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September 2, 2008

Illinois still a Big Ten contender

ST. LOUIS In the wake of its season-opening loss to Missouri, Illinois has to be wondering, "What if?"

What if Illinois had opted not to punt or kick off to Missouri's Jeremy Maclin? Well, there's a good chance the Fighting Illini probably would have beaten the Tigers in St. Louis on Saturday night.

Alas, Illinois took its chances and booted to perhaps the best return man in the nation. And it paid for it.

What was Illinois thinking? Didn't Maclin return a punt 66 yards for a touchdown against the Illini last season? He struck again this season, racing 99 yards for a touchdown on a kickoff return in the second quarter. Later in the game, Maclin zoomed 45 yards with a punt to set up another Missouri touchdown.

"When you play a team like Missouri early the two things we said we couldn't do was give up big plays and we did, and in the kicking game we had to be good and we weren't," Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "Once again, those are some things that you have to get corrected or have issues later on in the year."

Illinois was a 40-34 loser to Missouri in 2007 and a 52-42 loser this season. And like last season when the Fighting Illini went on to finish 9-4 (6-2 in the Big Ten) and play in their first Rose Bowl since the 1983 season look for Illinois to rebound and be a sleeper in the Big Ten race. Not bad for a program that went 4-19 overall (1-15 in the Big Ten) in Zook's first two seasons.

The biggest ray of hope in Champaign is the passing game. Credit offensive coordinator Mike Locksley for developing quarterback Juice Williams, who could emerge as the top passer in the Big Ten if he continues to perform as he did against Missouri. Still, Williams was picked off twice in the second half by Missouri linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who returned the second pick 35 yards for a game-sealing touchdown.

Williams was 26 of 42 (62 percent) for 451 yards and five touchdowns. It was far and away the most impressive statistical performance of his career. And it came against a Tigers defense that returned 10 starters.

"We took what the defense gave us," said Williams, who helped the Illini generate seven plays of at least 25 yards, compared with five for Missouri. "We've got fast receivers on the outside and we took advantage of it."

The Tigers wanted to make Williams pass to win, committing to stuff the run. It worked. The Illini ran for just 81 yards, with Daniel Dufrene leading the way with 75 yards on 13 carries in the school's first game in the post-Rashard Mendenhall era. But as defenses start to pay more heed to the Illinois' aerial attack, look for the Illini rushing game to find more room.

"Daniel is going to get a lot of time now but those other guys, we have to get them experienced, particularly in pass protection," said Zook, who saw Williams get sacked five times. "We are going to continue to work on the running game hard. It may not have worked in the first half well, but we did some good things in the second half. We aren't just going to drop things if they aren't working."

And Zook isn't going to bail on his defense, which yielded 549 yards. The Illini faced one of the nation's top offenses, and likely won't face an attack that good the rest of the season. This still looks like a good defense a strong line, an athletic corps of linebackers and a solid secondary.

But it's disconcerting that Missouri ran for 226 yards (6.1 yards per carry) and that Illinois had just one sack (by linebacker Martez Wilson) and one pressure (by end Will Davis). The Illini did all they could to get as much speed on the field, often times employing three and four ends. Illinois co-defensive coordinator Dan Disch thinks that strategy may have made Illinois' defense more vulnerable to Missouri tailback Derrick Washington, who finished with 130 yards on 19 carries.

"I still believe our defensive front is one of the strengths of our football team," Zook said. "I don't think they played quite as well, and I have to take a little bit of that because I was real concerned about guys flying upfield, creating big running lanes and letting (Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel) scramble.

"And that first half, particularly, I might have taken their fight out a little bit by doing that. They do so much stuff, maybe we would have been better off by letting our guys line up and play instead of checking stuff."

Now's the time for Illinois to look forward. The Fighting Illini play host to Division I-AA Eastern Illinois on Saturday. A visit from Louisiana-Lafayette follows Sept. 13. After a week off, Zook then takes his team on the road on consecutive Saturdays to Penn State and Michigan. Also looming are a trip to Wisconsin on Oct. 25 and a visit from Ohio State on Nov. 15. As you surely recall, last season the Illini toppled the No. 5 Badgers Illinois' first win over a top-five team since 1989 and upset the top-ranked Buckeyes.

"One thing that I said was we would know where we were at after this game," Zook said. "There are things we obviously have to look at. We didn't play the way we thought but I am not throwing the towel in and think we can still be a pretty good football team.

"And that is a pretty good football team we played. Offensively, defensively, and with that returner they have, they can make some things happen."

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.



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