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What is going on with the Illini?

FILE - In this Oct. 15 2011 file phoIllinois head coach RZook yells from sidelines during Illini's 17-7 loss Ohio

FILE - In this Oct. 15, 2011 file photo, Illinois head coach Ron Zook yells from the sidelines during the Illini's 17-7 loss to Ohio State during an NCAA college football game in Champaign, Ill. For six weeks, Illinois' season was all big plays, stiff defense and happy endings. With back-to-back losses, they find themselves out of the Top 25 and, with games ahead against Michigan and Wisconsin, in bad need of a win as they get ready to head to Penn State on Saturday, Oct. 29. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)

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Updated: November 27, 2011 12:57PM



How does this happen?

How does a team off to a 6-0 start and seemingly headed for a nice season not only lose its next two games but suddenly look like it’s in over its head?

How, I asked Illinois coach Ron Zook on Tuesday, does a team that put up 79 points in its first two Big Ten games against Northwestern and Indiana manage only 21 fourth-quarter points in its 17-7 loss to Ohio State and its 21-14 loss to Purdue?

‘‘I don’t know that I can explain it,’’ he said. ‘‘If I had the answer for that, we wouldn’t be shut out. Two things, defenses are playing pretty well, and we’re missing on some things. It’s not one thing, it’s a play here, a play there, a consistency thing we have to get back together.’’

After pausing, Zook anticipated critics who blame him.

‘‘You just don’t get bad,’’ he said. ‘‘You just don’t become a bad coach. It just doesn’t happen. You work through those things. You make the tweaks you need to make and keep going.’’

The tweaks Illinois plans at Penn State on Saturday include relying more on tailback Jason Ford, the senior bruiser, while giving young players such as backup QB Reilly O’Toole and receiver Darius Millines (foot) more opportunity.

Gloomy as it looks for the Illini, a win at Penn State would put them back in the hunt for a pretty good season.

Considering the warning signs, though, that would be a major reversal of fortune.

Special teams

The Illini are last in the Big Ten in kickoff return, punt return and kickoff coverage and 10th in punting. They’re embarrassingly close to the bottom in the nation in all four categories, and there’s no evidence that will change.

These units are handled by Zook, a former NFL special-teams coach. Which explains it all to Zook’s critics.

Defense

Depth and turnovers have been catching up with a defense that’s still better than expected.

Illinois basically won its first six against teams that like to spread things out, allowing coordinator Vic Koenning to go with fewer linemen and more defensive backs. Now that Illinois is facing more run-oriented teams, the depth problem is being exposed.

When turnovers allow Ohio State to drive 22 and 12 yards for its touchdowns, and Purdue scores its clinching third TD from 14 yards out after a bumbled punt, it’s hard to blame the defense.

Offense

As good as the offense looked when Illinois was winning, being shut out in the first three quarters of the Ohio State and Purdue games is a really troublesome sign for the future.

When Illinois was winning, the offense was helping the defense overcome the dead-in-the-water special teams, not leaning on it.

What’s happened?

The offensive line is starting to struggle. The running game is bogging down against bulkier Big Ten run defenses. And quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has less time to find receiver A.J. Jenkins on slow-developing deep routes. Purdue, which had six sacks in its first six games, sacked Scheelhaase four times.

Even though Jenkins still leads the Big Ten in receiving yards (123.4 a game) and receptions (7.8), he’s cooled off and been prone to mistakes, including a crucial fumble and a wrong fourth-and-short route that ended Illinois’ day against Ohio State.

Bottom line

When Illinois came from behind in four straight games to run its record to 6-0 and climb to 15th in the nation, it looked like it might be on to something.

That grit has not held up against tougher competition. The Illini are playing tight and playing tentative.

Despite their surprising start, it wouldn’t be surprising if they were still looking for their seventh win in their final game at Minnesota.



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