CHAMPAIGN — A young, largely inexperienced Illinois football team has felt at times like it's held together by strings and tape.
A pull on the string, and everything unravels — fast.
It happened in Saturday's 63-0 historically bad loss to Iowa. Illinois trailed 7-0 before a 3-yard touchdown run from Mekhi Sargent in the second quarter. Then the tape got ripped off. In a span of 1 minute, 59 seconds Iowa scored twice, once on a forced fumble that was recovered for a touchdown by A.J. Epenesa then on a punt that Epenesa blocked that led to a touchdown seven seconds later.
Suddenly a seven-point deficit was 28. With an injury-depleted roster made worse by the loss of 1,000-yard rusher Reggie Corbin, the ball of yarn completely unraveled and hopes for a bowl game were effectively ripped away.
"We're still working on how we stop it, but that's how the season has gone," Illinois head coach Lovie Smith. "Momentum can do a lot of things, especially to a young ball club when things start going south. You have to eventually make something to counteract the momentum the other team has and that's what we haven't been able to do. We'll keep working on that."
On Saturday, Illinois (4-7) converted on 2 of 17 third downs and was 1-of-6 on fourth downs. As a team, Illinois had 11 first downs to Iowa's 20. The defense was placed in tough situations.
"I think it does come with experience," offensive coordinator Rod Smith said of stopping runs. "If you can go tit-for-tat and score with them, you eliminate some of that where you stop the bleeding or cease it for a bit to give your defense a breath. We couldn't get into a rhythm. We couldn't get at first down to get us an offensive rhythm to get going. To me, that's a credit to Iowa's defense. They did a great job.
"Let's face it. Iowa wants to play complementary football. I don't want to be known as a guy who plays fast and that's what we do. I want to make sure we're complementing our defense and our defense complements us. To me, that's how you win. We didn't help our defense on Saturday."
It's been a theme for the Illini this season: Bad stretches put games away. The first instance happened in Week 4 against Penn State. Illinois led in the third quarter to provide hope after hanging around with the then No. 10 team in the country. A 24-21 lead turned to a 63-24 deficit by the end of the game. But through four weeks, it was easy to chalk up as a bad stretch after an encouraging three quarters.
Then the theme reared its ugly head again against Purdue on homecoming in Week 6. Illinois was coming off of its first conference win in 13 games against Rutgers the week before. The Illini hopped out to a 7-0 lead against Purdue in front of a packed crowd before the Boilermakers rattled off 46 unanswered points to leave Champaign with a blowout win.
"Guys lose focus when the other team keeps scoring," Illinois linebacker Del'Shawn Phillips said. "Guys get down on themselves, overall as a whole team, not specific individuals — offense, defense and special teams. Other teams take advantage of it and capitalize on it. That's what good teams do."
The loss at Wisconsin didn't feel as bad. Five turnovers hurt the Illini, but a 21-3 run in the second half sealed the loss for Illinois, after climbing to within 11 points in the third quarter. Maryland was much of the same. Illinois trailed by 16, 28-12, before a run-of-the-mill Terrapins team scored 21 unanswered to extend to lead to 49-12 on the way to a 63-33 win.
"We have trouble just playing fundamentally sound football for 60 minutes," Phillips said. "Maybe it does come from age, maybe it doesn't. I'm not sure about that, but that's really a big problem on the defensive side of the ball."
The yarn started to unravel in the first half against Nebraska two weeks ago. Illinois trailed 31-21 late in the first half before a Nebraska touchdown just before the break started a run that turned a 10-point lead into a 26-point lead early in the fourth quarter.
"There's a couple things," senior offensive lineman Nick Allegretti said of why it happens. "When you go down like that, you think, 'Oh God, we have to score 28 just to tie it,' and every play you go out there like, 'We need to score this play.' That's not the mentality. You have to have the mentality that we're going to score this drive, but it's going to have to be a drive. You're not going to bust 80 yard plays four times in a row and be tied."
The other factor is age. It's no secret that Illinois is one of the youngest teams in the nation. Saturday was Senior Day at Memorial Stadium, and just eight seniors were honored before the game.
"Age may have a little bit to do with it," Allegretti added. "Outside of the offensive linemen, the majority of kids on the team, when you're in high school you're the most talented kid on the team. When you have a Division I player, you're usually going to become a good team. When you're that talented and you go play in the Big Ten, you're usually going to elevate your team to a certain level.
"You're not used to going down like that. I feel like some kids, you don't ever want to get used to that, but you have to get used to the ebbs and flows of the game and be ready for the positives and negatives."