Following a heart-breaking loss to Michigan, Illinois falls to Minnesota in Big Ten play to leave a bowl berth off in the distance.
In a matter of eight days, the Illinois football season hung a U-turn.
Sailing through October with three wins, the Illini put themselves on the verge of a bowl berth. But following a heartbreaking triple-overtime loss at Michigan a week ago, Illinois put the season's progress in double jeopardy with a 38-34 loss to Minnesota in a Big Ten Conference game Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
"We're all going to suffer on this one,'' said Illinois coach Ron Zook. "We didn't deserve to win when it came down to it.''
If it's not the worst loss in the Zook era, what is? Illinois entered the game as a three-touchdown favorite against a program that fired coach Tim Brewster on Oct. 17 and hadn't won a game since season opener at Middle Tennessee State on Sept. 2. An early knockout punch would have made this an afternoon celebrating a bowl slot on a senior day.
"It was a guarantee win that we thought we'd come home and win,'' said Illini receiver A.J. Jenkins. "They surprised us. I guess we didn't take them as seriously as we should. This is a hard loss.''
Instead, the Illini compounded problems. Illinois fell to 5-5 overall and 3-4 in the Big Ten. Even though two more games remained in the season, this was the best shot for the Illini to get bowl eligible. With the date against Northwestern in Wrigley Field next Saturday (2:30 p.m., ESPNU) and the late-nighter at Fresno State on Dec. 4 to end the regular season, it won't get any easier on the road.
Northwestern lost starting quarterback Dan Persa to a ruptured Achilles tendon while celebrating the game-winning touchdown in the upset against Iowa Saturday, but the Illini season went from a modest success story to desperation in a matter of two weekends.
"That's the bad thing,'' said Illini safety Trulon Henry said. "It can get out of control if you don't grab it. Maybe we need to call a players-only meeting or something. We need to get together and pick up our intensity.''
Either the Illini lack the leadership to finish the job or simply ran out of gas. Or both.
"I don't think we met their emotion until the second half,'' Zook said. The issue is more evident on defense, where the Illini allowed 105 points over the last two games after giving up 134 in the first eight games.
"We've got to be full throttle or there's a huge dropoff,'' said defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. "Some of that (motivation) has to come from within. When we were playing our best, (the Illini defense) was playing with high spirits and high motors. We seemed to have a little swagger and had some confidence. Going into the Michigan game, we had a sense of entitlement. We got our stinger broken off.
"I'm trying everything I can, from painting them visual pictures, reading scripture, telling stories and doing everything just short of flat out of grabbing them old school and hollering and screaming. We need to find that spirit. I wish I could hand them something. That has to be done in the 17 years before they got here.''
Illinois led 34-24 with 8:14 left after a 55-yard touchdown run by Mikel Leshoure, but the special teams allowed a 90-yard return on the ensuing kickoff to set up a four-yard Minnesota touchdown drive and switch the momentum.
From there, the Illini had a three-and-out and a four-and-out with only one pass attempted. A holding call negated another long run by Leshoure. Then the defense gave up the go-ahead score with 16 seconds left on a two-yard touchdown run by DeLeon Eskridge.
Minnesota (2-9, 1-6) marched 80 yards in 10 plays, benefitting from a 15-yard late hit by cornerback Travon Bellamy, in 2 minutes 28 seconds. Quarterback Adam Weber rushed for 29 yards on a quarterback draw on third and 10 from the Minnesota 20 to put the Gophers within striking distance of ending an eight-game Big Ten losing skid.
"If you sit there and dwell, if you go in there thinking, 'We're a 1-9 team,' you're not going to compete,'' Weber said. "We go into every week putting the past behind us and still having confidence that we're a great team.''
Zook must have felt his team needed a jolt in preparing for the Gophers after having no energy at Michigan, so he used a bowl game as motivation prior.
"I think they're tired,'' Zook said. "Everybody is tired. I can't imagine they were looking ahead. I don't know why or why they would be. I would hope not. In this league, you better play every game to the best of your ability. We've had two games where we haven't.''
Now the Illini have two more chances to get it back in gear.
NOTES: Illinois sophomore cornerback Terry Hawthorne didn't play after complaining of pain in his foot. Hawthorne underwent surgery to repair a broken foot before the season. . . Illini freshman wide receiver Spencer Harris caught a 17-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter for his first collegiate score. . . Minnesota interim coach Jeff Horton scored a win in his fourth game in charge. . .Illinois report card Offense -- B- In position to win the game, the Illini couldn't finish off the Gophers. A 55-yard touchdown run by Mikel Leshoure put Illinois in position to earn a bowl berth, but the Illini sputtered on two late-game possessions and failed to get a first down.
Defense -- FAfter serving the as poster child for the Illinois rebirth, the defense folded in the last two games. This looks like a unit running out of gas. Does Illinois have the leadership to get it back with two games away from home the only shots at getting that elusive sixth win?
Special teams -- FA botched snap on an extra point might have haunted the Illini, but giving up a 90-yard touchdown run just when the game looked in control was one of the biggest plays in the season.
Overall -- FWith the last-place team in the Big Ten in town as a three touchdown underdog, it looked like a good time for the Illini to win and secure bowl eligibility for the first time since 2007. It only gets tougher from here. Northwestern's issue at quarterback might give the Illini a good chance in Wrigleyville, but these Illini obviously can't be trusted.