Loss hinders Illini's attempt to move on

ST. LOUIS -- Last year was last year, Illinois constantly reminded everyone this past offseason.

The Illini insisted they were moving on and not looking back. They disposed of the coaches they needed to and replaced them with experienced and successful coordinators, making the offense and defense better accordingly, they said. They were also introducing a new young talent at quarterback and welcoming back their stud linebacker from injury.

All of it meant the 2010 season would be different. There was no reason to reflect on 2009.

But after Illinois lost its season opener 23-13 to Missouri at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis on Saturday, last year did come up.

It was inevitable. The past is still Illinois' past.

As much as everyone wants to move forward, 2009 and its 3-6 record still define the Illini. Whether anyone likes it or not, Illinois coach Ron Zook, his returning players and the media will gauge this year's team against last year's woes for at least this first game this season.

Yes, Missouri defeated Illinois for the sixth consecutive time. Yes, losing is never good, but ...

"We came out with a little more fight than last year," Illinois junior offensive tackle Jeff Allen said.

Junior linebacker Martez Wilson said, "This is the best we've played them in four years. This year it was definitely a fight. We fought all the way to the fourth quarter. It really showed we're a better team overall."

Missouri's 37-9 win last year defined Illinois' season. The offense was uninspiring in the loss. The defense was shaky at best. The Illini's year snowballed from that game and they never recovered.

"I guess you can say that after how the season went," Illinois junior running back Mikel Leshoure conceded.

Because last year's defeat was so lopsided and so crushing, it does give this year's team hope. The Illini were in Saturday's game from start to finish. The offense moved the ball at times. The defense stopped it at times. They even looked as if they may pull off the upset for a bit after leading 13-3 at halftime.

It's more than just that, though. If Illinois had been blown out again by Missouri, a sense of doom likely would have carried over the entire team. There certainly would have been columns written about why Zook should be fired. But by hanging in the game, it brought the focus to the team's positives and reasons to be optimistic.

There are some real seasons for optimism:

1) Wilson is back. He had a so-so first game as he shook off the rust, but he has the skill to be a dominant Big Ten linebacker.

2) Leshoure is going to be as good as advertised. He displayed his power and speed against Missouri as he broke a number of runs on his way to 112 yards.

3) Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is only a redshirt freshman. He was not only playing in his first college game Saturday, but he was playing in his first game in a new system. His throws weren't always on the money but he showed he doesn't fold under pressure, can make things happen with his feet and has football smarts, which were evident by his clock-awareness as he set up a 52-yard field to end the first half.

4) Illinois' secondary was a mess coming into this game and it held its own. After losing starting safety Supo Sanni and cornerback Terry Hawthorne to injuries heading into the game, a makeshift secondary was put together at the last minute, including a wide receiver-turned-safety, a running back-turned-cornerback and a cornerback-turned-safety. That group can only get better with time.

"I'm pretty optimistic about where we are," Zook said.

Of course, that's the glass-half-full perspective. The bigger question may be if it is healthy to judge this year's team and its 2010 result against Missouri against last year's team and its 2009 result against Missouri.

There's no way to be sure if this year's Missouri team is all that good. It's likely not a Top 25 team. The Tigers went 8-5 last year, including 0-3 against ranked teams, and return some talent, but they also recently permanently suspended last year's leading rusher, Derrick Washington.

Does losing by 10 points to Missouri mean Illinois has a better chance when it meets Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State in three consecutive games to start its Big Ten season? That's hard to say right now.

Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino certainly didn't want to talk about optimism or moral wins after Saturday's loss. His outlook may be the best one for Illinois to follow.

"Pissed off," Petrino said of how he felt. "You want to win. You want to win. Mad, frustrated, obviously.

"We showed signs that we could [play], but we got to go back to work and work harder this week, get our execution down and get the ball in the end zone more."

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at spowers@espnchicago.com.