Illini fumble away another win

Illinois´ Rashard Mendenhall carries the ball for part of his 49 rushing yards against Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind., on Saturday. Peter Hoffman

Illinois´ Rashard Mendenhall carries the ball for part of his 49 rushing yards against Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind., on Saturday. Peter Hoffman

By Courtney Linehan

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – On Saturday, Illinois’ offense failed to score a single touchdown for the second time this season. Illinois’ defense allowed more than 34 points for the eighth time this season. And head coach Ron Zook said, for maybe the hundredth time this season, that he will not change his game plan.

“We’re not as far away as everybody thinks,” Zook said. “I know what everybody thinks, but I’m telling you what, we’re not far away. We’re going to get the damn thing where we’re supposed to be. It’s frustrating to me; it’s frustrating to everybody.”

The Illini fell to Purdue, the 8th-best team in the Big Ten, in a 37-3 loss Saturday. While it was the team’s eighth-consecutive loss this season, players said it’s not something they are getting used to.

“You just have to take it one play at a time,” Tim Brasic said. “It is hard; it’s tough to go out there. But we were in the game. When we were down 20 to nothing, I had Kyle (Hudson) wide open on a crossing route, and I tried to force it to Derek (McPherson). Then down 20-7 going into the fourth quarter you never know what can happen; you’re never out of the game. Rutgers proved that point.”

Illinois’ offense struggled throughout the game. Quarterbacks Brasic and Chris Pazan shuffled in and out of the lineup through three quarters. Offensive tackle J.J. Simmons was hurt and Ryan McDonald was shifted over, then Charles Myles came in to replace McDonald.

“We’re beating ourselves,” Zook said. “If there can be a bright spot, that’s it – we’re beating ourselves more than they’re beating us. Purdue, to give them credit, won the game, but we helped them.”

If anything went well, it happened on defense where seven players stepped up for at least four solo tackles each. Chris Norwell and Kyle Kleckner each recorded a sack, and Sharriff Abdullah batted down a Curtis Painter pass. James Cooper had an interception that he returned 41 yards to end the first half.

The offensive bright spot came from Pierre Thomas, who caught four passes for 25 yards. Thomas also rushed 11 times for 68 yards, including a 35-yard run in the second quarter.

“The only thing I could do is try to burst through the hole,” Thomas said. “The offensive line gave me great blocks; (Jason Davis) gave me a great block with the linebacker, and I just burst right through it. The only thing I kept thinking to myself was to keep my feet moving because we had to at least get a touchdown or something. We had to try to score or something.”

Illinois’ only scoring opportunity came in the fourth quarter, when Jason Reda made a 30-yard field goal. Purdue was called for roughing the kicker, and Illinois got first down on the Boilermakers’ 13-yard line. But Pazan threw three incomplete passes, and Reda stepped up to kick again, putting the ball through the uprights for a second time in less than two minutes.

The Illini have one more shot for a conference win this season, with a Senior Day contest against Northwestern. While the Illini have whittled down to just a single senior in a starting spot, the young players say they want a win. And Zook said he thinks it’s possible.

“(The loss) tears my heart out because I know we’re better than that,” Zook said.