At least they scored first. At least they showed heart defensively. At least Jacob Charest appears to be a sight of optimism.
But, in the end, that all amounts to nothing as the Fighting Illini (1-6, 0-5) plagued themselves again with untimely penalties, atrocious pass defense, and a missing offensive mindset en route to a 24-14 loss to Purdue (3-5, 2-2).
It was an ominous beginning for the Orange and Blue, facing a 1st and 30 right out of the gate after two penalties (chop-block and illegal substitution) ruined a solid kickoff return by Arrelious Benn.
Illinois striked first for the first time all season against a FBS opponent on a 4-yard touchdown run by Daniel Dufrene set up by a 65-yard scamper by Mikel Leshoure.
Purdue answered right back on an untouched 44-yard touchdown run by Jaycen Taylor to tie the game a 7-7. The Boilermakers added two touchdowns, a Ralph Bolden 3-yard run and a Joey Elliott 5-yard run, to take a 21-7 lead into the half.
Illinois had a chance to cut into the lead on two occasions, both killed by Juice Williams errors. The first came with Illinois deep into Purdue territory as Williams rolled out to his right and waited too long to attempt a pass to tight end Hubie Graham. Purdue cornerback Dwight McLean jumped in front and picked Williams off.
With time running down in the first half, Charest, in for his second career series, led Illinois down the field. After finding Graham for a 31-yard pass on 3rd and long, Ron Zook decided to put Williams back in the game on 2nd and goal following a Purdue timeout. The Illini scored when Benn took a handoff in for a 3-yard score only to have it called back on a "50-50" holding penalty on Eric Block. Williams then misfired on his next two, one incredibly badly when he overshot Benn in single coverage, and Matt Eller missed a chippy 23-yard field goal.
Instead of 21-14 or 21-10, Illinois trailed 21-7 at the break with 14 points left on the field thanks mostly to a struggling Juice Williams.
Williams scored on a 6-yard run on Illinois' first possession of the first half to cut the deficit to 21-14 but the offense sputtered the rest of the way, failing to make any kind of legitimate drive.
In all, Charest appeared in four series, leading a stellar drive on his second series and picking up a couple first downs on his third series. The redshirt freshman has an unorthodox arm motion but delivers a very nice ball. Charest passed a couple times into triple coverage and must eliminate that from his repertoire but he did show some nice signs of sticking in the pocket and staying confident.
As previously stated, the same problems hampered the Illini again. The unnecessary and idiotic false-starts wrecked drives. The offensive line started strong, with freshmen Hugh Thornton and Tyler Sands holding their own, but regressed in the second half as former starters Ryan Palmer and Randall Hunt played sluggish and poorly.
The defensive secondary proved ineffective for yet another week. Safety Garrett Edwards overplayed several runs, including Taylor's run, while cornerback Dere Hicks was "out in no man's land," getting beat on a couple of 3rd and long plays that prolonged Purdue scoring drives. Josh Brent and Doug Pilcher were noticeable for the first time in a while but end Antonio James failed to contain Elliot and the Purdue running backs, allowing for long runs.
Basically, if you missed the game, the defense took no steps forward towards improvement in this one.
By far, the most troubling aspect continues to hinge on the quarterback play. Williams appears to have lost all of his mechanics, throwing off his back foot constantly. Charest seems like a true gunslinger, out of the mold of Missouri's Blaine Gabbert but he is still too inexperienced to make a difference at this point. Eddie McGee played wide receiver mostly in the game but was a factor on a couple of gadget plays.
First and foremost, if the Illini want to beat a FBS opponent this season, a quarterback must show some sort of consistency.
Player of the game and Illini grades
Illinois' Mikel Leshoure
I'm sick of picking an opposition player as the player of the game so I will give the award this week to the most effective Illini on the field. No doubt about it, Leshourse was that man. Kudos to the sophomore from Champaign for gaining a career high 122 yards on 15 carries including an outstanding effort on a 4th down run when he picked up a first down after being first hit behind the line of scrimmage. Leshoure is clearly the class of the running back unit.
Illini Offense - D
You just keeping wondering if Mike Schultz was the right man for the job.
Illini Defense - C-
They made some key stops, mostly thanks to dropped Boilermaker catches. They slowed down the run in the second half. But still, the pass rush is abominable and non-existent. Ian Thomas struggled. The preseason hype of training camp, Tavon Wilson, was benched in favor of freshman Terry Hawthorne, who looked solid when he was involved. Walt Aikens left the game in the second quarter. Please, pretty please, get rid of the Tampa Cover-2. After two years of coverage catastrophes, Dan Disch and Curt Mallory need to make a change.
Illini Special Teams - C+
Funny that Matt Eller kicked the winning field in the final minute of Illinois' last victory over a BCS opponent. After a missed field goal, the Floridian sophomore will find himself on the bench and Derek Dimke should be handling the duties form here on out. Aside from that, Anthony Santella was stellar and the coverage was fine.
Illini Overall - D+
A good team would have won this game. But then again, a good team would have beaten Indiana last week and would have given Missouri and Michigan State a run for their money instead of getting blown-out. AD Ron Guenther's comments that he is backing his coach should not be taken too strongly as a 1-11 season is becoming more and more a reality with weekly embarrassments.