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Struggles, losses frustrate Illini football team and fans

With eight starters returning from an offense that finished second in the conference in total yards last year and a blend of athleticism and experience on defense, the Illini football team was expected to at least be competitive in 2009.

But Saturday’s 35-17 loss to Penn State marked the team’s third lopsided loss of the season, with the Illini’s sole win coming against Illinois State, a Football Championship Subdivision school.

Struggles have come on both sides of the ball, with opponents outgaining the Illini by an average of 128.3 yards in the team’s three losses. The team’s slow start and general underachievement have not been sitting well with players.

“There’s something in the pit of your stomach,” senior offensive guard Jon Asamoah said. “It’s so frustrating to not be playing the way we’re capable of. It just eats you alive.”

Adding to the players’ frustration has been the negative reaction from the fan base. Most of the student section had left by the start of the fourth quarter, and those who did stick around let the team know their displeasure.

“It’s tough,” Juice Williams said of the boos from the Illini fans. “It was one of the first times I’ve ever experienced that. As a team, I know a lot of the guys didn’t enjoy that too much.”

Illinois head coach Ron Zook said after Saturday’s game that the leadership was stronger than ever and that “all the right things are being said” in the locker room.

But after he met with players at the training facility Sunday, Zook recognized the wear of the team’s struggles on his players.

“They’re frustrated, they’re upset, they’re hurt,” Zook said. “I would be concerned if they weren’t upset. These guys want to win.”

Zook and the coaching staff have their own share of frustration with the team’s lack of success, especially with a disgruntled Illini nation demanding answers.

“I’m not going to say it’s a day at the beach,” Zook said. “It’s very little sleep, and it’s a lot of Pepto-Bismol. But that’s part of the profession and I understand.”

QB, other positions up in air

Halfway through the fourth quarter, chants of “Eddie! Eddie! Eddie!” could be heard from the student section, as fans implored the coaching staff to replace Williams with backup quarterback Eddie McGee.

Zook said he considered sending in McGee and even third-string freshman Jacob Charest before deciding to keep Williams in.

“We wanted to see if he could play his way out of it,” Zook said. “He kept fighting and threw some good balls.”

Williams scored his first touchdown of the season with a 17-yard strike to junior wide receiver Jarred Fayson with 9:07 left in the fourth quarter. With 42 seconds left in the game, Williams found the end zone again with a three-yard keeper.

“I wanted to see it from myself,” Williams said. “I got to let the guys know that I’m out there fighting until there are all zeros left on the clock.”

Even with Williams’ late-game success on Saturday, Zook said that there will be conversations about replacing Williams under center.

“There’s an awful lot of conversation to talk about that, and we’re going to talk about it,” Zook said. “There’s a lot of things you need to think about when making a change.”

With the team’s struggles, Zook is open to changes at any position.

“Right now, I’m considering changing everyone, including myself,” Zook said.

Injuries continue for Illini

Having struggled with injuries all season, Saturday’s game was no different for the Illini.

Senior tight end Michael Hoomanawanui and sophomore defensive tackle Corey Liuget both left the game in the first quarter with ankle injuries. Zook said that they are both listed as probable for next week.

“They’re sprained ankles, but not high-ankle sprains, so they should be okay,” Zook said.

Junior safety Garrett Edwards underwent an MRI following the game due to a muscle strain, freshman middle linebacker Evan Frierson suffered a contusion on his knee and junior wide receiver Arrelious Benn had to be helped off the field near the end of the fourth quarter with an apparent shoulder injury.

“Anytime you have a physical game like that, you expect those bumps and bruises,” Zook said. “The good news is that we should be okay for next week.”

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