Poor decisions seal Illini fate against Big Ten opponents

By Kevin Olsen

I wanted to write about the World Series this week but I could not hold in my disgust and disappointment in the last two Illinois football games any longer.

Yes, we will become bowl eligible this weekend, which is a huge accomplishment for this team after being in the cellar since Kurt “Golden Boy” Kittner left. But I can’t help but wonder what may have happened if Ron Zook and his coaching staff knew how to coach a college football game. And it didn’t help that there were obvious breakdowns by players on key plays.

I’m not saying we should have or would have beat Michigan, but the sloppy play and coaching did not help us and Zook single-handedly lost the game for us at Iowa. He inexplicably accepted two penalties that would have given Iowa fourth downs. And naturally, Iowa converted its extra downs into a touchdown and a long first-down pass that took precious minutes off the clock in the fourth quarter. Football 101 clearly states you take a fourth down over a penalty ALL THE TIME. Unless of course, there are obvious benefits, which there were none whatsoever in Illinois’ case.

Instead of declining a penalty to make it fourth-and-2 that would have forced Iowa to kick a 32-yard game tying field goal, Zook moved Iowa back a measly 5 yards for a manageable third-and-7. There was no benefit to this whatsoever because if the defense held, Iowa still had a pretty easy field goal attempt of 37 yards. I know Iowa does not have a very good kicker, but do you think he was on the sideline sweating over a 37-yarder opposed to a 32-yard field goal? I doubt it. Instead, Iowa took the lead and Illinois was never able to put more points on the scoreboard.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, Zook did it again in the middle of the fourth quarter. I’m sure his reasoning was to get better field position off a punt, but did he realize where Iowa was on the field? The penalty moved it back to its own 40 instead of midfield. I’m pretty sure at that part of the field, Iowa’s punter would have no problem kicking it inside the 20 from either position on the field. And to the dismay of Illini Nation, Iowa turned right back and found a wide open receiver downfield to foil Zook’s master plan.

I know Illinois did not play a lot of great football that game, capped off by Eddie McGee’s inexplicable interception in the end zone at the end of the game, but Zook is the head coach and is not supposed to make those mistakes.

Yet, one week later versus Michigan I found myself questioning the great recruiter once again. Yes, Iowa shut down our option and provided a blueprint for Big Ten defenses to follow. But does that mean you have to completely abandon the play that has been our bread and butter and lead to a 5-1 start? Michigan is a different team and I would think Illinois’ offense (especially the offensive line) would be a little more jacked up for the Wolverines coming into Champaign to show who runs the ball the best in the Big Ten. Well, I will never know if that is true or not because the option was nonexistent, making it more difficult for Illinois to break out for big plays on offense.

But that was nothing compared to the gaffe on a fourth-and-27 with Illinois leading 14-10. Illinois was poised to grab great field position with the lead. I don’t know if the coach made the call or Joe Morgan took the initiative, but I don’t know how you can send a punt block in that situation. Illinois most likely would have had the ball around midfield with an opportunity to increase its lead. There is no possible reason to jeopardize that for a chance at an unlikely blocked punt.

Naturally, Michigan drove down the field from there and took the lead and didn’t look back with the help of a Kyle Hudson fumble on a punt. Illinois ended up with a whopping 10 penalties for 107 yards and a two-game losing streak.

I am not losing the faith by any means, but it makes it that much harder when Illinois beats itself, and Zook continues to convince me he is no more than a recruiting coach.

Kevin Olsen is a senior in Communications. He can be reached at [email protected]