Why the Illini Will Win More Games than Notre Dame

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You’re like, “ok Captain Obvious.”

Not so fast my friend, I was saying this in August too. I thought my local media friends would find that assertion crazy given all the BCS preseason hype Notre Dame was getting, and the fact that Illinois was getting zero votes in either poll.

But the truth is Notre Dame is 2-2, and very mediocre, while the Illini are this year’s Michigan State- a team that will finish with a much better record than they deserve. Like the ’10 Spartans, Illinois’ schedule sets up perfectly for a very fast start and a sweet record.

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

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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.

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Illinois Loses to Minnesota

So.

I suppose that headline really says it all, doesn’t it?

I mean…what more is there to say when a team that was 1-9, 0-6 in the Big Ten, and had lost to a 1-AA team, comes into your house and beats you.

Well, maybe there is one more thing to say:

We’re not going to a bowl game, folks. [Read more…]

Did Illinois Head Coach Ron Zook Blow The Ohio State Game?

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Is there any more activity over at fireronzook.com?

After Saturday’s “moral victory” loss against #2-ranked Ohio State, it definitely should be.

While the Illini were not expected to be close, and weren’t supposed to win the game, they were driving to tie late in the game, and had a chance to completely turn the college football world on its ear.

That’s when Zook gagged on his headset mic. [Read more…]

A Glimpse Into The Illini Future: Quarterback Jacob Charest

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By Paul Schmidt

While the Illini were falling to the Northwestern Wildcats, essentially ending their long shot run at a bowl bid, Illini fans did get an extended look at next year’s early leader in the starting quarterback race, Jacob Charest, the redshirt freshman out of Butler High School in Matthews, North Carolina.

Charest posted some modest numbers but, after being benched to start the second half, led two fourth quarter touchdown drives to make things interesting in their 21-16 loss to the Wildcats.

Charest was a little surprised at how easily things came in the fourth quarter, but knew that practice, in this case, definitely helped.

“(The two minute offense) actually wasn’t…it wasn’t as different as I thought it would be,” Charest said. “You know, in practice, that’s such a huge part of the end of practice.  Everyone goes 100 percent on that, so it’s kind of like a game situation.”

The start of the game, however, was a little different for Charest who thought things definitely paced differently.

“It was a little different,”  Charest said. “If nothing else it was a little bit quicker. It wasn’t too bad.”

It did seem that Charest started the game in a little bit of a groove, and that could have been due to the scripting of the first several plays of the game — Charest knew what was coming.  However, he believed that it was just a few errant throws that took his momentum away.

“The first few plays of the game are scripted, but we don’t necessarily stick to them. But we try to script them, yes,” Charest said. “I was in a rhythm early, but then I don’t really know what happened. I missed a few throws, and things kind of went from there.”

As for being benched heading into the third quarter, he did know that was coming, as he was told at halftime, but the coaches also let him know that he would most likely see more action as the game went on, so to not get his head out of the game.  Charest wisely used that as a learning experience, and it certainly translated into results, as he went 9-13 Charestpassing in the fourth quarter.

“It helped a little bit, I could kind of see the coverage from a different point of view than actually being on the field,” Charest said.  “I could see what the DBs were doing on the field without having to deal with the pressure of the pass rush. It didn’t make a huge difference though.”

The giant elephant in the room was certainly Charest’s interpretation of the last play of the game on offense, and whether or not it was a reception for Jarred Fayson, or an interception for Sherrick McManus.

“Yeah, Jarrod caught it, and the other guy came up with it somehow, but I thought that Fayson caught it 100 percent, not that it was an interception,” Charest said. “We all really didn’t think that, because we were heading up to the line getting ready for the next play. It seems like nobody thought it was a pick except for the referee. Well, when we saw the call when we were all running over to the line, and we were just stunned.”

Still, it is a good sign for Illinois fans that Charest was exhibiting great confidence on the field, and with some young offensive skill players he could cement a solid offensive future. The best sign from Charest after the game? His response to the question of what he was thinking about heading on to the field prior to their Illini’s last drive of the game.

“I thought 100 percent we were going to go down and score when we got the ball back,” Charest said.

Will Illinois Dismiss Ron Zook?

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By Paul M. Banks and Paul Schmidt

Read on as our two resident Illini experts  discuss the tenure of Ron Zook and speculate on his and the University’s next move.

(PBanks) It’s eerie how similar the Illinois tenure of Ron Zook is following the exact same story arc as another Ron, the man who preceded him, Ron Turner. Zook got off to a very rough start in Champaign, going 4-19 his first two seasons. Turner had an almost identically awful beginning, with a record of 3-19 his first two seasons on the job. But of course, the Illinois community was patient, letting the coach build his program with his players, and in the third year of their tenures, both Rons broke through with a bowl appearance.

Both Turner and Zook were able to bring Illinois into a BCS game (both got thoroughly destroyed in those New Year’s Day bowl games) then both failed miserably in the seasons following their BCS bowl appearance. Expectations were sky high following Turner’s postseason appearances in ’99 and ’01, and in both ’00 and ’02, he finished below .500. But here’s where it gets weird.

In the season following the BCS, Turner went 5-7, and in the year after that finished 1-11, with the only win being over the FCS’ Illinois State. Zook went 5-7 last year, after the Rose Bowl, and this year the souls of Illination have been crushed even further as the team has one win halfway through the year. And again it was over ISU in the 2nd game of the season. Does lightning indeed strike twice? Is that passage the most depressing thing you’ve read in quite some time?

(PSchmidt) It depresses me, it does, but stop it man!  You’re really freaking me out!  Seriously, I’ve got goose bumps!! Well…not really…but it’s warm in here.  You know.

I can’t even believe what I’m about to type:  I miss Ron Turner.  I do.  He took us to two bowl games with worse recruiting classes.  There was SOME talent there, but not near the talent we have right now.  And I, quite frankly, would much rather have a team with less talent overachieve every once in a while, than have a team that has all the talent in the world have one good season and then underachieve every other season.

On the flip side, is it possible that this is all just the Curse of Rashard Mendenhall?  He “burned the house down,” so to speak, on his way out the door. He helped convince his brother to transfer. He basically said he’d never come back to the University as long as Zook was the head coach.  Is this all part of that punishment??

(PMB) Turner had one more season, in which he went a similarly awful 3-8, and Illinois cut him with two years left on his contract. But what about the financials here? Are there escape clauses for the program in Zook’s contract? Would the boosters step in to pay the difference? I know Ron Guenther is putting off retirement to deal with this situation, where do we go from here?
 
(PS) As far as I know, and I’ve done some research on the matter, there is NOT a buyout in Zook’s contract.  Which sounds insane.  But might actually be true.  Typically Illinois won’t buy out coaches’ contracts anyway, so maybe that’s a moot point.

The economy is certainly going to play a part here, as the state has absolutely no money to pay the balance of Zook’s contract. We broke as a joke, so to speak.  I have a solution for everyone involved, but I think that I’m going to make you all wait until later in the story here…

(PMB) Did you hear that? That’s the sound of Arrelious Benn’s NFL Draft stock falling, much like Vontae Davis’ stock dropped last year. Is it the coaching staff’s fault? It’s interesting that the most valuable player BY FAR during the Zooker’s tenure was Rashard Mendenhall, a Turner recruit. He certainly could recruit running backs really well, he just couldn’t recruit any other position. Zook has certainly lived up to his reputation in Champaign “great recruiter, bad coach.” At Florida, he recruited 20/22 starters that won a national title…coached by someone else of course. benn2Clearly, X and O are two letters not in his alphabet.
 
(PS) Very true.  While I agree that Benn’s draft stock may be dropping, Vontae Davis’ stock dropping wasn’t entirely the coaching staff’s fault.  Davis sleepwalked through the 2008 season; then, there were character questions with the fictional marijuana incident and teams’ inability to separate Vontae from his brother Vernon. While he did plummet (I had seen projections indicating he could be the top pick in the draft), it wasn’t entirely Zook’s fault.

As for Regis Benn, I think that the same theory that applies to Oklahoma State’s Dez Bryant applies to Benn — Mel Kiper said, shortly after the Bryant incident that we’ve seen his body of work, and that even if he doesn’t play another college football down, his draft stock won’t fall. 

The same is true for Benn.  This season, the teams’ struggles are not his fault. The fact the quarterbacks’ can’t get him the ball is not his fault, either. Everyone knows what kind of player he is, what kind of physical specimen he is. None of that has changed with this season, and I would still be shocked if he wasn’t picked in the top 15 of the draft.

(PMB) What was your least favorite coaching decision of the Zook era? Mine was 2006, versus Indiana, and the day before Basketball Judas Eric Gordon de-committed and signed with the Hoosiers. The Illini decided to go for 2 after a touchdown early in the game with the score tied, for some illogical reason. They didn’t get it and lost the game by one. Here’s the kicker. After the game, Zook said in the press conference after the game that “it didn’t matter that much”. There are no words for that.
 
(PS) I’m going with this season against Penn State, when Zook was talking about the hurry-up offense. The only time we effectively moved the ball against the Nittany Lions was when we were in the hurry-up, no-huddle offense. We had to keep doing it. But Zook basically dismissed that, saying, “Hey, I told the coaches that we need to get back to what we’re doing, and take our time, run the football some.”  Really Ron?  Somehow, shockingly…Penn State blew us out of the water in the second half.  Funny how that happened.

(PMB) Any ideas on possible replacements? Bring back Mike Locksley? J/K ha ha! Certainly Mike Schultz will never work in this town again.

(PS) OK…here’s my solution to the Ron Zook contract problem.  I don’t think that Zook can possibly get another head coaching job anywhere in the NCAA.  It just doesn’t make sense, and no AD that has seen what he’s done at Illinois would ever hire him to head a program ever again.  But…why wouldn’t a program sign him on to be the Offensive Coordinator, and put him in charge of the entire recruiting program??

Well…why not do that at Illinois? Zook would have to swallow an immense amount of pride to take the demotion, but it would give him the best of both possible worlds, keeping him in charge of the things he’s good at — offense and recruiting — without keeping the pressure of motivating the whole program on him.

Plus, it ends the speculation of what to do about Zook’s contract…we’re pretty much stuck with it, on the hook for it either way, so why not USE him?  And use him in the manner that suits him best?  I think that it really is the only possible answer for everyone, but especially Guenther and Zook, if only they can swallow their pride and accept that.

Closing the Book of Isaiah (Williams)

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By Paul Schmidt

I’m going to attempt to walk that fine line of blasphemy today and tell everyone a little bit about the prophet Isaiah.  Sunday School is now in session.

Isaiah was a prophet from the 8th Century BC, in both Judaism and in Christianity — For the sake of my own sanity, we’re just going to be dealing with the Christian/Catholic side of things today, mainly because I really wouldn’t know enough about Judaism to write anything intelligent.  In Christianity, Isaiah is also considered a saint. One of the more important parts of Isaiah’s message was, when the people of Israel had turned their back on God, “This land will be completely laid waste and plundered.”  Heavy stuff.

The Book of Isaiah is a book of the Bible that was traditionally viewed as being written by Isaiah himself. He is the central character (so to speak) in this book.  Interestingly, there is now a very widely accepted critical hypothesis that claims most, if not all of the Book of Isaiah was actually written by one or more different authors at a much later date. Tradition ascribes it to Isaiah, modern scholars to two or three other authors. Let’s absorb all that for a moment and flash forward 2800 years, to the sleepy little hamlet of Champaign, Illinois, and their quarterback Juice Williams.

Juice’s first name is actually…wait for it…Isaiah.  Spelled the same and everything. No one ever calls him Isaiah, I know, but it’s still his first name.

I think that it’s safe to say, for his pleasant demeanor, friendly personality and all-around approachability, Juice was being considered for sainthood in Champaign.

The football team, the offense in particular, was certainly going to play football with the book according to Juice.  The offense was certainly focus as the team marched out in 2009.  And when the offense came out of the gates struggling this season, the blame (from fans in particular) was laid at young Isaiah’s feet.  Anyone intelligent really zook_thinking1knows that there’s other authors to that offensive playbook– Namely offensive coordinator Mike Schultz and even head coach Ron Zook himself.

The book Juice should be credited with writing, all on his own, was the record book: breaking  total offense records at three stadiums last season; and just last week he became Illinois’ all-time career total offense leader.

At this point, after we have stuck with Juice for as long as we have, we’re looking at a season laid completely to waste. I think I can also safely say that anyone watching last week’s stinkbomb against Penn State could use the word “plundered” in describing the Nittany Lion offensive line versus the Illini defense.

Isaiah or “Juice” certainly could have been considered the prophet, at regarding Big Ten football. He was easily the most experienced and knowledgable quarterback returning to the Big Ten this season, entering his fourth year as a starter.

Except, not so much.

Today, head coach Ron Zook benched Williams for backup Eddie McGee, putting Juice in the odd position of holding many major Illinois records, having 3-plus years of starting experience, yet relegated to the role of clipboard holder.

This is where the similarities between the prophet Isaiah and Isaiah Williams, unfortunately end.  This isn’t about a kid saving a program from the depths and returning them to the promised land any more.  It’s about a coaching staff and, in particular, a head coach frantically trying to turn a season around in an effort to save their jobs.

Mike Schultz almost certainly will be a one-and-done coach.  I cannot envision any scenario where he is allowed to come back and call plays for the offense next season.  Ron Zook, however, is another matter.

Zook, with an amazing amount of talent coming back and a predominance of optimistic feeling surrounding  that the team, signed a one-year extension to his contract, keeping him contractually obligated to the Illini until 2014 (to the tune of $1.5 million per season). This off-season it looked like Juice and Zook would either ride the tide of victory or sink together.  They would be inextricably linked, especially since Juice was Zook’s first recruit.

ill-osuNow, it appears Zook is not only willing to chuck the under-performing QB under the bus for all of his team’s problems, and use it as a last ditch effort to save his job. Hopefully, it will have the opposite effect. By benching Juice, Zook is essentially admitting that he was either unable to coach Juice (a blue chip recruit out of high school) into the star he should have been, or that their talent evaluation of him was initially wrong.

It doesn’t really matter which part of that statement is correct. If either one is, it doesn’t bode well for the Eddie McGee era — especially given that McGee is so similar to Juice to begin with.

One thing can be said for certain — This effectively signals the end of the 2009 football season for the Illini, and that the rebuilding for next year has begun. But never forget that 90 percent of college football is recruiting. If you were a high-profile recruit, would you come to Champaign to play for a coach that historically hasn’t gotten the most out of his team’s talent? Or maximized the talents each player possesses?

There’s been no comment from Juice, as of yet. There really isn’t much he can say, because he would tell you that he hasn’t been playing well.

Still, you can’t help but feel this was supposed to end differently.  Anyone who saw Juice diving over center on fourth down one dreary Columbus night in November 2007, gaining that first down after convincing his coach to believe in him, to go for it with him…you can’t help but feel a little misled.  A little betrayed.

And more than anything?  Just really, really disappointed.