and playing football just because he loves it.  So to see him drop a snap at a crucial moment in the game, well, my heart breaks for him.

And I feel awful for Derek Dimke, too.  He’s made so many kicks that have kept us in so many ballgames – I can’t fault him for one off the uprights in Happy Valley.  Good on Nate for being the first one to run out and console him on the field.

I guess when I look at it that way, I’m more OK with 6-3.  These guys are giving everything they have.  They don’t deserve the hard luck that seems to follow Ron Zook around.

+ Was it just me, or did two of our turnovers seem insane?  I thought Jenkins came down with that ball, but then the PSU player seemed to talk the official into a different ruling.  And Nate was clearly speared to cause the other fumble – how is a player expected to hold on to the ball when a safety is allowed to launch at his helmet?

And while we’re at it, what was with the spot at the Penn State 5 late in the game?  The Penn State receiver slides to make a catch at the 6 1/2, flips over and dives to the 5 1/2, and they spot it at the 5 1/2?

And since we’re on the subject, what was with that downed punt that should have been at the 49 but was spotted at the 44?  And why didn’t that Bolden fumble get reviewed?  And why did the umpire come running in with a quick whistle on the catch-and-maybe-fumble when the line judge was ready to rule it a fumble and let replay sort it out.  The umpire’s whistle made the play unreviewable.

The officials didn’t cost us the game today – Jay Prosch doesn’t lean forward, and we win.  But goodness, Big Ten.  Something has to be done.  Our quarterback nearly lost his head today, and the officials did nothing.

+ It’s impossible to juxtapose this against the Cardinals winning the World Series.  In case you missed it last night in the SOC post, yes, I’m a Cardinal fan.  Apart from my 5 years in Champaign, I’ve lived in the St. Louis area my whole life (most of the time on the Illinois side).

So yes, I should be able to just tuck this game away in some “my sports life is pretty great right now” pocket, but I can’t.  I should be able to do what the majority of Illini fans do and put football on the shelf again and turn to basketball.  But I’ve never been able to fully do that.

I’ve chosen one sport to place at the pinnacle above everything else, and that’s Illini Football.  And I’ve chose college sports – specifically, the teams from the school I graduated from in the state I grew up in – as the top.  When rating my fandom, Illini Football gets a 93.4, Illini Basketball gets an 81.9, and the Cardinals are a distant third at 44.6.  So when I try to place today’s loss in the “that’s OK, the Cardinals won it all” slot, it doesn’t fit.  Right now, I’m really wishing it fit.

And right now, I’m really hoping Mike Thomas hits the reset button.

illini125 October 29th, 2011

I know we seem to lose games in frustrating fashion, but we’ve won a lot of games recently with big breaks. The only thing is, as a fan you chalk those up to normal happenings of the game, you know? You stew over the little things that cause you to lose, but the little things that help you win are quickly forgotten.
Just think of all the little things that happened vs ASU, WMU, and Northwestern. Think back to the game vs Baylor. That Bellamy fumble on the first drive was huge for us. It gets forgotten because we won, but I bet Baylor fans were kicking themselves over it for awhile. Or how about NIU last year? We should have been called for a penalty on their onside kick attempt, but didn’t. Their fans were griping about that for days.
My point is, it seems like we have more bad luck than good luck, but I really think they’re fairly even. It’s just that we consider lucky breaks to be “things that should happen” as opposed to lucky breaks.

Steve October 29th, 2011

The non-spearing call was just horrendous, but it is the rules, I guess. They can stop the game to review whether a rag doll fumbles, but they can’t review why he is a rag doll. Really? I mean, I know that is the truth, but for Pete’s sake, why can you review the one and not the other?
Yes, the placement at the 5 1/2 was crazy.
A tough thing to lose that game. We have that game, then we let a team that has not moved the ball all day go 80 yards in 2 minutes. So, as you all know, some of it was our own fault. But, still, that hurt. That’s going to leave a mark.

Robert October 29th, 2011

In that same time frame (the last 365 days), the only game our opponents can say they lost in excruciating fashion would be the Northwestern game. Western Michigan and Arizona State simply couldn’t put together one more drive.
In that same timeframe, we hit an upright, lost in triple OT, lost on a TD with 16 seconds left, lost on a 4th down spot, etc.

eriksilis October 29th, 2011

You said it yourself.

“If Jay Prosch doesn’t lean forward, we win the game”

While its often difficult to blame the players, they are the ones committing the penalties and making the mistakes that lose the game.”

Regardless of what Zook should and shouldn’t have done, he didn’t make the turnovers and he didn’t officiate the game. For all 9 games this year, the Illini have been in position to win…that is a testament to the coaching staff (however you want to sort out praise and blame).

We are 6-3 and headed to a bowl game. Regardless of the order of defeats and victories, this team is going to accomplish something the Illini haven’t done in 20 years.

Robert, you must remember you predicted a 6-6 team at the beginning of the year? What about this season, this team, is surprising you?

illiniranger October 29th, 2011

its not the losses, it’s the way you lose. this team loses games because it plays dumb. on a day when ouudefense forced a bunch of turnovers, our offense committed more. on a day when we only needed 11 points to win we got 7. this team is a mess mentally. that’s why jay prosch went forward, that’s why a long snap was fumbled, that’s why our punt was blocked.
does anyone think our players are “dumber” than the kids from Alabama? Dumber than the kids from Okie State? of course not. but our coaches are much, much worse. so they don’t coach our kids properly, and in big moments our kids shrink physically and mentally. can you conceive of a world where Nick Saban’s Alabama team fails to convert THAT many opportunities? Of course not, because he’s nick saban and not ron zook. Our coach is the problem. He is responsible for everything the program does and fails to do. We could be 9-0 right now and with vaguely competent coaching from Zook and Petrino we are. Instead we are 6-3 rapidly heading for 7-5 and maybe 6-6. Pathetic. Fire the guy now before it becomes a smoking crater similar to the end of the Tepper and Turner eras.
Come on Mike Thomas, we need you right now.

illinitrueblue October 29th, 2011

I have watched us lose in so many ways, I have lost track. But this one, oh boy, this one takes the cake. There were so many ways for us to win and we still manage to stumble yet again. Amazing.

Thomas will not pull the trigger until after the season, but book it, Zook is gone.

GrogsBBQPepperoni October 29th, 2011

“Good teams find a way to win close ballgames”. And we’re the flipside of that. I shut the TV off after that game and said, “Well, whatever – I’m so used to this”. And the loss really didn’t bother me that much. Maybe that’s when it’s really bad. When a loss like that isn’t even a gutpunch any more. When you’re conditioned for it.

GrogsBBQPepperoni October 29th, 2011

And to clarify, I know we’ve won close games this year, but let’s face it – winning at home (barely) against a MAC opponent and a terrible NU team aren’t the equivalent of going to Happy Valley with JoPa and his big record on the line in a snow storm. Not the equivalent of Michigan last year. Etc. Etc….
I’ve never seen anything like our punt team. 3 back blockers and we still can’t get it done. Wow. Week in, week out – hold your breath on every punt. What fun.
And D Young – what can you say. The dropsies are a huge problem now. That really sucks. Kudos to Jason Ford. You, my man, ran like a locomotive today. That was fun to watch you never stop those legs. And I’m still stunned by the AJ “interception”. Stunned more by the fact that Zook never through the red flag. Oh, who am I kidding. No I’m not. He would never be that heady to know that any review would clearly have overturned that.

Joe John October 30th, 2011

What positives do you see in firing Zook now? I cant see it helping recruiting since there’d be an interim coach anyway.

The only time to fire Zook is right after the Minnesota game.
Let the new coach or interim coach do the bowl game.

But Robert…welcome to the dark side.

Finally acknowledging (i think you’ve seen it all along and just didnt want to admit it) that the Zooker is not the guy to lead this team.

Throw out the records – and ask yourself this:
Is this team a good team?
Is it improving?

If the answer is no to both…then Zook does not deserve his job.

And something has to be done about the awful instate recruiting.

Joe John October 30th, 2011

The ball placement thing didnt matter since Penn State kicked a FG on that possession anyway.

The fumble/int whatever on Jenkins looked like a bad call but there was holding on Illinois called on that it would have been 2nd and 20 from 50 or even without the INT/fumble called. I thought the downside of that call was it would flip field position but it really didnt since PSU turned it over on downs and Illinois got their TD next drive. There was no catch and fumble at all..that wasnt even close to being a completed pass.

Donovan Young has a fumbling problem.

Joe John October 30th, 2011

IMO – the worst play of the game was the blocked punt. Illinois had all the momentum and that just killed he team even though the defense saved it with 3 points.

No excuses for the special teams to be this bad.
If you have a team full of D1 athletes…and I think Illinois has the athletes…they dont look overmatched physically..then your special teams should be way way better.

2 straight weeks of punt blocks and i fear Zook will go back to Lankford rugby kicks.

chief23 October 30th, 2011

Great post Robert. I agree completely. It’s time for a change and fresh look. This has to end.

Nothing aggravates me more than the mindset that Illinois will never have a successful football program. That is completely ridiculous and short sighted. Wisconsin had Alvarez, Iowa – Frye, even Ferentz, Kansas State – Snyder, Michigan State –Dantonio, Rutgers – Schiano and this list could be much longer. All of the aforementioned programs had a program changing coach, that’s it. They have no other built-in advantages over Illinois. Illinois. I believe this program is a sleeping giant and until we hire the right coach our potential will never be met.

GrogsBBQPepperoni October 30th, 2011

One last thing, and I know this is kind of like picking at a scap while the patient’s leg has been amputated, but did anyone notice that the laces were facing Dimke on the final kick? We all learned in ‘Ace Ventura’ years ago “Laces Out”. I wonder if the holder was so panicked from his earlier botch that he was satisfied with just getting the damn thing down and upright – when he normally would get it down, and spin the laces out, away from Dimke.

GrogsBBQPepperoni October 30th, 2011

sorry, meant “scab”, not “scap”

Salt Life October 30th, 2011

No doubt that regardless the outcome of the rest of their season, Illini coach Zook is essentially a “dead man walking” with his pink slip most probably delivered before their last regular season game in Minnesota. Mike Thomas is not Guenther and will act quickly and decisively. Perplexing Illini losses with Zook in command continue year in and year out and it has become abundantly clear Zook is not the right man.

Game was lost with the mind numbing inexcusable blocked punt, multiple fumbles, interception (actually strip of Jenkins), costly penalties (incl motion on Prosch), muffed snap for FG, missed FG and missed open throw into endzone by Nathan. Zook’s “special” teams were bound to cost Illinois a game and they did at PSU. Aside from all the player turnovers and costly errors, what perplexes me most is the decision to replace Reilly O’Toole from the game after Reilly put a spark back into the Illini offense and drove them down near the goal line with his adept passing. Zook probably insisted Scheelhaase be put back in to take us home. But Nathan’s wild throw not even close wasted that opportunity. I have to think Reilly would have threaded that one in directly towards a receiver. The other coaching decision that bewilders me is up to the point of PSU’s TD, Illinois defense had played a very tough, aggressive game limiting PSU QB’s from getting their passing game going. In other words “It was working”. So on PSU’s ;ong TD drive the coach has them back off their aggressive and effective pass and instead play conservative allowing McGloin all day to find open receivers.

schiavonir October 30th, 2011

Robert, spot on as usual. You’re right, it’s not the fact that we lost that hurts so much – it’s the “if only” that seems to haunt every single close game. And this game seemed to have an inordinate number of “if onlies”.

And Grogs, you’re so right about the punting. What should be a no-brainer play has me on the edge of my seat every time. Will he get it off in time? Will it be blocked? Will it go more than 20 yards? Will we rely on the kicker for that touchdown-saving tackle? With so many more things to worry about during the game, I can’t believe this is now one of them.

But we’ll get ‘em in two weeks. I just know we will!

illinibacker October 30th, 2011

I agree with SaltLife about the change in defensive approach on PSU’s 80 yard drive. When your safeties are weak in coverage why go to the prevent? Watching the defense be aggressive has been one of the best things about this year. I know a Clemson fan well and he said most Clemson fans weren’t too sad to see Koenning go because he played “bend but don’t break” too much. I actually thought we would win the game when we kicked off, but once they completed that first pass to Moye I knew they would score.

Hoppy October 30th, 2011

I’m not exactly sure what to say. Robert = right as usual. Everyone above has stated it all.
Sometimes I wish MT created a profile here and read the blog. The way Salt Life stated how MT will act quick and decisively makes me think he actually is MT and is merely speaking in the 3rd person. haha
Anyway Robert, if/when the job opens up you should throw your name in the hat. All of Illini nation knows who you are anyway.
The only thing I’m wondering is what do we do if we actually pull off two more wins? Let’s say we take Michigan and Minnesota and go 8-4? Is Zook’s job secure? Or do we simply say “Hey Ron, thanks for getting us here but you are causing heart attacks and brain aneurisms throughout Illini Nation every game. You gotta go.”
I’m almost scared of success now because it could solidify Zook…

MrX October 30th, 2011

I watched the PSU TD drive again this morning and it wasn’t as bad as I initially thought in terms of the pass rush. It did look like they were dropping the safeties deeper and that opened up spots for the PSU receivers that weren’t there earlier.

Not to lay the blame on one person on the 4th down where the PI call, but Holy Crap does Supo Sanni lack any kind of instinct for this game. He jumps an out route, that Tavon Wilson has covered, and hangs Justin Green out to dry on that play.

GrogsBBQPepperoni October 30th, 2011

One question: We seem to be going the Northwestern route of setting up an easier schedule so that we generate enough wins to make bowl games and that, in turn, generates good publicity and then we work up to better bowls, better publicity, etc. etc. – and recruiting falls right in line and, whammo – program developed! So here’s my question: Is it working for Northwestern? Cuz they kinda still suck. Doesn’t Minnesota do that? Don’t some other perennial doormats do that?
And do the “soft” wins early in the season really do nothing to create confidence (especially the kind that says, “shoot, we’ve won tight games – we know how to do this” – cuz we don’t have that kind of mojo at all)?
I guess I just never thought 6-3 could feel so hollow.

jonb60173 October 30th, 2011

A. I hate the Cards, I come here because I went to Illinois, and am a huge Illini fan, so please start a Cardinal blog for that crap.

B. These close calls only seem to rise to the top when it’s a close game.

Zook has consistantly made small bad decisions, and they’re going to bite you in the ass. This was a tough loss but this coming out flat for an entire first half is a really bad habit to grow into!

Joe John October 30th, 2011

I dont really consider not recovering an onside kick vs Purdue as a gut punch loss. Purdue dominated Illinois. That wasnt a tough loss. it was an ass kicking.

Dont really consider Fresno State a tough loss either.
Another game where the opponent dominated illinois most of the game.

Joe John October 30th, 2011

Grogs – you’re right which is why I never bought into the soft schedule building anything stuff.

If you play a soft schedule and wind up in Florida for a good bowl, thats one thing.

If you play a soft schedule, then faceplant in the Big 10, and wind up in Detroit…that does nothing for recruiting. Thats why being 6-6 and going to a crappy bowl, vs finishing 5-7 and not going to a bowl did nothing for me.

How many recruits would you get to say a preseason game of Illinois vs Florida State in Memorial Stadium? or even Illinois vs Missouri…plenty of recruits I suspect. That would be a premium game to go to.

How many recruits are going to show up in a 3/4 empty Ford Field for the Motor City bowl vs some crappy MAC team?

Good coaches build programs.
Not easy schedules.

illiniranger October 31st, 2011

grogs and joe,
6-3 only feels hollow because we could easily be 9-0. Losing to OSU and PSU were things I expected before the year. It’s how you lose that makes it so hard to handle. I still think you schedule for wins. We’re trying to build a program and 7-6 with a bowl win looks better than 5-7 and staying home. It helps build momentum and essentially gets you another spring ball’s worth of practices.
If we don’t have a incompetent for a coach and can do little things like punt and not fumble the ball we are probably 8-1 right now.

Illinigrad October 31st, 2011

As painful as the PSU loss was, if this team still goes 8-4 and wins a bowl game I don’t see how you could dismiss the coaching staff. Even 7-5 and winning a bowl game is overall a better season than most since the slush fund. If we lose 6 straight then I could see a change in staff. The need for a change would be obvious.

mattcoldagelli October 31st, 2011

I think we have a long way to go before losing a winnable game AT Penn State is a fireable offense. Sorry if that puts me in the “problem” mindset, but I think it’s true. The Purdue loss was bad – if you want an example of a trigger game, use that one, because that’s a game we should have won, as opposed to a winnable game that we lost.

The former is bad and is a marker of a program running in place. The latter happens to everybody. Wisconsin lost two winnable games in the last two weeks. Every close game will send someone home grinding their teeth about the small what if’s.

ATOillini October 31st, 2011

Well…..I’m visiting my freshman son at the Univ of Montana this past weekend for the first time. He’s just never been into college fball or hoops, so we do other things Saturday afternoon. After I drop him off at his dorm and say “See you at 7 for dinner”, I head over to the university center (Illini Union type building) and start asking where I can find a TV. Buddy of mine had texted me a few minutes earlier…IL 7 PSU 3 3 minutes to go.
So I end up in some rec room with 20 pool tables asking the girl at the front desk if I can borrow the remote for “that TV over there”. After fumbling around trying to find the game for a minute or 2, I kid you not, I finally discover it at the exact moment you must have started your podcast from your La-Z-Boy.
What can I say? As the ball hit the upright I looked around for sympathy and realized the fans that just saw the Griz beat Weber State 45-10 didn’t really care.
I guess I have to agree with mattcoldagelli reagarding close games and “what if’s”. How about being a die hard Badger fan right now? 2 hail Mary’s in a row? Are you serious? Meanwhile, MSU and OSU fans get to giddily replay those moments for years to come.
One final note. Team sports will always have the luck element. However, the consistent ineptitude of our special teams play speaks for itself. Nuf said.

GrogsBBQPepperoni October 31st, 2011

Zook’s head was being called for long before the PSU game (shoot, even prior to this year) – that’s not the fireable offense that’s driving the frustration. Take your pick of countless other terrible losses and moves (going for 2 when up 7, awful clock management, etc) – and that now even recruiting has fallen off. And as the Blog title says, “it’s in the way that we lose it”. Basically, the things he’s in charge of are clearly are biggest weaknesses.

mattcoldagelli October 31st, 2011

I hear you Grogs – and if we were measuring bad losses and dumbfounding in-game decisions, there’d be little argument from me – but the way we lost this game was pretty ordinary. It stings a lot because it’s the third one in a row, but we caught some bad bounces in a conference road game. That’s life in the Big Ten or any other conference, for that matter. IMO, it’s hard to add this to the body of evidence for the Fire Zook crowd.

illiniranger October 31st, 2011

So I’m tired of wallowing in self pity. How about this defense? I am super proud of how hard they played. And Jonathan Bad News Brown? My god, I’m pretty sure Ralph Bolden pooped his pants when he saw Bad News was coming. Bad News looked so good I thought it was that one Lbacker from The Program.
Most dominant performance I have seen from an Illini Lbacker since the 90s – J Leman was great but he could not affect a game like Bad News. Good lord, the one play where he rushed the passer and just knocked Silas Redd out of the way like he wasn’t there and smashed the QB? What an effort.
And how about Black Cat? Great game as well. Really liked what our defense did and Justin Green is one terrible pass interference call from having his best game as an Illini d-back.
Just a really great defense top to bottom. Dare I say best since when Tepper was the DC? We need a post on this Robert to generate some discussion.

ILLINI08 October 31st, 2011

illiniranger – I completely agree. i get tired of all the negativeness after 3 straight weeks of it.

Joe John October 31st, 2011

Ranger – i’d wait till after the Wisconsin and Michigan games until annoiting Illinois defense the best since 1994.

Last year people that the defense was great until the Michigan game.