Column: More questions than answers made after poor outing against Rutgers

By Troy Murray

What a difference a game makes.

Call me optimistic, but I thought this Illini football team was good enough to qualify for a bowl game at the end of the season. So, it may have been borderline crazy, but all they would have needed to do was win all four non-conference games and win two Big Ten games. There’s really no way that will happen unless Illinois improves in three areas.

Special Teams

Although I did not make the trip to Piscataway, N.J., I saw what the rest of you saw until ESPN decided the Akron vs. NC State game was more exciting.

Head coach Ron Zook needs to decide who his full-time punter will be for the rest of the season.

After freshman Kyle Yelton’s first punt was blocked in the end zone, Zook should have left the Chesterton, Ind., native in the game. By replacing him with wide receiver DaJuan Warren, he accomplished nothing, and further damaged Yelton’s confidence. I can’t imagine what it’s like to perform in front of 41,000 screaming fans, but I can imagine it’s quite an adjustment for a kid coming from a small town high school. Yelton will only be able to reach his potential if Zook shows some confidence in his young punter.

Offensive Line

This was supposed to be the most improved area in Illinois’ young team. Only one player, Martin O’Donnell, is a holdover at the same position on the O-line. The changes showed in Illinois’ first game, but the offensive line wasn’t able to create the same holes or give the quarterback as much protection as Zook would have liked to see against Rutgers.

Rutgers consistently hurried Tim Brasic and Isiah “Juice” Williams time and again and Illinois’ running game never got it going. How can the offense expect to get going when the quarterback always has to worry about a blind-sided hit from a 300 pound defensive lineman? No wonder Brasic threw two interceptions.

Quarterback Situation

Zook has repeatedly talked about getting Juice as much time as possible. He’s the future of Illinois football and is only one play away from being the Illini’s starter. So when Zook put Juice in with Illinois down 20-0 at the beginning of the second quarter, it was understandable.

He made me scratch my head, though, when it seemed he was fed up with the way things were going with Juice and put the starter, Brasic, back into the game in the middle of the third quarter with Illinois down 33-0.

Williams was back midway through the fourth, but what exactly is the point of bringing Brasic back in? If anything, Williams needs to get as many snaps as possible. The only way Juice will lead the Illini back to the promised land is if he has experience. If he doesn’t get the playing time when the team is down 33-0, when will he?

Defense

One of the only positive signs of the game was the defense. Barring the blocked punt in the back of the end zone and the interception return for a touchdown, Rutgers only scored 19 points – that’s a decent performance for a defense going up against one of the best running attacks in college football. Linebackers J Leman and Antonio Steele were big reasons why Ray Rice was contained to 109 yards and Heisman hopeful Brian Leonard had only 11 yards.

Heisman Race

Rutgers really should switch its focus in the Heisman race. After gaining just 36 yards in two games, Leonard really has as good a chance to win college football’s most prestigious award as the Rock’s new movie “Gridiron Gang” has of winning an Oscar for Best Picture. Leonard provides his team with leadership and is a great blocker but that never shows up on a stat sheet and will not win him the Heisman.

Rutgers should stop the campaign for Leonard and start one up for his teammate, Ray Rice. Rice has gained 310 yards in two games and really should be mentioned with the Ted Ginns and Troy Smiths of college football.

Troy Murray is a junior in Communications. He can be reached at [email protected]