Loss to Broncos a disaster on, off field

 

 

By Wes Anderson

What was expected to be a game of miles turned into a game of inches, and none of them went Illinois’ way. After a shocking upset at the hands of Western Michigan, one of the most disappointing losses of Ron Zook’s tenure, last year’s Rose Bowl appearance seems eons away. Suddenly, a team that won nine games a year ago is in danger of finishing with a losing record.

Co-defensive coordinator Dan Disch was blunt when asked to sum up what happened Saturday.

“It was one of the worst (games) I’ve been associated with,” a somber Disch said. “We’re going to have to get over it, obviously, but it’s hard.”

As they had in the past, before last season appeared to signal a turnaround, the coaching staff returned to the rhetoric of a program that still has a long way to go before competing consistently on a national level.

“There’s great teams out there who play with a chip on their shoulder, they got goals, and they go out and fulfill them. We’re not to that point yet,” Disch said.

The game’s venue was as bizarre as the result. A low turnout made Ford Field, home of the NFL’s Detroit Lions, a cavernous site for the relatively unheralded nonconference matchup. Only a few thousand of each school’s fans made the trip to Detroit, Mich. – a six-hour trip from Champaign and a two-hour drive from the Broncos’ home of Kalamazoo, Mich.

The bulk of fans in attendance were at the 50-yard line on either side of the field, while the end zones had only scattered groups of fans, except for the Broncos’ student section and band. The upper decks were completely empty and were not staffed by stadium personnel.

In all, the reported attendance was a paltry 12,865, roughly one-fifth the crowd Memorial Stadium usually brings in, and a far cry from the 100,000-plus fans at Michigan and Penn State.

Disch said the quiet crowd should not have factored into the Illini’s lackluster performance.

“We could play them naked in a gymnasium; if you’re a competitor, I don’t think it matters,” Disch said.

Regardless of the cause, the upset has made the Illinois’ hopes of a 13th game very ominous.

“(The loss) cost us a lot. We’re not even bowl eligible yet,” wide receiver Arrelious Benn said.

And from here, even earning a berth becomes a difficult task. Penn State’s loss to Iowa on Saturday knocked the Nittany Lions out of the national title picture, which will crowd the Big Ten-affiliated bowls more than expected.

Illinois closes out the season with a home game against Ohio State and a trip to Northwestern and may need to win both games to play in a bowl. Last year Northwestern was also 5-5 with two games remaining, and went 1-1 to close out the season, including a season-ending loss to the Illini.

Despite earning bowl eligibility, the Wildcats did not receive a postseason bid.

Perhaps conscious of these dire circumstances, Zook put the challenge on his veterans, particularly those who have been at Illinois for his first four years in Champaign.

“These guys have got to decide what they want too,” Zook said. “I told the seniors, ‘You guys are going to determine what type of legacy that you leave here.'”

Senior linebacker Brit Miller will play his final home game next week against the Buckeyes, and said the Illini can finish on a high note in what has been a bafflingly inconsistent season.

“If you don’t think we can beat Ohio State, then it’s not (looking good), but I think we can beat them,” Miller said. “I don’t think we’ve lost two games in a row, have we? I don’t think so. I’ll go with that.”