Illinois' offense showed up Friday at Nippert Stadium. Unfortunately for the Illini, so did some of the problems that have plagued them all season.
If Juice Williams and his wide receivers performed like this all year, Illinois wouldn't be sitting at 3-8. Though Williams had several costly incomplete passes, including a sure touchdown to Chris Duvalt early in the third quarter, he performed well overall against a vulnerable Cincinnati defense.
The missed pass to Duvalt was one of several plays that seemed to sum up Illinois' disappointing season in Friday's 49-36 loss to the fifth-ranked Bearcats. Linebacker Nate Bussey was flagged for an inexcusable unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that gave Cincinnati a fresh set of downs inside the Illinois 10-yard line. (The Bearcats converted for a touchdown.) Illinois drew eight penalties for 69 yards, as it remained the Big Ten's most penalized team.
Special teams also continued to hurt Illinois. While Derek Dimke went 3-for-3 on field goals, Cincinnati racked up 210 return yards, including a 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Mardy Gilyard.
Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther said last month that changes would be coming in Champaign, although head coach Ron Zook was safe. First-year offensive coordinator Mike Schultz might be saving himself with the offense's progress down the stretch, but Zook might need to shuffle his defensive staff. Illinois had no answer for a one-dimensional Cincinnati offense, as Tony Pike shredded the Illini for 399 pass yards and six touchdowns. The back seven couldn't keep pace with tight end Ben Guidugli (149 receiving yards, 2 touchdowns) and Gilyard (102 receiving yards, 2 touchdowns).
It's nice to see a class act like Williams play well down the stretch, but the future of the Illinois program seems very shaky right now. The Illini finish up next week against Fresno State as they try to avoid going 3-9.