After jumping out to a 17-7 first half lead that should have been bigger, Illinois completely collapsed against Wisconsin. It’d be unsettling if it weren’t so totally expected at this point, as we continue on a historic freefall following a 6-0 start. A Lion Eye sums it up:
If there’s an epitaph that can be written for the now-certainly-over Zook regime, it’s that. We never did any of the little things well. So despite a pretty good offense here and a pretty solid defense there, Zook’s teams are now a collective 34-50 mostly because they were never properly instructed on how to win games with just the little things.
It’s true. As a quick example, can you remember the last time we’ve successfully returned a punt for more than 15 yards? 10 yards? (Don’t bother looking it up, we’re averaging a stupefying 1.95 yards on punt returns this year.)Kicking and returning kicks is, on balance, a small part of the game – these are singular plays with one goal; there’s no wider scheme or strategy like there is on offense or defense. Still, we’re completely hopeless in this regard, and it’s really the Zook Era in microcosm. Ron Zook has certainly raised the talent level at Illinois, but it would take a truly special recruiter to raise the talent level high enough to withstand constantly losing the field position battle, mismanagement of the clock, mismanagement of the elements, penalties, turnovers….all the little things that help you make your own luck on the football field.
But as sobering as five straight losses are, this Wisconsin loss likely spells the end of the Zook’s tenure. No matter your thoughts on his time here (and I’ll get to that if and when the time comes), this at least provides a level of clarity and direction. Squeaking out a win over Wisconsin and beating Minnesota, and all of a sudden it’s a tough case for new AD Mike Thomas to make, even if he believes it’s time for a change. It’d be another year of floating in limbo, wondering where this program is going. The Wisconsin game, for better or worse, likely eliminates that uncertainty. Coaching changes aren’t pleasant, so I’d hate to say this is a silver lining, but it probably means the end of a maddening status quo.
And the inverse – the totally tainted victory. What a kick in the groin.
Part of me feels a tinge of “I told you so.” Those Meatballs that secretly loathe the forward pass and burned Cutler jerseys after the NFC Championship Game next year? Here you go, people – your time is nigh. Caleb “Moxie” Hanie is going to show us just how unimportant the QB is! (Sidenote: the QB’s most important job is sideline demeanor).
But mostly, this is just the pits. Another business-like victory in the books, and the Bears were looking like the clear third-best team in the NFC. Now, who knows?