Column: Believing in Brasic

By Dan Berrigan

It is about time we had a football team deserving of the title Fighting Illini.

Down 13 points at halftime, head coach Ron Zook told his team the game wasn’t over. He must have been a good salesman because they believed him.

But the most important thing Zook did Saturday was what he didn’t do – he didn’t yank Brasic.

After training camp in Rantoul, Zook said junior quarterback Tim Brasic would be the starter, but he would be pulled at the first sign of trouble.

At halftime, Brasic had been sacked twice, thrown two interceptions, fumbled and had 38 passing yards to his name. I would have seriously considered pulling the plug.

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Thank you for subscribing!

Junior quarterback Chris Pazan has more in-game experience than Brasic, and in his only start last year against Northwestern completed 20-of-33 passes for 149 yards.

But Zook had faith in No. 15.

“I could see the confidence in his eyes,” Zook said. “I could tell after the first half that he was fine. He’s a competitor, and that’s what you’ve got to have.”

From then on, Brasic began to cease looking like a wide-eyed first time starter, and became a leader.

His swagger had returned.

“Every time I came off, coach was like, ‘Tim, you’re OK, keep your head up,'” Brasic said. “When you have that confidence after you make a mistake, you feel like you can go back out there.”

Brasic’s confidence on the field became contagious and spread when he showed he wasn’t afraid to scramble and take bone-rattling hits just to gain a few extra yards.

Junior running back Pierre Thomas said he was amazed at the way Brasic was able to run, but even more astounding to him was that Brasic refused to slide to avoid getting hit.

“A lot of people look at quarterbacks as guys who are just there to throw the ball, but (Brasic) can do everything. He can run the ball and take a hit, too,” Thomas said. “I think that definitely gives confidence to the guys on the field because if he can do it, we also can do it.”

Following Zook and Brasic’s lead, Illinois kicked, clawed and fought its way back into the game in dramatic fashion.

The Illini’s bend-but-don’t-break defense held the Scarlet Knights to just seven points in the second half. Brasic’s renewed confidence allowed him to rush for 54 yards and complete 19-of-25 passes in the second half.

The “I believe” ad campaign isn’t just a hokey slogan; each player could be heard dropping the phrase in an interview. The Illini really do believe in themselves, their quarterback and Zook.

“I knew we all had it in us (to come back), and we just believed,” Thomas said.

In just nine months, Zook has erased years of losing from each player’s mind and gotten them to buy in to his system.

He gave them a reason to fight, and they did.

We saw the Fighting Illini on Saturday – Rocky re-made in orange and blue.

Thoughts and Second Thoughts

n Send your thank you notes to Rutgers head coach Tony Schiano and kicker Jeremy Ito, because the Illini didn’t win without their help. Schiano’s misplaced confidence in Ito cost the Scarlet Knights the game. (Hale Center; 1 Scarlet Knights Way; Piscataway, NJ 08854)

n Illinois receivers didn’t drop a single ball Saturday. Feel free to rub your eyes and read that again.

n Rutgers’ spontaneous cramp-itis seemed to lay dormant until the fourth quarter, when their lead was vanishing. I guess you have to expect that out of a team from New Jersey.

n To the fans that left after the Chief’s performance: You missed the most exciting game at Memorial Stadium since the overtime loss to then-No. 1 Ohio State in 2002, and it serves you right.