Deja vu for Illini

By BobLa Gesse

Haven’t we been here before? With turnovers, sacks, injuries, blocked kicks and fumbles that turn into UCLA touchdowns it was hard to tell Saturday if it was 2004 or if Illinois was back in 2003.

With Illinois in the real-life version of Groundhog Day, everything that could go wrong did as the Illini lost to UCLA 35-17. Unlike last year, Illinois didn’t give itself a chance to be in the game.

When the Illini did not convert on fourth-and-one on UCLA’s 3 -yard line, the game was over. It is one thing when Illinois has no control over what goes wrong – like last year’s rash of injuries (probably the result of a curse from a Louisiana Bayou witch doctor from the Sugar Bowl). It’s quite another when the Illini coaching staff does have control – and blows the call.

“I felt very confident we would make it,” said Illinois head coach Ron Turner. “And if we didn’t make it we’d stop them; they’d punt it and we would have the ball in great field position.”

There is an old football adage that says “kick the field goal at home and go for the fourth down conversion on the road.” Illinois should have listened to it.

The fans were into the game after Kendrick Jones caught a 46-yard pass on the first play. A field goal would have kept the momentum on the Illini’s sideline.

Instead, Illinois handed UCLA the momentum, and the Bruins turned it into a 14-point lead. The Illini could never catch up from the early deficit.

“I think that is the biggest thing in college football – momentum,” said senior linebacker Mike Gawelek. “Turnovers are huge. Everybody should be up anyway, but when you do that stuff it is huge.”

It’s understandable to see why Turner wanted to go for it. A touchdown would have been an exclamation point to that first drive, and the Bruins would have had no idea what hit them.

But Turner’s line of thinking gave the Bruins an opening that kicking the field goal would have closed. The Illini would lose the momentum they had built if they were stopped on fourth down. UCLA would take the momentum and would have a chance to build on it.

The most-doubting Illini fans turned to their friends and said this would happen. Then it did.

Replays showed that Illinois running back E.B. Halsey might have gotten the first down on the play, but the officials’ spot said otherwise.

Things are going so well for the Illini that in a season when replay is available – and that play would have been re-viewable – Illinois couldn’t turn to replay. In Big Ten non-conference games the opponent has to agree to use it. And the Bruins did not want any part of replay.

That’s the way things went all day. Kendrick Jones may have been interfered with on a potential touchdown pass. A Bruin fumble that Illinois recovered in the end zone was called a UCLA touchdown. Quarterback Jon Beutjer missed the second half with bruised ribs.

Regardless, the Illini needed to come out and stop UCLA on their first defensive possession. A strange thing happened on that opening drive, kind of like when Ashlee Simpson sells records.

The Illini defenders would step up to make a play, but at the last second they would hesitate and freeze up. In a matter of 11 plays, UCLA had a 14-point lead after Illinois failed to convert on fourth down.

“We just weren’t getting out and making plays,” said senior linebacker Matt Sinclair. “We knew where the ball was going to go but we weren’t attacking like we needed to.”

In the rest of the first half, Illinois played with the Bruins. It was a game between two mediocre teams. Both teams made mistakes and turned the ball over. Both teams could move the ball but couldn’t consistently find the end zone. For the Bruins that was fine. They still had the 14-point advantage from the first quarter.

Illinois has run head-on into Turner’s most used word of the last year – adversity. Some self-inflicted, some out of the team’s control.

Now will Illinois overcome it, or wake up next Saturday and still find themselves in 2003?

Bobby La Gesse is a senior in communications. He can be reached at [email protected]