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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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…]

Who Had The Worse Weekend, the Chicago Bears or the Illinois Fighting Illini?

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By Paul Schmidt

For most Chicago area football fans, the weekend wasn’t a complete loss. For anyone who is a University of Illinois graduate and a Chicago Bears fan…let’s say you’ve had better weekends, and leave it at that.

During the awfulness that was the Bears’ game on Sunday, it spawned somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 tweets on Twitter about just how bad the Bears were, and the most proposed question was, “Who would win in a game of football, the Bears or the University of Illinois?”

I opined in response to one of these questions that it’s just a silly question, that of course the Bears would win.

It took a tweet from @bears_insider that made me really think about what had just happened: “Ah, but what if Juice Williams wasn’t playing for the Illini?”

It really says something about how bad the Bears looked that that actually made me think for just a moment.

This is why, despite the insanity that was the Illinois game (over 200 yards rushing given up to Purdue by Illinois’ now-101st ranked run defense, rotating three quarterbacks and simultaneously killing both Jacob Charest’s and Eddie McGee’s confidences), the Bears had the far worse weekend.

Jay Cutler cemented himself as an enigma this season, sort of a higher profile Rex Grossman — Each game’s outcome will be determined in the first few minutes of offensive game play, whether Good Jay or Evil Jay shows up.

But Cutler wasn’t the only problem, nor the biggest problem.

That would be Lovie Smith and the defense.

Lovie took control of the playcalling this season, in response to Bob Babich struggling with that aspect of being defensive coordinator. This was supposed to be a return to the glory days of  Lovie’s Cover 2 (or Tampa 2, if you prefer) defense, back when the Bears, in 2006, had a ball-hawking opportunistic defense that created points on their own.

If you remember the 2006 defense, you’ll remember just how dominant and dangerous they were. Of course, with three more years of age and games played under their belt, and largely the same unit on the field, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that, on Sunday, the unit looked lost, slow and basically underprepared.

Slow, I completely understand.  I felt this whole season came down to how well the defense was going to play, and the health of Brian Urlacher, Tommie Harris and Peanut Tillman. While Peanut has been healthy for the most part, Urlacher obviously is done for the season and Harris has been completely M. I. A. when he has played.

I cannot defend the defense looking lost and underprepared, however, and that blame falls right at Lovie Smith’s feet.  Since he took control of the defense back, they have been suspect at best.  The only especially good thing that has been said this season was early on the strength of the play of the front four — which was basically all attributed to Rod Marinelli, not Lovie. Motivation, it would seem, is not Lovie’s strong suit, as the defense was completely embarassed on Sunday for no apparent reason.

Lovie’s also been far too slow to get plays on the field, which is a problem given that that means the team is slow to line up in formation, which in turn means that not everyone is always set and in position for the start of the play.

This smacks of unpreparedness of the worst kind — This isn’t the team not listening to the coaches, or going through the motions. This is the head coach, Lovie Smith, in charge of calling the defensive plays because he wanted to be (not because he had to), not being prepared enough to get plays and formations on to the field quick enough for his team.

This is Lovie Smith not recognizing the offensive personnel on the field quick enough and being able to respond.

zook2This is Lovie Smith in over his head.

In Champaign, the heat is on Ron Zook and his coaching staff. It’s definitely reaching the boiling point, and he needs to produce wins now or face some dire consequences in the near future.

Still, after Sunday’s Bears’ game, I can’t help but think that Zook probably felt a little less pressure. Even if only for a day.

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.