Four in a row: Offense flops in loss to IU

Bad just keeps getting worse for the Illinois football team.

After dropping their first three conference games of the year, the Illini hit the road for a battle of Big Ten bottom feeders on Saturday in Bloomington, Ind., where they fell 27-14 to the Indiana Hoosiers.

Illinois now stands as the only winless team in the Big Ten at 0-4 and falls to 1-5 overall.

“I’m speechless,” receiver A.J. Jenkins said. “We work hard every day in practice during the week, and right now I don’t have any answers for the performance we’re putting out there.

“I don’t know what’s going on.”

The game got off to a sluggish start on both sides. Hoosiers kicker Nick Freeland missed a pair of field goals inside 40 yards on Indiana’s first two possessions, and the game was scoreless through a quarter. The Illini offense finally seemed to be moving down the field early in the second quarter, as a 20-yard reception by Jenkins from last-minute starting quarterback Juice Williams put the Illini at the Indiana 33-yard line.

But after the play, Jenkins put his hand to his lips, calling for silence from the Indiana student section as he flipped the ball to the official. Jenkins received a 15-yard penalty for the pantomime, and the Illini drive was over in three plays.

“I’m kind of known for not thinking too smart,” Jenkins said. “I was on the bike and the fans kept telling me to pedal faster, so I said, ‘All right, I’ve got something for you.’

Jenkins proceeded to score on the next drive on a 30-yard reception that put Illinois ahead 7-3, but the unsportsmanlike conduct call seemed to be a precursor for the Illini rather than an aberration.

The Illini’s only lead of the game was erased when the Hoosiers scored 10 points in the last minute of the first half. Indiana quarterback Ben Chappell connected with Demarlo Belcher on a 29-yard touchdown pass with 55 seconds left, and after a three-and-out by the Illinois offense, Freeland connected on a field goal on the last play of the half.

Still trailing 13-7 with less than a minute remaining in the third quarter, the Illini had the ball at the Indiana 6-yard line. But a Williams fumble was recovered by Indiana cornerback Ray Fisher, abruptly halting another Illini drive.

“I think we had the momentum,” said Jenkins, who had four catches for 77 yards and a score. “I think we kind of needed that extra push for the defense.”

But Indiana’s passing game mixed with its version of the wildcat formation bothered the Illini defense all night, as the Hoosiers racked up 482 yards of total offense. Chappell was 23 of 38 for 333 yards and threw for two touchdowns without an interception.

“We had a really good balance in what we were doing offensively,” Indiana head coach Bill Lynch said. “Everyone did their part. I think that’s why a great team wins.”

The Hoosiers (4-3, 1-2) found the end zone twice just more than two minutes apart early in the fourth quarter, with another Williams fumble setting up the second score. Williams completed 22 of 37 passes for 258 yards and two touchdowns but had the two costly fumbles.

Down 27-7, the Illini faced a steep uphill battle in the final 10 minutes of the game, and all they could muster before time expired was a 3-yard Jeff Cumberland touchdown reception.

“It’s kind of funny, we get down in the red zone, and it’s like there’s a big, invisible wall down there,” Illini head coach Ron Zook said. “We do things uncharacteristic in a lot of instances and things happen, and that’s what we’ve got to fight our way out of.

“College football has pressure situations, and that’s the way it is. And they’ve got to handle it. It’s part of the game, and if they can’t, then we’ve got to change to get the right guys in there.”

Fixing those problems, though, may not be as difficult if the Illini could put their finger on what is going wrong. But those issues seem to elude a team that consistently speaks of quality play in practice but comes out stale on Saturdays.

“It’s tough on everybody involved to be honest with you,” defensive coordinator Dan Disch said.

“We had something go wrong and then it kind of snowballed. I don’t know the answer yet to fixing it.”