WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Illinois players admitted that postseason grandeur crept into their minds with the team's best start in 60 years.
In the wake of a two-game losing streak after Saturday's 21-14 loss at Purdue, they now are wondering how to reclaim their earlier dominance and put the brakes on what has become a spiral.
"A lot of guys experienced something they never experienced before, being 6-0 and a chance to make a run at the BCS national championship," linebacker Jonathan Brown said. "Now people are starting to recognize what's at stake."
After six weeks with momentum on its side, No. 23 Illinois (6-2, 2-2 Big Ten) has found itself going against a headwind with losses to Ohio State and the Boilermakers.
For the second week in a row, the once-explosive Illini offense did not score until the fourth quarter.
Purdue (4-3, 2-1) took a 21-0 halftime lead with 229 yards to Illinois' 128. The Illini typified their frustrating day to end the half, spiking the ball with 1 second left and no timeouts rather than run an end zone play.
"We have to get it switched back," offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said. "We have to score points in the first half. We can't just drive it certain parts in the field and then hurt ourselves and not get touchdowns."
The offensive meltdown combined with special teams' flubs and an equally slow-starting defense exacerbated the headaches. Despite two solid weeks of practices, coach Ron Zook said the team inexplicably has entered games too tight.
"You wish you had something to hang it on," he said.
The defense allowed just 75 yards and shut out Purdue's offense in the second half. It limited Boilermakers quarterback Caleb TerBush to just 33 yards passing after he had 145 at halftime.
But the offense found its spark much too late.
Illinois scored on a Jason Ford 16-yard run with 8 minutes 12 seconds left. With only 54 seconds remaining, Scheelhaase capped an 80-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown run.
Derek Dimke's onside kick was recovered by Purdue, which ran out the clock.
That was not even close to the most frustrating special teams play by the Illini.
Justin DuVernois did not get off a punt in the second quarter and that allowed the Boilermakers to take over on Illinois' 14. Four plays later they had a three-touchdown lead.
Punt returner Ryan Lankford totaled minus-5 yards and saw his best return ruled a fair catch after officials deemed he had illegally moved his hand from his helmet while he was shading his eyes.
The Illini realize they have plenty to fix — it's just a matter of how.
"We took turns making mistakes," Petrino said.