Illinois at Minnesota
The facts: 2:30 p.m., BTN, 560-AM.
Updated: December 27, 2011 8:09AM
Going into the season, a 6-5 record after 11 games would have sounded about right for Illinois.
One more conference victory might have been projected, offset by one nonconference loss. But 6-5 looked about right.
Going into the Illini’s finale Saturday at Minnesota, though, that 6-5 record has created all kinds of uneasy feelings.
Under first-year coach Jerry Kill, the Gophers (2-9) might not look formidable. But the baggage Illinois is packing on this trip might make it difficult to carry on.
It starts with the five-game losing streak that has followed a 6-0 start. It continues with concerns about what kind of bowl Illinois could be looking at if it finishes with a six-game losing streak.
And there is mounting speculation that Ron Zook, 34-50 in seven years at Illinois, will be fired by new athletic director Mike Thomas, who’s not in the most enviable position, either.
Hired in August, Thomas faces a major challenge just months into office. The unrest in Illini Nation, combined with the way Illinois has gotten to 6-5, points toward a coaching change.
For all his game-day flaws, Zook has put Illinois on the verge of back-to-back bowl trips for the first time in 19 years. He’s just four years removed from a Rose Bowl trip. And he finally does have an excellent set of assistants.
The overriding factor, though, is that Zook has lost Illinois’ fan base with his gaffes. Beyond game-day blunders, the special teams, which he handles, are last in the Big Ten in two categories (kickoff and punt returns) and 11th in two others (punting and kickoff coverage).
That’s why it looks likely that Thomas will dismiss Zook, who would receive a roughly $2.4 million buyout on the remaining two years of his $1.75 million-a-year contract.
The challenge for Thomas will be to come up with a successful successor. Only two of Illinois’ nine coaches since 1959 have had winning records. And only Indiana has struggled more than Illinois among Big Ten teams in the last two decades.
What must be gnawing at Zook and his staff is how close Illinois has come to having a much better record. The Illini were oh-so-close in losses to Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin.
In the Buckeyes’ 17-7 victory, they scored their two touchdowns on drives of 12 and 22 yards. Penn State survived 10-7 on a touchdown with 1:08 left when Illinois, which had come up empty after driving to the 9-yard line at the end of the first half, missed a game-tying field goal as time ran out.
Wisconsin was held to a season scoring low in its 28-17 victory, and the Badgers needed only 115 yards on their four touchdown drives.
Illini mistakes, of course, were instrumental in all three of those losses. Those kinds of mistakes make it likely that Zook has reached the point of no return at Illinois.