With embattled coach's job on the line, Illinois plays hard but makes too many mistakes in 28-17 loss to No. 15 Wisconsin.
No matter what's said outside the locker room about Illinois coach Ron Zook, his Illini don't agree.
That point was proven Saturday, even after No. 15 Wisconsin rallied for a 28-17 victory over Illinois in a Big Ten Conference game played before a crowd of 45,519. Illinois brought an intensity unusual for a team with a long losing streak, and they weren't done even after the game.
"Come over here and say that (stuff),'' said defensive end Michael Buchanan to a fan heckling Zook.
Effort and emotion were obvious but four second-half turnovers helped Wisconsin rally from 14-point deficit and stay alive for a berth in the Big Ten championship game. Meanwhile, Illinois fell to 6-5 overall and 2-5 in the Big Ten after losing for the fifth consecutive game.
The Illini haven't won since Oct. 8, when Zook left the field at Indiana with six fingers jammed into the air to signify the Illini's status as bowl eligible. Now, there seems little chance of him keeping his job after posting a 34-50 record in his seventh year here.
Illinois plays at Minnesota next Saturday (2:30 p.m., BTN), but the question is who is coaching the Illini next season.
"They fought today,'' said offensive coordinator Paul Petrino. "They played with heart. They played with fire. It's a good team and a young team.
"This is a good staff. I've been around football my whole life. There are a lot of good football coaches on this staff. I wouldn't be so happy and trying to run everybody out of town.''
There was a concern inside the program a change might come as early as Sunday.
The Illini made several changes on offense, such as moving Petrino from the coaches box to the sideline to project his emotion, going with a hurry-up tempo and playing freshman quarterback Reilly O'Toole more. It worked during the first half, when the Illini built a 14-0 lead against a two-touchdown favorite.
But a string of mistakes doomed the Illini.
"It makes you mad,'' Petrino said. "We should have won that game.''
Leading 14-0, freshman punter Justin DuVernois dropped a good snap. Wisconsin tackled him at the Illini 2-yard line and scored a touchdown two plays later.
Three plays into the third quarter, wide receiver Darius Millines lost a fumble after his reception would have given the Illini a first down. Wisconsin moved it 30 yards in 12 plays to pull within 17-14. While O'Toole threw two interceptions and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase also had one picked during the second half, Wisconsin pounded its way to the win.
"I thought we had to make changes,'' Zook said. "I'm not saying it has anything to do with Nathan. In a situation like that, we have to try something. In the first half, it went pretty well. In the second half, it wasn't the changes. It was fumbles and crazy things like that.''
The emotion was evident afterward, especially from Petrino. He was upset with two ofensive pass interference calls late in the first half, one that nullified a touchdown and another that wiped out a pass play inside the Ohio State 5. Then Wisconsin scored on a similar play with no call, said Petrino, who apparently felt everything was on the line.
"It's a joke,'' he said. "I'll get fined. Those people should have to come and look at my little kids, look them in the eye and tell them.''
The Illini held Wisconsin to 285 yards -- 214 fewer than the Badgers were averaging and their lowest output since 2009 -- but the Badgers (9-2, 5-2) rolled behind 224 yards rushing by running back Montee Ball, who scored two touchdowns on the ground and one more in the air to give him 30 for the season.
"You knew we were walking into kind of a storm,'' Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "Everything was going on. We told our guys to be prepared.''
Said Illini defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who recorded another sack and forced another fumble after entering as the national leader in both stats.
"It was one final chance to make a statement thoughout all of college football. Our job is to go out there and play as hard as we can and try to come out with a win. We can't let outside noise get the best of it.''
NOTES: The 28 points scored by Wisconsin were the Badgers' low mark this season. Wisconsin entered with the nation's 7th-ranked offense. . . Wisconsin's four scoring drives were 115 yards combined. . . Mercilus has 13.5 sacks and eight forced fumbles this season. . .
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.Illinois report card Offense -- D The Illini played well in the first half but gave away four turnovers in the second half, including two interceptions by freshman Reilly O'Toole. Defense -- B It's hard to keep them out of the end zone when you're on the field nearly the entire second half. Wisconsin's conservative offense was deliberate and efficient. Special teams -- F When freshman punter Justin DuVernois dropped the snap in the second quarter, he gave the ball to Wisconsin on the Illini 2 and changed the course of the game. Overall -- C+ The Illini played better than anticipated, but their problems were turnovers and special teams. Illinois made changes, and the defense played well. Yet the Illini lost their fifth straight and haven't won since Oct. 8.