Stop me if you have heard this before. The Fighting Illini is loaded at the wide receiver position and should have no problem putting points on the board this season. This was the main topic that was being discussed before the current Illinois football season began. Now three games into the season, Illini Nation is still looking for this potent offense, which resembles a wounded duck rather than an air attack. So, what's the problem? Personally, I see the problem being several factors.
First there's the coach. When Ron Zook was hired before the 2005 season, the Illini were looking for a change as the Ron Turner era came to an end in Champaign. Zook had been fired from Florida after 3 seasons in which he compiled a 23-14 record and led the Gators to bowl games in each of those 3 seasons. The knock on Zook coming out of Gainesville was that he was a great recruiter, but not that good of a coach. Could it be that the folks down there were right all along? Zook's recruiting resume spoke volumes, as he continually brought good talent down to Florida. Part of the credit for the Gators' national title last season could be attributed to Zook in bringing the talent to the school as well, although he didn't actually coach the players to that title. Since being at Illinois, Zook has compiled a 19-32 record through Saturday, a 30-0 loss to Ohio State (more on that game later). Some of that record can be blamed on Turner and the shape he left the program when he was fired after the 2004 season, but with Zook's reputation, people figured that better days were ahead on the horizon. And Zook has done his part in bringing talent to Illinois as well, with the last 3 recruiting classes garnering national attention. So, with talent like that, one would think that the Illini would have had multiple bowl opportunities, right? Wrong! The Rose Bowl in 2007 had been the team's only post-season appearance, which is unacceptable on many levels. Sometimes the coaching staff in general can be a culprit, and the departure of Mike Locksley to New Mexico late last season created an opening at the offensive coordinator position. All Locksley did was land some of the best talent from the Washington D.C. area and lure them to Champaign. Guys like Arrelious Benn, Will Davis and others worked out pretty well, while guys like Derrick McPhearson and others from the same area did not. When Zook was hired at Illinois, he brought 3 assistants with him. Two of those (Larry Fedora and Joe Wickline) took other jobs within a week after being hired, leaving Dan Disch as the only person heading north with Zook Could these other two gentlemen have known something? Did they want to get out from under the Zook umbrella? Nobody will know for sure unless they are actually asked, but it does lead one to believe that they sensed something ahead of time and didn't want to make a mistake with coming to a place that they didn't want to. As the four and five-star recruits continue to gather in Champaign, the program doesn't seem to be moving in the right direction. Which leads me to the players.
Are the players too over-hyped? The list can be endless of talent that Zook has brought to Illinois over the past few seasons. Juice Williams, Arrelious Benn, Rashard Mendenhall, Reggie Ellis and others come to mind right off the top, but sometimes the execution of players' talent can be the difference between good and great. Williams was supposed to ease into his senior season with an arsenal of weapons on offense that would generate a points explosion on the scoreboard. After 3 games, the Illini have a grand total of 54 points, only 9 of those that have been oriented by Juice. In the game where the Illini scored 45 points, Eddie McGee led the offense after Williams strained his quad on the opening play from scrimmage. Such ineptness has clamored that it might be time for a change at quarterback. After Saturday's 30-0 pasting at the hands of Ohio State in Columbus, the groans grew even louder. Listen to any talk show in the area and you kinds of get the idea that Illini Nation is not a happy bunch right now. Benn, who had only managed to catch one pass in the first two games, caught 4 against the Buckeyes, nowhere near the amount that he should be getting on a per-game basis. So is Juice the problem? Is he not looking downfield like he should? New offensive coordinator Mike Schultz promised that the offense wouldn't change when he was hired, but so far this season it appears that it has taken an extended vacation with Williams at the helm. Other players that were either recruited or transferred in have played into this in a way. Senior wide receiver Jeff Cumberland, who is from Columbus, Ohio, switched from tight end and when he committed to Illinois, people thought we had stolen one away from the Buckeyes in their own back yard. Could it be that Ohio State coach Jim Tressel knew what he was getting with Cumberland and didn't make that hard of a push to get him? Again, hard to tell, but you have to think somewhat along those lines to make sense of it. The same thought process applies to Jarred Fayson, who transferred from Florida at the beginning of last season. For Florida to not want Fayson anymore, there must have been something that was not right. After watching Fayson the first few games this year, his first live action since arriving in Champaign, we may be finding out what that reason is. He has dropped several passes, some of them that easily could have been caught. The continuation of mistakes and penalties haven't made this season any more enjoyable, but maybe it is time for a change to McGee.
Is Illinois a school with a football problem? You hear it every day that the Big Ten is comprised of the Big 3 and Little 8 year after year, with the 3 being Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State, in no particular order. Sure, other teams sneak into that top tier every once in a while, but when you think Big Ten football, those first three schools come to mind first. Illinois has been mediocre in football for many years, and not since the John Mackovic era has the Illini regularly been bowling. That is nearly 20 years for those that are keeping count, and putting up with Lou Tepper, Ron Turner and now Ron Zook with middle-or-the-road results, one wonders if it time for another change? Could it be the athletic director, Ron Guenther? Priding himself as a football guy, Guenther has been in charge for the last 3 hires, so if he claims to know football backwards and forwards, maybe he should start with naming a coach that will take Illinois to the next level. The way the program is headed, that won't happen for quite some time.
This week, the Illini return to Memorial Stadium to entertain Penn State (2:30 pm, ABC), who was an upset victim to Iowa last Saturday 21-10 in Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions, who are coached by legendary coach Joe Paterno, are perennially one of the top teams in the Big Ten, and this loss notwithstanding, still figure to give the Illini a handful on Saturday. Led by dual threat quarterback Darryl Clark, Penn State enters play at 3-1 overall and 0-1 in the conference standings. The Nittany Lions also return running back Evan Royster, which means that the Illini will need to be on their toes on both sides of the ball in order to pull off the upset at home. Given the rocky start to the season, that is a tall order at this point. But, who knows?