By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) After the Fighting Illini fell 17-7 at the hands (or, really, the relentless feet) of the Ohio State Buckeyes on Saturday at Memorial Stadium, a friend of mine shot me a text: “Funny to call Ohio State a bad loss for Illinois, but that’s a bad loss.”
And, perhaps, a bad omen.
Both for the Fighting Illini players, who face a far fiercer schedule down the stretch, as well as for their absent-minded head coach, who finds himself on a seat that’s considerably hotter today.
And, with a new athletic director watching Ron Zook’s every move, it could end up sizzling soon.
To the casual college football observer glancing at Illinois football today, the Illini are still 6-1, still nationally ranked and merely coming off a setback to a team (Ohio State) that they always lose to in Champaign (no home wins since 1991).
All is right in the world of Illinois football, right?
Not as much as one might think. Because, above everything else on Saturday, as Illinois fans trudged out of Memorial Stadium, they were again reminded of the cold, hard truth that Ron Zook is not a big-time football coach.
That was why Florida fired him. And if Illinois AD Mike Thomas finds himself doing the same some day soon, that will be the reason why, as well.
In 2007, Zook’s Illini famously knocked off No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus, paving Illinois’ path to the Rose Bowl. But besides that stunning upset, Zook has lost his other six battles with the Buckeyes. And if ever there was a year to knock off Ohio State – a .500 team with no passing game, a rookie coach and still reeling from the stench of sanctions – in Champaign, this was it.
But the unbeaten Illini still couldn’t do it.
Coupled with Zook’s seven-year record of 34-46 overall and 18-33 Big Ten, that loss doesn’t bode well for the grander future of the program if Illinois AD Mike Thomas has dreams of championship glory in Champaign (and I would imagine he does). Nor does it bode well for the remainder of this Illini season.
So far, Illinois has benefited greatly from the comforts of home cooking, having played six of its first seven games in Champaign, with the only road trip to Indiana – which can hardly be considered a hostile atmosphere. That schedule helped propel Illinois to its first 6-0 start in 60 years, but the Illini now don’t play another home game for a full month.
Next week, they head to West Lafayette to face a Purdue team that hasn’t been particularly impressive in its 3-3 start, but will be hosting Illinois for Homecoming and figures to provide a more rowdy road environment than the Illini have seen thus far. It’s a game that Illinois should win, but considering the OSU performance, it’s far from a gimme.
The following week, Illinois then heads east to face Penn State in Happy Valley, a place where the Illini happily won last year for the first time ever. But this year, it figures to be a far stiffer test, as the Nittany Lions have been flying under the radar with a 6-1 record. Their only loss was to No. 2 Alabama (no shame there).
Penn State’s offense (17.3 points per game in Big Ten play) has been anemic this season, but its defense (11.6 points per game for the year) has been making opposing offenses feel the same way. Figure that the Illini split the Purdue and Penn State games, and emerge 7-2.
After an off week, Illinois then returns home to host nationally ranked Michigan and national championship contender Wisconsin in back-to-back games. Figure the Illini to split again, giving them an 8-3 record heading into the season finale at sadsack Minnesota on Thanksgiving weekend.
Considering the errors that Illinois made on the field against Ohio State – and the questionable decisions that Zook continues to make on the sidelines – it’s not difficult to see the Illini dropping at least one more game to finish with an 8-4 record headed into the postseason.
Last month, I wrote in this blog: “… with the most favorable home schedule in school history on his plate, I’d say that Zook needs to go 8-4 at the very least to keep his job. If he’s only 7-5 or 6-6, no matter if he makes a bowl game, the door to his exit could swing wide open.”
That was before the Illini defeated Arizona State. And if a 6-0 start degenerates into an 8-4 finish, Ron Zook very well might find that there’s more than a trophy on the line in a bowl game.
His job could be, too.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.