Recently in Illini, football, Ron Zook, Reilly O'Toole Category
Just so this is clear, while Ron Zook walked out of his press conference when asked about his job status--after saying he'd walk out if his job status--the question came about eight seconds before he would have walked out, anyway. He'd gone as long as he goes every week--20 minutes--which is a lot of time to fill about a team that's lost four straight.
He didn't storm out. He walked out. And he had answered every question ad mauseum to that point.
Just to play mediator here. Hats off to Shannon Ryan, who does an outstanding job for the Chicago Tribune, for being a bulldog and asking the hard question.
But let's cut the Zooker some slack here, too. He answered repeated questions about how he and his players are dealing with the losing streak, one of several distractions that have added to Illinois' woes.
When a guy makes it clear he's not going to answer a question about his feelings, and his players' feelings, and you ask it anyway, what do you expect him to do?
Shannon has a job to do and she does it well.
All I want to do is give a little context for people who were not in that room.
If you want to judge Zook, don't watch the 55-second highlight video. Watch the whole 20 minutes.
If you're in the four-game-losing-streak version of your life, and a job you love is on the line, and people keep picking at the scab, what would you do?
With four touchdowns in three games, Illinois needs to get its offense going. Where to start? These stats say rushing yards lead to passing touchdowns, and the Illini agree.
FIRST 6 GAMES LAST 3 GAMES
Scoring 34.7 9.3
Passing TDs 11 2
Rushing yds 226.2 129
Passing yds 221.5 169.3
Coming off its bye week, Illinois faces a perplexing task.
Shut out in the first half of its last three games, it now will try to snap its three-game losing streak against No. 22 Michigan, which defeated it 67-65 in triple overtime last year, the highest scoring Big Ten game in history.
If this is going to be another shootout, the Illini say they'll be ready.
``We're always prepared to put points on the board,'' quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. ``If we take care of business, we'll be fine, regardless of what the score is.''
Since averaging 34.7 points when they opened with six straight wins, the Illini have put up just 28 points in their three losses, 21 of them when they were playing catch-up in the fourth quarter.
Coach Ron Zook remains optimistic that the offense has been recharged by last week's bye, which enabled the team to go over its fundamentals, heal up and recharge for its final three games.
``The signs that maybe we're coming out of it a bit?'' Zook said. ``We are a refreshed team. The attitude, the way they're running around out there. They're rested.''
Where did it get away from the offense?
``I don't have the answer exactly why,'' said Zook, who also saw his offense lose its swagger. ``You go back to the Ohio State game and they were pressing a bit. It really kind of started at the beginning of the Indiana game.''
One obvious explanation is that Ohio State, Purdue and Penn State are better defensively than the teams Illinois faced when it was winning.
Zook's point of emphasis during the bye week?
``Let's go back and do what we do,'' he said. ``Don't worry about having big plays. Just take what they give and line up and play.''
Another explanation: The offensive line wore down, and didn't give Scheelhaase the time he needed to connect with A.J. Jenkins on the deep balls that were a signature of the winning streak.
And another: Scheelhaase also wore down, a combination of the offensive line's decline and his aggressive running style. Since throwing 10 touchdown passes in the first six game, he has thrown two in the last three games.
``Nathan may have been [banged up], but he's not going to tell you unless it's serious,'' Zook said. ``But there's no question the time off has helped everybody.''
Scheelhaase, who took some knocks on his throwing shoulder early in the season, said his throwing arm is fine, but said the week off has been a good time for the offense to regroup.
``In the bye week, you get a chance to get back to basics,'' the quarterback said. ``So its does build some confidence. You're breaking things back down, it's always nice to have that. It's been very helpful to us as an offense.''
Illinois again will ``saddle up and ride'' senior running back Jason Ford, who has rushed for 183 yards on 34 carries, a 5.4 average, the last two games. In the four games before Zook and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino made him the horse, Ford had 117 yards on 37 carries, a 3.2 average.
``The better you run the ball,'' Petrino said, ``the better you're going to be, and the better you're going to protect the passer. We've worked real hard on our timing, our execution and all the little details. I expect us to go out and execute it better.''
Restless fans will question the play-calling if Illinois continues to sputter.
But the running game buys the quarterback time to make throws, Scheelhaase knows. Which means the Illini need to do everything better.
``It's going to come down to execution,'' Scheelhaase said.
In case you missed it in the online edition--I couldn't find it, but my wife says I can't find anything--here's my Illini notebook from the 10-7 disappointment at Penn State.
I really liked Vic Koenning's defense of his defense. I think that could serve the Illini well as they try to snap their three-game losing streak and salvage some things in November.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa.--The focus will be on a sputtering Illinois offense that has scored just 28 points in the last three games--and only seven points in the first three quarters of those games.
But defensive coordinator Vic Koenning sounds like a man who's found a unit he can take into battle.
``If anybody in this room has seen a defense play harder, I'll kiss their butt and give 'em 10 minutes to draw a crowd,'' the Oklahoma native said. ``Our guys played as hard as they could possbily play. The last two drives before halftime at Purdue, the whole second half there, the whole game here, they have been relentless.''
The defense, which also did a lot of good things against Ohio State, is looking more and more like Illinois' strength.
USING YOUR HEAD
When Penn State safety Nick Sukay took down Nate Scheelhaase with a helmet-to-helmet shot in the second quarter, some wondered if Sukay might be subjected to an NFL-style disciplinary review.
That's not needed, said Scheelhaase, who returned to the game after taking a couple of plays off to lose the cobwebs
``Yeah, it hurt,'' the Illini QB said. ``But it didn't seem malicious. It was a good football play. You're gonna get dinged when you're playing hard. You could blame me for half the thing. I was running pretty hard at the kid.''
Freshman backup Reilly O'Toole didn't miss a beat in relief, completing 4 of 7 for 31 yards. Scheelhaase completed 9 of 16 for 63 yards, while Jason Ford ran for 100 yards on 24 carries against Penn State's stingy defense.
409 & COUNTING
The victory was the 409th for Joe Paterno, which gives him the most victories by a Division I coach, one ahead of Grambling legend Eddie Robinson.
``I'm happy for him,'' Ron Zook said. ``I just wish it wouldn't have been me.''
There was a good vibe coming from Champaign on Sunday, the first day after an opener since 2006 that the Illini could bask in the glow of a win.
On top of that, the injury report was encouraging.
Akeem Spence (ankle), Michael Buchanan (knee), A.J. Jenkins (quadriceps) and Reilly O'Toole (shoulder) are sore, but aren't expected to miss more than a precautionary day or two of practice time to heal up.
``We even had no one cramp up,'' said Zook. ``I don't know that I've ever played or coached in a game where we had no one cramp up.''
In what he also believes is a personal first, Zook was pleased that Illinois had no penalties in its 33-15 victory over Arkansas State. It was Illinois' first penalty-free game since a 1993 contest vs. Wisconsin.
``That's a tribute to the coaches,'' Zook said. ``We've been demanding and these guys want to please. And the officials did a nice job of letting them play on both sides.''
THE REILLY FACTOR: Zook has no qualms about burning the redshirt year of true freshman quarterback O'Toole, who injured his shoulder when he drilled during mopup work.
``We're going to get Reilly on the field as much as we can, to get him ready,'' Zook said. ``God forbid, but if something were to happen to Nathan [Scheelhaase], we're going to need him and Miles [Osei, a sophomore backup]. We all think Reilly can help us win, so let's get him ready to go.''
O'Toole said he's good either way, playing or redshirting, and Zook clearly wants him to play.
``I'm concerned about winning games right now,'' Zook said. ``I think he can help us. I don't want guys to want to redshirt. You want guys that expect to come in here and play, and he's earned the chance to do that.''