‘This one really hurt’

Matt Clark (6) of UCLA prevents Illinois´ Kendrick Jones (84) from catching a pass in the end zone during the fourth quarter on Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Illinois went on to lose 17-35. Carol Matteucci

Matt Clark (6) of UCLA prevents Illinois´ Kendrick Jones (84) from catching a pass in the end zone during the fourth quarter on Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Illinois went on to lose 17-35. Carol Matteucci

By Lisa Koulias

Illinois football is back … and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

In their 35-17 loss to UCLA at Memorial Stadium Saturday, the Illini showed glimpses of a team they used to be – the last-place team last season.

But this team said it’s not going to let this loss do what it did to them last year. After last year’s 6-3 defeat by UCLA, the Illini spiraled downward to lose the next nine games and finish at the bottom of the Big Ten.

“It’s just a bump in the road right now,” said linebacker Matt Sinclair. “Our biggest concern right now is not to get on the tank like we did last year. We were walking around having some guys talk to the other guys after the game. (We’re) just keeping our heads up because we don’t want the young guys to get that mentality of ‘Oh here we go again.'”

The Illini came out strong, opening the game with a 46-yard pass-play to Kendrick Jones. They moved the ball all the way down to the UCLA 4-yard line but failed to convert a fourth-and-one play to turn the ball over to UCLA, four yards shy of six points.

After that, the Illini couldn’t regain their initial momentum and tried to play catch up the rest of the game.

“That was the turning point of the game, even though it was the first drive,” said wide receiver Mark Kornfeld. “We moved the ball all day and the first drive would have been huge if we could have put it in there. It just took us a little too long to get going. We just didn’t capitalize when we were in the game.”

UCLA went on to score a touchdown on the next drive to put the Bruins up 7-0. The Illini offense was shut down in their next drive in three plays, and the UCLA offense came back out on the field and put up another seven.

“We did a nice job operating our plan, going into an environment like this on the road,” said UCLA head coach Karl Dorrell. “I’m really excited about what the offense did early on in the game, having an opportunity to go 96 yards for a touchdown. Our defense did a nice job on the very first drive of the game with stopping (Illinois) on the fourth-and-one inside our 5-yard line. Those were the issues that really catapulted our team.”

The Illini finally got some points on the board in the second quarter when Franklin Payne caught a 16-yard pass from quarterback Jon Beutjer. It was Payne’s first touchdown of his career and second career reception.

But old habits came back to haunt the Illini as they had three turnovers, poor tackling and missed opportunities. The Illini also took a huge blow when starting quarterback Beutjer was hit in the last minute of the second half. He suffered bruised ribs and left the game to be evaluated. Beutjer was 12-of-22 with 146 yards in the first half.

Redshirt freshman Brad Bower came out in the second half and finished the game going 11-of-15 with 102 yards and one interception.

“Brad’s ready; Brad is a good kid,” said offensive lineman Duke Preston. “He’s got a lot of fight back there. He’s young and he’s going to make mistakes and he’s going to miss certain things. But at the same time we went through that last year with guys – and getting guys to play at a higher level. He, I think, came in at a great level today, and I think his starting point showed a lot of maturity. The things he did out there were real mature for coming in the game in that situation.”

Despite the positives in Saturday’s game, the Illini won’t forget the feeling they had after.

“We definitely have high expectations, and this one really hurt,” Bower said.