Illinois moves on from 'humbling experience'

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Juice Williams sounded like a man exhausted and exasperated by a search for something that couldn't actually be found.

But when a team melts down the way Illinois did in Saturday's 37-9 loss to Missouri, an explanation isn't merely desired, but demanded.

Did the Illini get thrown off by losing star wide receiver Arrelious Benn to a sprained ankle on the third play of scrimmage?

Was the offense's rhythm out of whack without running backs Jason Ford or Daniel Dufrene?

How much did the secondary miss cornerback Vontae Davis, or is the unit missing leadership at safety for the second straight year?

“It’s really hard to explain," a subdued Williams said Monday on a teleconference with reporters. "It’s not really one thing you can pinpoint and set aside, say that’s the reason we didn’t play well. It was a combination of things."

For now, the outside world will have to settle for this from the senior quarterback: "Obviously, something happened between us leaving Champaign and going down to St. Louis for kickoff. Something happened and we obviously weren’t quite as focused and we weren’t at the point we needed to be to go out and dominate the game like we thought we should have."

Both Williams and linebacker Martez Wilson pointed to a lack of focus and intensity in the Missouri game. Head coach Ron Zook was even more pointed Sunday, saying, "The thing that got me most upset -- we didn’t go fight."

The 2009 Illini aren't knocked out after Saturday's loss, but they're certainly a bit staggered. Benn should return this weekend along with Ford and possibly Dufrene for a game against Illinois State, an FCS program, but things begin to get a lot tougher.

Illinois opens Big Ten play against Ohio State (road), Penn State (home) and Michigan State (home). If the Illini don't put up more of a fight soon, they'll be down for the count.

“It was a very humbling experience for this team," Williams said. "Hopefully, it works out for the better. ... Losing the way we lost, it definitely puts a team in a situation where you kind of second-guess yourself and you kind of lose sight of what you’re trying to do. The important thing for us is to regain the focus that we had throughout the entire fall camp and be confident in ourselves."

Much of the concern justifiably rests with the offense, which boasts the Big Ten's most experienced signal caller in Williams and one of the nation's best wide receiver units. But the defense also struggled, surrendering 313 pass yards and three touchdowns to Missouri's Blaine Gabbert.

Aside from linebacker Ian Thomas (10 tackles, 1 TFL) and defensive end Doug Pilcher (4 tackles, sack, forced fumble), it was a forgettable game for the Illini defense.

"We’ve got to change the attitude, we’ve got to be a nasty defense," Wilson said. "We’ve got to play with more swagger and a lot more attitude.”

The attitudes of most Illinois fans aren't positive after Saturday's loss.

In 2008, they watched a talented Illini team tumble from a preseason top 25 ranking to a 5-7 finish. They bought into the likelihood of better things this fall. And now they've been disappointed again.

"I can see where it’s coming from, us losing by 28 points to a Missouri team that’s not ranked very, very high," Williams said. "As fans, they should be a little disturbed, but me being on the team and me being around, I don’t see there’s any need to panic. It’s one game. It’s a game that we didn’t play well. I think we’ll be able to bounce back from it.

"I truly believe that we’re still a pretty good team, and we’ll be able to showcase that the rest of the season."