Illinois football: Self-inflicted wounds will haunt Illini, who have more challenges ahead
You can’t say Illinois didn’t have its chances.
In a span of 2 weeks, the Illini went from the penthouse to the outhouse. Back-to-back home losses not only put a screeching halt to the early-season momentum coach Bret Bielema’s team accrued, but also sent their B1G West Division title hopes up, up and away in the Champaign wind.
Penalties and missed opportunities were the culprits in Saturday’s 31-24 loss to Purdue. Twelve penalties for 121 yards are hard to overcome. Especially in this league. Many were costly pass interference calls.
Yes, the officiating was sketchy. All day long. For both sides. A Devon Witherspoon interception was taken away by a questionable (at best) PI call. Purdue cashed in on a Charlie Jones TD on the following play. The Illini faithful let the striped shirts hear it.
Instead of leading 14-7 or even adding to it, Illinois went to the half tied. Momentum shifted toward the Boilermakers.
Even with the struggles of the officials, Illinois still had plenty of opportunities.
Give OC Barry Lunney Jr. credit. He took his share of shots. Arguably his best call of the day included a little razzle dazzle. Flea-flicker action had tight end Michael Marchese open deep. The sure TD went through his hands and led to an Illini punt. It would’ve put the home team up 2 scores. Didn’t happen.
Yes, Lunney was conservative at times. For the 2nd straight week, wind and cold temps were a factor. He had to pick and choose his spots to attack. And he did.
Illinois punted 3 times and threw a pick in the 2nd half. Lunney’s offense couldn’t sustain drives when it needed to the most. Purdue held star running back Chase Brown in check. Brown finished with 98 yards on 23 carries, the first time he didn’t reach the century mark all year.
His longest run of the day — 25 yards — was called back on a holding call. Another missed chance. And it came when the Illini were driving for an answering score after falling behind 28-21.
Chinks in the defensive armor
With the missed opportunities on offense, I’d be remiss not to mention the fact the Illini defense surrendered a season-high in points.
Purdue was efficient offensively. Not a lot of big plays, but Aidan O’Connell threw for 237 yards and 3 TDs. Devin Mockobee ran for 106 yards and a score. The Illini hadn’t been bludgeoned like that all year.
Illinois had been flagged only 4 times for pass interference all season coming in. Saturday, they were called on 5 occasions. Tight officiating, yes. Still, costly mistakes.
Eight Boilermakers caught at least 1 pass. Tight end Payne Durham had 7 catches for 70 yards and a pair of scores. O’Connell hung tough in the pocket and delivered a strike to Durham for the go-ahead score in the 4th quarter. Illini DB Sydney Brown blitzed on the play and buried O’Connell. But he didn’t flinch and got the throw off.
The game was chippy. Tempers flared on several occasions. Lack of discipline cost the Illinois defense on several occasions. Jer’Zhan Newton committed a crucial roughing the passer penalty on the Illinois sideline in the 2nd half to extend a Boilermakers’ drive. Purdue applied pressure. Illinois didn’t handle the adversity well.
Purdue now has 15 outright wins as underdogs since 2017. Kudos to Jeff Brohm’s team for stepping up in the moment.
Critics will say Illinois had it coming. The Illini hadn’t played anyone. They were feasting on cupcakes and their time would come.
Hard to argue after the past weeks’ results. Folks knew the Illini weren’t world beaters. But with this defense and the nation’s leading rusher in Brown, they should’ve been better. Especially at home.
You can’t point fingers at the weather, officials, etc. You have to look in the mirror. And the reflection is humbling. For 2 consecutive weeks, Illinois took a 7-0 lead at home as a favorite. And twice it gave it back. Too many empty offensive possessions. Missed opportunities. Too many penalties. Inopportune turnovers.
Maybe the 7-1 start was fool’s gold. Perhaps the early-season good fortune would catch up with the Illini.
It seems it did.
Where does Bielema’s team turn now? Although they sit 4-3 in the league, unless they pull a shocker in the Big House next week, a trip to Indy isn’t happening.
Disappointing? Yes. Season-ending? Heck no.
When asked afterward where his team turns, Bielema was point blank. They can’t control the race at this point. Only thing to do is to get back to playing sound, fundamental football.
#illini Bret Bielema: Race isn't done but the only thing we can focus on now is Illinois football being good at being Illinois football.
— Jeremy Werner (@JWerner247) November 12, 2022
Still plenty to play for
With its division hopes looking slim, Illinois is far from finished. A trip to Ann Arbor awaits. No doubt it’ll be a challenge. But also a prime opportunity for the Illini to punch back.
To add insult to injury, Brown was dinged up Saturday. His status moving forward will be something to watch. He’s had a ton of carries and took his share of punishment. Backup Josh McCrary was in a boot and didn’t play Saturday. It’s definitely that time of year where attrition sets in.
The Illini can’t let the past weeks’ disappointment linger. Turn the page and keep fighting. It’s still the best season the program’s had since 2007.
No time to sulk. Bielema must pick his team up off the mat for a big one at Michigan. The Illini are still heading to a bowl. Putting themselves in position for the best possible bid is certainly worth the fight.