Column: Turnovers, penalties contaminate Illinois’ play and record

By Troy Murray

In the “BCS pillow fight of the season,” the Illini came out and disappointed, piling up penalties and turnovers with heart and determination.

In the first half, Illinois looked as awkward and sloppy as Band Day at halftime. If Illinois ever hopes to become a football powerhouse, it better stop making mistakes by the boatload. The Illini committed 12 penalties for 106 yards, turned the ball over twice and dropped several catchable passes.

One drive midway through the second quarter characterized Illinois’ day. Illinois was in field goal range at the Syracuse 30-yard line. A field goal was quickly out of the question, though, when Illinois committed three penalties totaling 36 yards – an illegal block in the back, offsides and a personal foul. On third down with 30 yards to go, Tim Brasic threw an interception, his second turnover of the contest.

And this type of play was not isolated to the second quarter.

How can a team expect to stay in the game when its play is riddled with dropped passes, penalties and mistakes?

Quarterback Controversy

I called for running back Rashard Mendenhall to get more touches on offense and head coach Ron Zook seemed to listen this week. Mendenhall went for 33 yards on six carries and caught two balls for 78 yards and a touchdown. It worked the first time, so I’ll offer up another suggestion.

Two weeks ago, after a terrific performance against Eastern Illinois, I said that it was quarterback Tim Brasic’s job to lose. He was the experienced senior and if he could keep it up, why not play him? But since then Brasic has struggled, especially with turnovers.

In the postgame press conference, Zook tried to show support for Brasic, saying he’d have to analyze the tape before declaring Isiah “Juice” Williams the new starter.

Just looking at the numbers, though, the decision should be obvious. Against Rutgers and Syracuse, Brasic committed four turnovers and went 13-27, throwing for 107 yards and one touchdown. Meanwhile, Juice has impressed. He’s looking more like the experienced senior. Juice has thrown for 241 yards, going 11-for-26 including two long scores.

Some of the dropped passes Illinois committed can be attributed to this quarterback controversy. Juice and Brasic have different throwing motions and the speed and strength each puts behind the ball differs greatly. Switching quarterbacks midway through the game subjects the wide receivers to these differences, forcing them to adjust frequently, which can result in dropped passes.

Juice gives the team more than just a rocket for an arm and a threat on the ground, though. When Juice is in the game, there’s a different feeling in the air. From the fans chanting his name to the confidence the offense carries when he’s under center, Zook owes it to this team to play Williams.

The choice is clear. It shouldn’t take video analysis to make the decision.

Defense

Once again, the defense played well enough to win. It’s the same story as last weekend with Rutgers. Although the scoreboard showed ’31’ for Syracuse, 17 of those points were not the defense’s fault.

On one occasion, the defense rocked Syracuse quarterback Perry Patterson. They were rewarded with a Syracuse fumble recovery that Taj Smith ran with for a 41-yard score. Brasic’s other turnover resulted in another Syracuse touchdown. Take those two scores away and the game could have turned out completely different.

Gordon

When Zook came to Illinois, his job was to turn the program around and help fans look forward to football season, not overlook it. His job is far from complete, though. All the attention was on highly touted basketball recruit Eric Gordon when he and the basketball team appeared in the end zone after the first quarter.

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