For the second consecutive season, the defending Big Ten champion has suffered an unexpected meltdown.
Like Northwestern last season, Illinois has been a tremendous disappointment. After posting a 10-2 record last season, the Fighting Illini went 1-3 in their nonconference season, losing to Missouri, Southern Mississippi and even San Jose State – a team that was blown-out by Washington and Stanford by a combined score of 97-36.
The loss of quarterback Kurt Kittner cannot be overlooked, but Illinois still retained many of last season’s players at the skill positions. According to coach Ron Turner, this season’s team lacks chemistry. It was this chemistry that won games for the Illini and caused them to play as well as they did last season.
“Every year is different,” Turner said. “It’s a new team, new chemistry, new leadership. Last year, we probably weren’t as good as a lot of people thought. We played some games over our head and won some games on pure character and guts and found a way to win. We’re not doing that right now.”
The Illini have been getting outstanding play out of wide receivers Brandon Lloyd and a now healthy Walter Young as well as quarterback Jon Beutjer, who has established himself as the starter with back-to-back four touchdown performances.
But the problem for Illinois isn’t scoring points, it is keeping the opponent in check. Despite putting up over 600 yards of total offense against San Jose State on Saturday, the Illini lost. The defense failed to force a turnover against the Spartans and have forced just three turnovers (all fumbles) this season, putting them last in the Big Ten in turnover margin.
“We just know we want to win the turnover battle and that is one thing we’re not doing,” Illinois linebacker Jon Schumacher said. “Defensively we haven’t gotten any turnovers and we’re not going to win games doing that.”
On special teams, Illinois committed two critical roughing the kicker penalties to give the Spartans a first down.
The fans have been less than kind to the Illini, booing them several times last Saturday. But the Illinois players and coaching staff know they can’t blame the fans for doing it.
“Obviously nobody wants that, but it’s understandable,” Turner said. “We have to go out and play better.”
Beutjer knows that the Illini can’t let outside influences affect their play.
“We have to be positive, that’s the main thing. We can’t be negative, especially about the last couple games,” Beutjer said. “We can’t worry about what other people think because that will just affect the team.”