Illini broken, but can things still get fixed?

Published: 10/15/2009 12:01 AM

It's not difficult to diagnose Illinois as a fractured football program.

The Illini, ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 as recently as 13 months ago, have lost their last seven games against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents.

They haven't scored a first-half touchdown against an FBS foe since last Nov. 15. They haven't even held a lead against an FBS team since the second quarter of the Western Michigan defeat that started their losing streak on Nov. 8.

As the Illini (1-4, 0-3) prepare for Saturday's trip to Indiana, they find themselves last in the Big Ten standings, ninth in total offense (341.6 ypg) and last in total defense (408.6 ypg).

All of these facts make it easy to say the Illini are broken. Now the question becomes, are they irretrievably so?

Assistant head coach Reggie Mitchell, one of the three assistants who have been at Illinois since Ron Zook arrived in December 2004, says absolutely not.

Moreover, he says Zook hasn't panicked in the wake of thorough losses to Missouri, No. 7 Ohio State, No. 14 Penn State and Michigan State.

"He's been great," Mitchell said. "You would think at this stage of the program, he would be all upset and tense and walking around like that.

"But he's breeding confidence in everyone and saying, 'Hey, we're a good team and we just have to go out and play like it. We've got to practice like it, act like it, walk like it and believe it.' "

According to senior cornerback Dere Hicks, one of five Illini starters who also started for the 2007 Rose Bowl team, Zook wants his guys to think more like that unassuming group.

"That year it was just about getting wins," Hicks said. "We weren't set on winning a set amount of games. We just wanted to win."

Hicks and fifth-year defensive end Doug Pilcher are the elder statesman of a defense that features six new starters.

The new linebacking corps - redshirt sophomore Ian Thomas, true sophomore Russell Ellington and redshirt freshman Evan Frierson - have been relatively easy pickings for shrewd offensive coordinators looking to exploit their inexperience.

"Yeah, in the run game particularly," said Illini co-defensive coordinator Dan Disch. "They try to scheme you up, whether it's misdirection or plays we haven't seen. Things to try to get them going the wrong direction."

That's one reason why, though everyone believes the current Illini defense to be more athletic than the Rose Bowl bunch, the results haven't been anywhere close until last week's second-half shutout of Michigan State.

"We have great athletes out there, but it's about being a football player," said junior safety Garrett Edwards. "There are great athletes all over the place (in college football). You've got to do your assignment and play hard. If you do that, you'll be all right."

On offense, it's never a good sign when the calendar reads mid-October and a team needs to use the week's practices to decide which of two quarterback and which of four running backs gets the nod on Saturday.

Zook likely won't reveal until game time whether senior Juice Williams regained his job. And Mitchell, who handles the running backs, demands they compete Monday through Thursday in practice to determine the starter.

"The thing Coach Zook wants is to let a guy try to get into a groove," Mitchell said. "If he's the guy, then go with him."

When coaches like Mitchell and Disch aren't on the practice field or trying to solve the team's problems through video or brainstorming, they're on the phone trying to build (and hold) a typical Illini recruiting class.

In recent weeks, All-American tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz from Johnsburg has suggested he will soft-pedal his Illinois commitment and take another look at Iowa.

"It's obviously harder when you're not winning ballgames," Disch said, "especially a couple of years into this thing because people want to be part of a winning thing."

Mitchell, Illinois' recruiting coordinator since he arrived, believes things are solid.

"The thing I tell them is, 'Don't look at the message boards. Don't listen to (opposing) coaches.' " Mitchell said. "Because now it's like a feeding frenzy. You know, 'They're not going to be here. This is going to happen, that's going to happen.'

"I think there's a lot of football to be played. We have seven more games. If we win those seven or six of those seven, then everyone's talking about one of the greatest turnarounds of the year."