Questioning Ron Zook’s Very Questionable Play-Calls, Rationale


erin andrews and ron zook

Fans of the Florida Gators will understand this piece.

Actually non college football fans will probably understand it even.

It feels like we publish this column every season. Last year, we did the “Did Ron Zook’s play-calling cost Illinois a win?” story after the Illini had a chance to upset then #2 Ohio State at home in the Big Ten conference opener. Go here to brush up on that.

And then there’s the 2006 loss to the Indiana Hoosiers, in which Zook inexplicably went for 2-pt conversions not once, but twice (both attempts failed) with the game tied early in the second quarter of what ended up being a 1-pt loss. The Zooker told the media afterward that the decisions didn’t matter.

Even though it was a ONE point loss (32-31), but yeah…

..the Zook terrible decision making season got started earlier in 2011. This time it happened in the pre-conference, and the questionable play-calls didn’t actually cost them a victory, as the Illini held on to beat Western Michigan 23-20.

Here’s the first situation:

Illini up 23-20 with 1:12 to play and the ball on their opponents’ 32 yard line, facing 4th and 4. There’s no wind to speak of that would factor into the decision of whether or not to attempt a field goal. It’s a 49 yard attempt for Derek Dimke, one of the best placekickers in the nation. Dimke is perfect this season, riding a streak of 10 consecutive successful field goal attempts, and also holds all the major career place-kicking records in school history.

An extra three points here, forces your opponent to drive for a touchdown to win, instead of just needing a field goal to force overtime. Yet Zook decides to try and run for the first down instead of kicking the FG.

Que? What? Huh? Here’s Zook’s explanation:

“A field goal really would not have done us any good. It puts you up six, but then they have to score a touchdown and they can still go back there and beat you. If you take time off the clock and if you punt the football, it maybe gives you ten yards. It depends on where the punt goes, First of all, I felt like we had a pretty good chance of getting the first down and then the game would have been over. We made a decision and it worked out.”

I’ll let you re-cover from the ice cream headache you certainly now have from reading Zook’s logic in the first two sentences. What??!!  Okay, are you still with me?

I’m with him on the not punting idea, and it’s great to have faith in your running game, but what does this decision say about what he believes his kicker can do? Despite the PK’s sterling record as the possibly the greatest in school history (yes even better than Neil Rackers)?

And his decision to go for it, rationalized by the fact it would take more time off the clock, took a grand total of seven seconds away. Yes, WMU took over with 1:05 left, plenty of time to get into field goal range. The Illini 4th down running play was at 1:12.

And that fact makes his “I made the right call because we won” statement look foolish. Even though they’re still 4-0, the decision still looks poor no matter how you slice it.


Moving on to another situation, Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase does run the ball a lot, so I understand the genuine concern that he could get injured later. Henceforth the need to give his back-up, true freshman Reilly O’Toole, plenty of reps in case something happens.

But to do it in such a close game? And to do it by switching consecutive plays back and forth? Instead of every other series? Huh?

“I told the tv people, we had a plan, Reilly’s going to get in there. He’s going to play more and more, and there was a point I said put him in there…I didn’t know it was going to be close, when you talk about personnel and guys playing, you can’t make it (the decision) game time. Or during the game, because there’s too many other things that are affecting your thoughts. We talked about this at Rantoul. ”

Okay, so my main takeaways from that quote are 1.) multi-tasking doesn’t happen or won’t happen on gameday, there’s too much to think about to consider your position switches on the fly 2.) Week four substitutions are decided on more than a month ahead of time in training camp?

My head hurts. There’s now way on Earth he really meant this statement. It must have just been a mistatement. The rationale sounds a million times worse than the decision.

Zook also made an “interesting” analogy between this win and one from four years ago which actually doesn’t analogize at all.

“In the Rose Bowl year, Ball State did the exact same thing to us, and we learned from it,” Zook said postgame.

I vehemently disagree with that assertion. The Illini won that 2007 game Zook is referring to 28-17, and Illinois pulled away much earlier in the 4th quarter that day, scoring the game’s final points with 11 minutes to go. I see where he’s coming from in analogizing a tougher-than-expected-contest from an underdog MAC foe, but… your opponent the ball with over a minute to go and just a three point deficit really isn’t all that similar to having a two possession lead for the final 11 minutes.

Paul M. Banks is CEO of The Sports, an official Google News site that generates millions of unique visitors. He’s also a regular contributor to Chicago Now, Walter, Yardbarker, and Fox Sports

He does regular weekly radio spots in Chicago and Cleveland and has appeared on live shows all across the world from Houston to New Zealand. The President of the United States follows him on Twitter (@Paul_M_BanksTSB) You should too.


  1. What is this man thinking Zooker needs a ride back south!!!!!!!!

  2. whew

    …I’ll tell you one thing, the South does not want this guy back, that’s for sure!

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