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Quote:The first five halves of Illinois football under coach Ron Zook produced some eye-popping results for a program that has been in a free fall for the past three seasons.

A come-from-behind win, a lopsided victory and the threat of an upset of a ranked opponent on the road were more than anyone might have expected in Zook's first season.

However, the next seven halves were a smack in the face, with flashbacks of 2004 and the realization that the Illini are a lot further from a turnaround than initial results suggested. Four consecutive losses have left Zook and his staff scrambling for answers heading into the team's bye week, which will be used to re-evaluate, rest and recruit.

"We're halfway through, and no one is excited about where we are," Zook said. "As I keep telling the team - and you may hear it another week or another year - we are making progress, as hard as it is to believe.

"We're going to be all right, I promise you. We're taking on water, but I told everyone we'd take on water and bail like hell."

The Illini won their first two games, over Rutgers and San Jose State, then went to Berkeley, Calif., where they jumped on California 17-7 in the first half. At that point, they had outscored their opponents 90-56.

Cal made a second-half comeback, and Illinois then dived into the Big Ten, which has proved to be too much for one of the country's younger teams. The Illini have been outscored 160-37 since halftime at Cal.

"I don't know if it's two different teams, but I don't have any answers," Zook said. "I know we're probably better than we're playing. ... Guys who are supposed to make plays have to. We're not good enough to miss a play here and there. And when we do, the snowball effect takes off on you."

In some regards, the Illini are having the same old problems. After allowing an average of 423.9 yards in 2004, the defense has not shown improvement, surrendering 457.8 yards a game this season.

The Illini are last in the Big Ten in rush defense, 115th nationally out of 117 teams. That is a big problem in a conference that includes some of the most productive running backs in the country.

But that's not all. Illinois ranks last in the conference in scoring offense, punting, turnover margin, punt returns, sacks by and sacks against, rushing offense and pass efficiency. There is plenty to fix, but those last two are especially interesting.

Zook's teams at Florida averaged more than 30 points over the past two seasons, and his no-huddle, spread offense was highly touted. But 21 points a game isn't getting it done.

"I've been through the rebuilding process at a couple of places," offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said. "It's always a painful process when a young team shows flashes of brilliance at times and others come out and beat you with a lack of execution."

Veteran running backs Pierre Thomas, E.B. Halsey and Jason Davis were supposed to provide the Illini with their strongest asset. Instead, the running game is averaging 3.8 yards a carry, with Thomas and Halsey both well off their career production.

Meanwhile, the passing attack has been inconsistent with first-year starting quarterback Tim Brasic at the helm. The Illini frequently have moved the ball well, but getting into the end zone has been difficult.

Zook was concerned before the season that he didn't have enough receivers, so he converted redshirt freshman Jody Ellis from defense during camp and made him a starter. Oddly, Ellis and fellow freshman Kyle Hudson are two of the team's top receivers along with Halsey, who leads Illinois with 30 catches.

"I don't think there's any question we need more guys," Zook said. "Kyle is doing a heck of a job. He might be playing the best right now. And Jody continues to get better. And (freshman) Derrick McPhearson will get better as he gets more experience."

They are examples of Zook's willingness to go with young players when veterans don't produce. He has used 10 first-year freshmen and has experimented more on defense than offense.

The original corps of linebackers was young - sophomores J Leman and Anthony Thornhill, along with redshirt freshman Remond Willis. Zook has injected more youth with freshmen Sam Carson and Rodney Pittman, and he said he plans to give freshman Brit Miller more time.

That probably has a lot to do with the Illini losing three conference games by an average of 32.7 points. Those first five halves are now a distant memory, and Zook finds himself in the middle of a major renovation.

"Maybe we are rock bottom right now," he said. "The good thing is that there's nowhere to go but up. Like my wife told me: If everything was good, I wouldn't be here."

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