Film sessions can stir up the boiling frustration in the Illinois football locker room. The latest painful rerun epitomizes the program’s failures in only three minutes.
Senior quarterback Reilly O’Toole and the Fighting Illini were driving against Wisconsin on Oct. 11, with the score tied 14-14 late in the first half, when they faced a fourth-and-2 at the Badgers’ 36-yard line. The film shows running back Josh Ferguson getting stuffed, the Badgers taking over and, two plays and 28 seconds later, scoring a touchdown. Two minutes later, Wisconsin is kicking a field goal and jogging into the locker room up by 10.
It was another hard-to-watch moment for Illinois, winners of one Big Ten game in the past three seasons entering their Saturday homecoming game against the Gophers.
Illini players and coaches have spent almost two weeks analyzing this set of plays and others like it, hoping to solve some of the program’s many problems.
“When you watch the film, it’s one play here or there that really hurts us,” O’Toole said. “If we would have gotten that first down, that would have changed the whole game. We need a play like that here and there to get us over the hump. We’ve been pretty inconsistent from an offensive standpoint of getting anything going.”
It’s a familiar story for a team producing its seventh rocky season since its appearance in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 2008. Starting quarterback Wes Lunt broke his left leg in the first week of October against Purdue, and the following week, assistant coach Ryan Cubit was arrested for drunken driving hours after the Wisconsin loss. Third-year coach Tim Beckman is 1-18 in conference play.
“We haven’t struck that winning note yet the way we want to in conference,” Beckman said. “But we all know we’ve got five football games left and we’re not 0-7, we’re 3-4. And we understand the things that we’ve done to win and we understand each and every game, to us, is a winnable football game.”
The bye week arrived at a good time for Illinois, allowing for an extra week to self-evaluate. Beckman is focusing his team on executing plays in pressure situations.
“The game of football is about winning those plays,” Beckman said. “You gotta win every play, I understand that. But there are going to be those times in the football game that you’ve gotta make a play, and if you don’t make that play and the other team makes it, you’re going to lose the football game.”
Freshman wide receiver Mike Dudek had an education on these moments against Wisconsin. He said the failed fourth-down play was the turning point, and the letdown carried over as the Badgers added 14 more unanswered points for a 38-14 lead early in the fourth quarter.
The Illini couldn’t get back into that game mainly because they couldn’t tackle. Wisconsin shredded their defense for 401 rushing yards, and it won’t get any easier for them Saturday with the Gophers’ David Cobb and his 144.7-yard average coming to Memorial Stadium. The tendency to give up big plays plagues the Big Ten’s worst defense. The Illini rank last by a big margin in total defense (484.6 yards per game allowed) and rush defense (271.1 allowed, over 70 more than 13th-place Maryland).
Illinois runs a much different offense than the Gophers, relying heavily on its passing game. O’Toole and Aaron Bailey will share the snaps, with O’Toole’s arm and Bailey’s feet mixing things up. Gophers coach Jerry Kill is preparing for two quarterbacks coming off a bye week — a big challenge for the Gophers’ defense, he said.
Illinois will take any advantage it can get if it means a Big Ten victory for its homecoming Saturday.
“I don’t know how it’s been in the past, but it’s tough in the locker room when you lose games,” Dudek said. “You hear it all around, the negativity about the team. … The little things separate us from the great team we can be. If we do that, we’ll start to turn the corner and be competitive in the Big Ten again.”