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Sizing Up The Big Ten - Illinois

I'm not sure how we manage to keep this two-bit blog going through the offseason, but we're starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Starting today we'll break down each Big Ten team one at a time. Hopefully I can get one or two of these done per week. We'll go in alphabetical order. Today we'll start with the University of Illinois [Mascot Redacted].

Team Overview

Since winning the Big Ten Championship in 2001, the Fighting Whatevers are a disappointing 13-45. 2007 will be Ron Zook's third season at Illinois since being banished from Florida where Urban Meyer just won a National Championship with his recruits. Though Zook's record at Illinois thus far has been less than stellar, he has brought in solid recruiting classes in back to back seasons. Although they only won two games last year they were much more competitive than their record indicates. They nearly upset Wisconsin, Penn State, and Ohio State and managed to beat Michigan State in East Lansing. While this was great for Illinois, it was a dark day in the blogosphere since it was the beginning of the end for John L. Smith, a subject of some fantastic blog material.

The Offense

Realizing his team was going to be pretty crappy last year, Zook decided to start true freshman Juice Williams against Iowa...and went on to lose 7-24. But the following week he rode Williams to a thrilling 23-20 upset of Michigan State in East Lansing. Juice-Mania was born. The rest of the season Williams was a one dimensional dual threat quarterback, if there is such a thing. Maybe we should call him a running back that occasionally threw the ball to wide open spaces. Williams led the team in rushing with 770 yards, but had a Big Ten worst completion percentage of 39.5%. He should surely improve this year, but Zook better hope he doesn't get injured since the bench is not very deep or impressive after Juice.

Realizing his passing game probably wasn't going to win many games, Zook instituted an option attack against Penn State last season with much success. Illinois led the conference in rushing yards per game last year with 188.8. Pierre Thomas graduated, so Rashard Mendenhall figures to pick up the slack. Mendenhall had 653 yards last year averaging 8.2 ypc as a sophomore. Penn State fans will remember Mendenhall for his long run against the Nittany Lions in which Justin King ran him down from behind and tackled him just shy of the endzone.

The passing game has to improve this year with all of the talent returning. The top four leading receivers from last year all return including Kyle Hudson who recorded 30 catches for 403 yards and 3 TD. Uber-recruit Arrelious Benn joins the team and figures to make an immediate impact as a true freshman. Benn joined the team in January and participated in spring practice. Reportedly he is better than advertised.

Although the Illini lost four year starter Matt Maddox, the offensive line is much more experienced (three seniors, one junior) and should be one of the better offensive lines in the Big Ten. Their rushing statistics last year were very impressive with a 5.2 ypc average, however they gave up 2.5 sacks per game good enough for #91 in the NCAA in that statistic.

The Defense

So sure. Illinois could have a great offense this year if they put all the pieces together. But they won't win many games because their defense sucks, right? Not so fast my friend. Last year Zook's D gave up a stingy 128 yards on the ground and 182 yards through the air per game. Not spectacular numbers, but good enough to rank them in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten. With nine starters coming back and an infusion of young talent coming in the Illini will undoubtedly improve on those statistics.

The defensive line returns seven of the top eight players from the group that held opponents to 3.3 yards per carry in 2006. Chris Norwell is the headliner. The 6'6" 290 lb senior had 5 sacks and 7.5 TFL last season. True freshmen sensation D'Angelo McCray may push for playing time if not a starting position if his recovery from offseason knee surgery goes well. Sophomore Doug Pilcher started 11 games last year, but he may have his hands full holding off Jerry Brown if he plays like he did in the spring. During the spring game Brown recorded 1.5 sacks and 2.5 TFL against the first team offensive line. This group of defensive linemen has a tremendous mix of experience and young talent.

All three linebackers return from a year ago. Senior J Leman earned first team All Big Ten honors in 2006 with a jaw dropping 152 tackles to go with his four sacks. The other two guys, Antonio Steele and Brit Miller won't be winning any Big Ten honors, but they are serviceable and do an ok job.

The secondary has a good mix of size, speed, and experience. Vontae Davis made a splash starting in 11 games as a true freshman last year and proved himself to be a better than average cornerback. Sophomore Travon Bellamy figures to take over the other corner spot vacated by Alan Ball. Justin Harrison and Kevin Mitchell are both multiple year starters, so the safeties figure to be solid. The Illinois pass defense was good last year, and figures to improve this year. This is not a defense to take lightly.

Special Teams

Jason Reda is a very respectable field goal kicker with tons of experience. Kyle Yelton did ok as a true freshman with a 37.4 yard average per punt, but the punt coverage was awful as Illinois averaged just 29 yards net punting. The punt and kickoff return teams were also pretty poor, but this year Zook has enough althetes to man some pretty good special teams. They'll still be inexperienced and probably not very good, but they should get better.

The Schedule

Last year Illinois lucked out missing Michigan and Minnesota, two teams that both went bowling in 2006. This year the UM's come back while Michigan State and Purdue rotate off. The out of conference schedule looks manageable with Missouri at home, Western Illinois, Ball State and a game at Syracuse. The conference schedule is brutal, but they get Penn State, Wisconsin, and Michigan at home.

Call It A Good Year If...

They go to a bowl game for the first time since 2001. There's a good chance Illinois could start of 4-0 if they pull out a win at Syracuse. By November they should be good enough to beat Minnesota and Northwestern. With Ball State mixed in there in late October this team has the potential to win six or seven games. And don't be surprised if they put a scare or two into one of the upper Big Ten teams along the way.

Put Zook On Suicide Watch If...

They only win one Big Ten game against Indiana and manage to lose two or more games out of conference. Worst case scenario the Illini go 2-10 once again.

My Hunch

Illinois had a good though one dimensional offense last year and the defense was respectable. The killer for them was special teams and turnovers (-15 in turnover margin). Turn these things around and the Illini are a team to be feared. I think Illinois will beat Western Illinois and Ball State. They will beat either Missouri or Syracuse, but not both. They'll get three wins in the conference against Indiana, Minnesota, and Northwestern. That gives them six wins right there, but I think they will get one more upset win against either Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio State, or (gulp) Penn State. No way they beat Michigan. I'm predicting Illinois goes 7-5 with a 4-4 conference record which could land them in the Alamo Bowl.