With shot at greatness gone, Illini now hoping for respectable
Like nearly everyone else wearing orange and blue, Illinois senior center Ryan McDonald assumed that trip to the Rose Bowl 10 months ago would be just the beginning.
It hasn't gone as planned. Illinois lost two games to teams that spent time in the top 10, then turnovers resulted in two more losses when the Illini were favored. Heading into a Big Ten Conference home game Saturday against revitalized Iowa, an Illini roster with 6-2 talent is stuck with a .500 record.
"We expected to use last year as a springboard and go forward from there,'' McDonald said. "We're clearly short of that so far. We're trying to figure out what's going on.
"If we win four games here, we go to a bowl. Hopefully, we win that one and still finish 9-4. That's the same as last year. It's not like everything is in complete despair. Coaches are pushing to get us to find that sense of urgency. There's no reason to give up.''
Outside the locker room, they don't share McDonald's positive attitude, and the honeymoon that began in Pasadena is already over. The euphoria over the program's first trip to the Rose Bowl in 24 years has dissolved into a witch hunt before Halloween.
Illinois coach Ron Zook, who showed his emotions earlier this week, tried to demonstrate more calm as the game approached. His goal is to push the Illini without getting them stressed.
"I'm not panicked at all,'' he said. "I want to play the way we're capable. If we're good enough, we're good enough. If we're not, we're not.''
It hasn't gone well for the Illini for several reasons.
Losing the turnover battle
Illinois leads the Big Ten in total offense, but its minus-three turnover margin ranked eighth in the Big Ten heading into the weekend. Illinois lost three costly turnovers while falling to Minnesota, and quarterback Juice Williams threw three interceptions in the defeat at Wisconsin.
The Illini defense has just three interceptions (none in Big Ten play). At this point last season, Illinois grabbed nine interceptions.
Can't stop the run
Illinois ranks ninth in the Big Ten in rushing defense, allowing 152.4 yards per game. The defensive line started the season unsettled, and tackling has been an issue. Illinois hasn't found reliable replacements for hard-hitting safeties Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison, who graduated after last season.
The Illini are the most penalized team in the Big Ten, averaging 57.4 yards in penalties per game -- more than twice as much as Penn State's 26.4 yards per game.
"No one is happy,'' said Illinois defensive end Derek Walker. "We're not happy we're 4-4. We're not saying the season is over because we're 4-4. It's not a disaster yet. We have a game this weekend where we can fix that. We need to fix that, and we better fix that.
"We wanted to build off last year. You wanted to put two big years back to back. That was my main goal.''
A two-game winning streak and a bye week allowed the expectations to mushroom in Iowa, where the Hawkeyes began the season with concerns over the program's off-the-field image and a 19-18 record during the previous three seasons. The slump put some preseason heat on coach Kirk Ferentz and his $2.8-million salary.
A victory would make Iowa bowl eligible and allow the speculation about bowl destinations to grow on the other side of the Mississippi River.
"Geez, people (are) getting ahead of themselves. Is that the opposite of everybody dooming and glooming?" Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Usually if you lose a couple of games, everything is terrible and the sky is falling.
"If you win a couple, boy, everything is great and let's book those reservations now. I think everybody realizes it's a long season.''
Coming off the Rose Bowl trip, it's been a much longer season than expected at Illinois.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.
Illinois (4-4, 2-3) vs. Iowa (5-3, 2-2)
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium (62,870), Champaign
Series record: Illinois leads 37-29-2
Last meeting: Iowa 10-6 (2007)
Rankings: Both teams unranked
Coaches: Ron Zook, 17-27 in fourth season at Illinois, 40-41 in seventh season overall; Kirk Ferentz, 66-52 in 10th season at Iowa, 78-73 in 13th year overall.
NCAA rankings: Illinois offense -- rushing 26th, 190.2; passing 16th, 272.4; scoring 26th, 33.7; total 11th, 462.6. Illinois defense -- rushing 76th, 152.4; passing 52nd, 199.7; scoring 75th, 26.9; total 62nd, 352.1. Iowa offense -- rushing 22nd, 195.4; passing 86th, 190.0; scoring 40th, 29.7; total 44th, 385.3. Iowa defense -- rushing 22nd, 105.7; passing 39th, 192.0; scoring 5th, 11.5; total 20th, 297.7.
Notable: Iowa won the last five meetings between the two teams. Illinois' last win came in 2000. Zook is 0-4 lifetime against Iowa, including losses in the last three seasons and the 2003 Outback Bowl while the coach at Florida. . . Illinois quarterback Juice Williams leads the Big Ten and ranks eighth in the nation in total offense (331 yards per game). In conference play, Illinois receiver Arrelious Benn leads the Big Ten with 118 yards receiving per game. . . Iowa running back Shonn Greene ranks second in the Big Ten and third in the nation with 1,154 yards. He rushed for 100 yards or more in each of the first eight games. He has scored 10 touchdowns. . .
Quotable: "It was a case of doing exactly what (offensive coordinator Mike Locksley) said not to do at Wisconsin. We beat ourselves. We had a bunch of penalties. We had three interceptions. Those are things that kill an offense.'' -- Illinois quarterback Juice Williams.
Prediction: Illinois 27, Iowa 23