The Fighting Illini football team ended a frustrating season Saturday with a 38-21 loss to Northwestern. While some fans wonder if the Illini will ever be winners again, Coach Ron Zook promises an end to the nightmare and the beginning of a new opportunity at Illinois.
The Illini showed some sparks of life against the Wildcats, but it was not enough to give us our first Big 10 win of this season. We moved the ball well, especially with the wind, by showing more of our diverse offense and keeping the young Northwestern defense guessing. We combined some good runs by Pierre Thomas and E. B. Halsey with drive-sustaining pass completions.
But we couldn't play a perfect enough game to outscore a Wildcat offense that was playing at peak efficiency against an inconsistent and outmanned Illini defense. Our offensive execution was much better than it had been against Purdue the previous week, and we had far few penalties and mental mistakes. However, it only takes one such mistake to ruin a possible scoring drive, and quarterback Tim Brasic's careless pass interception when the Illini were seemingly in line to score and put us back within 3 points of tieing the game midway through the third quarter ended our last realistic hope of an upset. With the strong wind in our faces for the fourth quarter, all the momentum from then on resided with the Wildcats.
As had been true throughout the preceding ten games, the Illini defense simply couldn't stop Northwestern's potent and highly deceptive offense. Picking up huge chunks of yardage seemingly at will, four-year quarterback starter Brett Basanez was near perfect in his passing and decision-making. While it appeared to some the Wildcats benefitted from favorable officiating decisions, they didn't need any help from the officials to defeat Illinois. The Illini will need to improve their game before they will appear to be on the positive end of subjective officiating.
Perhaps the most obvious sign of a lack of explosiveness and athleticism on the defense was the absense of recovered fumbles and interceptions throughout the season. It became clear time and again that our defenders were more concerned about not getting beat than creating fumbles or interceptions. They lacked the confidence necessary to slow the game down mentally so they could look for opportunites. Causing turnovers is essential, but we were happy just to tackle a player. Since other teams are trained to prevent turnovers, only an athletic defense can force turnovers.
As Illini fans, we can complain about our failings and spend the whole winter bitter about our weaknesses, or we can look at signs of a change for the better. Since bitterness at an extreme can blind one to any positives hidden in the muck, it is easy to imagine a future bereft of success. However, there are some positives we can take from this season in general and the Northwestern game specifically to build a better future.
For one thing, the Illini offense began to show potential for future success. Given the extreme youthfulness of the team, some progress was made along these lines. We were inconsistent at best this year, but we did demonstrate some of the possibilities for when we have the horses to run it efficiently. We need to upgrade some positions, but there is plenty of play-calling diversity there to get fans excited and help us win games.
Likewise, our defense made some improvement throughout the season. We cut down on our mental mistakes and began to play with the fire necessary to win in the future. Our defense was overmatched in all but our first two games, but it didn't give up. And some of their young players gained much experience that will serve them well in upcoming seasons. Granted, we need a significant upgrade of defensive talent, but all hope is not yet lost.
And strength and conditioning coach Lou Fernandez and his staff did a superb job of preparing the team for the season. We may have set some kind of record for fewest injuries in a season, and much of the credit for that goes to Fernandez. Most teams begin to suffer numerous injuries as their losses mount and the players lose focus and conditioning. But we were so well prepared through the long off-season training program that injuries were minimal. One can imagine next year our team being stronger and in even better condition now that they will have another full year to train under Fernandez' guidance.
Individually, there were also some good signs Saturday that can serve as stepping stones to next year:
1. Pierre Thomas got the chance to show his running ability because the game remained competitive through three quarters. Our offense is much more potent when a good running attack is blended with a wide open passing attack.
2. Charles Myles, until a month ago a non-playing member of the defensive line, played the whole way at right offensive tackle and showed the potential to be an athletic and powerful lineman. Myles has had precious little training, and yet he held his own Saturday. And he says he loves his new position.
3. Freshman wide receiver Derrick McPhearson, who couldn't even practice with the team early due to a broken leg, finally got a touchdown reception. This electric athlete will be significantly better next year because he will get the training he needs, but he will also be better because he can use his touchdown as a motivator to gain confidence and encourage future hard work.
4. Middle linebacker Brit Miller continued to improve. He showed some speed, intelligence and aggressiveness this year, and he appears to be on his way to an excellent career. It was exciting to see him break up a long pass against the Wildcats because he had the speed to stay with his man 20 yards down the field. This was a unique play for an Illini middle linebacker of recent vintage.
5. Kendrick Jones and Jason Davis had memorable games in their last Memorial Stadium appearance. These seniors, who were unable to make major contributions to the offense this year, never gave up on themselves or their coaches. This shows that Coach Zook did not ignore the needs of his upperclassmen just to give his own recruits more playing time, and this is the proper attitude for a leader of a major program like Illinois.
What does the future hold? First of all, many of the dominant players in the Big 10 Conference this year were seniors who will not face us next year. We will be a year older while some of our opponents will be rebuilding. This will help neutralize some of the advantage those opponents had over us this year. And secondly, Ron Zook is a tireless recruiter who appears more motivated than ever to recruit top athletes to upgrade the program.
Zook hopes to bring in several mid-term graduates, both from the high schools and junior colleges, to compete for playing time next spring. And he hopes to sign 25 more athletes to scholarships for enrollment in the fall of 2006. He already has commitments from some outstanding prospects, and he will not rest until he has brought in as many difference makers as possible. Many of these players will still be quite young and inexperienced next fall and will make occasional mistakes if given playing time. But they will also bring more speed, strength, explosiveness, tackling ability, and playmaking skill to the table. The competition alone will help the Illini team improve.
Yes, it was a season to forget for most of us. But we hope the Illini coaches and players remember it well enough to insist on making the future better. If they learn from their mistakes and continue to grow and develop, then this year's lessons will help prepare them for outstanding performances down the road.
And without doubt, Coach Zook will work tirelessly to upgrade the talent level to where we can compete with the best teams year after year. If he can do that, the 2005 season can serve as a bench mark to remind us never to fall this far again.
Go Illini!!! See you in 2006.