This is Illinois football.
Two weeks after a dominant win against Northwestern in Chicago made the team bowl-eligible for the first time in three years, Illinois flat lined out of the bye week against a decent but not great Fresno State team.
Illinois will now head to the Texas Bowl with a 6-6 record, having lost 3 of its last four games by a combined 8 points.
The Illini came out slow against Fresno State and ultimately were unable to overcome a 16-point hole in the first quarter.
Illinois now needs a win against Baylor in its bowl game to secure Ron Zook’s second winning season with Illinois.
Those who watched the game know the play that I am referring to.
With a little more than three minutes remaining in the game, Fresno State faced 4th and 1 around midfield.
The Bulldogs decided to go for it, and the Illini appeared to get the stop.
However, the ball was favorably spotted to barely give Fresno State a first down.
Zook challenged the spot, and replays appeared to favor the Illini.
However, the referee in the box did not feel that there was enough visual evidence to overturn the call.
Many Illini fans have claimed that the call cost Illinois the game.
Had the Illini gotten the stop, they would have taken over at the Fresno State 45 with three minutes remaining and needing only a field goal to win.
With just 15 yards, the Illini would have been in realistic field goal range, and the Bulldogs only had one timeout remaining.
The fact is, had the ball been spotted short of the first down, an Illini comeback would have been very probable.
However, this one bad spot is not the reason that Illinois lost.
Illinois fans who make the claim are overlooking several other factors that contributed to the result.
- The Illini allowed the Bulldogs to go up 16-0 in the first quarter, Fresno State really spent the next three quarters nursing the lead as the clock ran down.
- Earlier on Fresno State’s clock-running drive, Illinois had a costly penalty that came on 3rd and 13 from the Bulldogs’ seven-yard line. Tavon Wilson was flagged for hitting a defenseless receiver after the ball had sailed over his head, resulting in a first down. Of course, it can also be argued that this call was a bit questionable.
- Illinois completed just seven passes in the entire game.
- Illinois allowed four sacks while failing to get to the Fresno State quarterback once.
- Late in the second quarter, Illinois kicker Derek Dimke was just short on a 49-yard field goal attempt.
- On a 4th and goal from the one-yard line early in the second quarter, the Illini kicked a field goal despite. However, to be fair to the coaches, Illinois had not scored a point at that point in the game, and the team needed to get on the board to get that monkey off of its back.
While the poor ball spot certainly hurt the Illini, the truth is that Illinois should not have been in such a position in the first place.
Final Score: Fresno State 25, Illinois 23
A full recap of the game can be found on Writing Illini’s Gameday Binoculars.
Nick Houska’s Game Ball
- A.J. Jenkins
Jenkins edged out Mikel Leshoure for this week’s honors simply because Leshoure has routinely put up such impressive stats that his excellent performance on Friday has become almost expected.
That being said, Jenkins was Illinois’ pass offense against the Bulldogs.
The receiver had 6 receptions for 75 yards and a touchdown.
The rest of the Illinois team totaled one reception for 6 yards.
Jenkins accounted for more than 92% of Illinois’ production through the air, and it was his third straight game with a touchdown reception and his seventh touchdown of the year.
Other Players Worth Mentioning
- Mikel Leshoure
Leshoure had another one of his typically explosive games.
The back had runs of 35 and 50 yards as he totaled 142 yards and a touchdown on only 19 carries.
Leshoure needs 189 yards against Baylor in the Texas Bowl to surpass Rashard Mendenhall as the Illini record holder for single-season rushing yards.
- Nathan Scheelhaase
Scheelhaase broke Juice Williams’ school record for single-season rushing yards by a quarterback against the Bulldogs.
Scheelhaase had 131 rushing yards on the ground to bring his season total to 815.
While Scheelhaase struggled with his passing, having his lowest completion percentage of his college career (31%), he still took care of the ball.
His current ratio of 17 touchdowns to only 8 interception is better than any ratio previous quarterback Juice Wiliams ever achieved during his four years as the Illini quarterback.
- Trulon Henry
Henry led the Illinois defense with eight tackles, including one for a loss, and had the team’s only turnover with a forced fumble.
Henry leads the Illini in turnovers with three interceptions and three fumble recoveries.
- Special Teams
Illinois’ special teams really hurt them against Fresno State.
Both teams had 5 kick returns on the night, with Illinois running for 85 yards and Fresno State getting 168 yards, that is almost twice as much as Illinois.
On punt returns, Fresno State only averaged 5.3 yards, but that looks pretty impressive when considering that Illinois did not return a single punt, with every attempt a fair catch.
Even punter Anthony Santella was well below his average punt distance, averaging 39 yards per attempt, 6 less than his season average.
- Defensive Secondary
While the strange turf may have played some role in the terrible coverage, the Illini secondary should be embarrassed by the numbers it gave up.
With Fresno State’s only real fourth quarter drive consisting of almost exclusively run plays to wind down the clock, the Bulldogs still recorded 304 yards and 3 touchdowns on only 26 passing attempts.
- Finishing Close Games
Friday’s loss was Illinois third in its past four games, which was a surprise after the team sat at 5-3 at one point and appeared favored to win the rest of its games.
Ultimately, finishing close games has been the biggest problem for the Illini.
Whether the Illini are trailing (Michigan, Fresno State) or leading (Minnesota), Illinois has lost the three games by 2, 4, and 2 points.
Part of the problem is that Illinois’ passing game only opens up when the run is going. Thus, in late game situations when a pass is obvious, the Illini struggle.
However, the defense also seems to constantly have costly penalties that allow the opponent to keep driving the ball. In all six of the Illini’s losses, the defense has had at least one penalty on a play in the fourth quarter.
Writing Illini Projection Record: 8-4 (66.66%)
Check back for previews of Illinois’ bowl game as well as a regular season recap.
Topics: AJ Jenkins, Fresno State, Fresno State Football, Ian Thomas, Illini, Illinois, Illinois Fighting Illini Football, Illinois Football, Martez Wilson, Mikel Leshoure, Nathan Scheelhaase, Ron Zook, Ron Zook Nathan Scheelhaase, Trulon Henry, University Of Illinois, Writing Illini