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Fast flame-out for Illinois against Purdue

Illinois punter JustDuVernois is tackled by Purdue defenders Raheem Mostert (back) Tommie Thomas Saturday. |  Michael Conroy~AP

Illinois punter Justin DuVernois is tackled by Purdue defenders Raheem Mostert (back) and Tommie Thomas on Saturday. | Michael Conroy~AP

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Updated: November 24, 2011 8:32AM

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — After last week’s loss to Ohio State, defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said the Illini would find out what they were made of, ­because they had hit the rapids after having smooth paddling during their 6-0 start.

Nobody had any idea they were about to go over Niagara Falls in shoulder pads. But that’s what happened Saturday.

Playing a listless first half, the soon-to-be-unranked No. 23 Illini fell behind 21-0 and wound up losing 21-14, closing the gap courtesy of a pair of too-little-too-late fourth-quarter touchdowns.

Stats don’t tell the story. Illinois’ offense had more yards (366-304) than Purdue. The defense shut out the Boilermakers in the second half while holding them to 85 yards. Each team had one turnover for no points.

What the Illini (6-2, 2-2 Big Ten) are doing is making critical mistakes at crucial times. That’s either a sign that they’re feeling the pressure to build on their unbeaten start, or that they aren’t as good as they were starting to look.

“Can’t fault the way we’ve prepared, the way we’ve practiced, the effort,” coach Ron Zook said. “For some reason, when we get into a game, we haven’t played the way we need to play.”

After losing to undistinguished Purdue (4-3, 2-1), though, the Illini now find themselves over a barrel. After playing at Penn State Saturday, they come home to face Michigan and Wisconsin.

Those games looked dangerous when Illinois was hitting on all cylinders. Now they look downright scary.

The way Illinois is playing now is fuel for the fiery opponents of Zook, and a welcome-to-Champaign headache for new athletic director Mike Thomas.

“It’s not an offense thing, a defense thing or a special-teams thing. It’s a team thing,” said Zook, vowing to fix the problems. “They want to win bad. There’s no players, no coaches, who are going to quit. We’re still 6-2. We’re not exactly where we want to be, but we’re not that bad, either. We just have to go back to work and play.”

There isn’t enough space in this newspaper, let alone the sports section, to dissect the woeful special teams. But that’s not news.

Now the offense — which has scored 21 points in two games after putting up 79 points in its first two Big Ten games — is prone to fumbled snaps, false starts, dropped passes and wrongly run routes. Even steady quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is missing throws he used to make.

“We took turns making mistakes,” said offensive coordinator Paul Petrino. “We all have to step up and play better. I have to coach better, they have to play better. We have to get this thing solved and score points.”

It may be hard to believe a season can change this much in eight days.

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