2007 Record: 9-4 (6-2)
Everyone knew there was a storm brewing in Champaigne before the 2007 season began. Ron Zook pulled in back-to-back stellar recruiting classes. It was just a matter of time before they made an impact on the conference. This blog thought they were a year away before the season began. This blog was wrong.
The Illini started the season on a disappointing note with a 34-40 loss to Missouri. Star quarterback Juice Williams was forced to leave that game early with a concussion. Of course at the time nobody realized that the Tigers would go on to eventually reach as high as #2 in the BCS ranks.
From there Zooks men rallied for easy wins in their next three games against Western Illinois, Syracuse, and Indiana. But it was week five where Illinois started to gain attention. Calling it a "statement game", Illinois pulled out a 27-20 win over #21 Penn State with help from four turnovers by the Penn State quarterback who I believe wore #14. Then they followed it up the next week with a 31-26 win over #5 Wiscosin who was riddled with injuries and ripe for an upset.
Sitting at 5-1 with two wins over ranked opponents must have gone to their heads as they suffered a letdown loss in week seven against a lowly Iowa team that only managed to score 10 points. The headache continued against Michigan where spread option teams had demolished the Wolverines earlier in the season, but the Illini suffered a 17-27 loss.
But when a Big Ten team needs an easy win to get things back on track you can always count on the MAC, and Ball State was there to get the Illini back on their winning ways this time. A tune-up game against Minnesota the following week set the stage for Illinois' first win over a #1 ranked team since 1956 when they shocked the world and beat Jim Tressel's Buckeyes in Columbus. The win propelled them to #20 in the polls, and a win over Northwestern the following week combined with several upsets around the country helped them slip into the top 16 in the BCS qualifying them for the Rose Bowl.
But once again, qualifying for the BCS is one thing. Winning and making a good showing is another. Their first trip to the Rose Bowl since 1983 is one they would rather forget as Pete Carrol and USC put on a clinic that day scoring 49 points on Zook's defense in a game that was never competitive.
Returns (7): QB-Juice Williams, WR-Arrelious Benn, WR-Kyle Hudson, TE-Mike Hoomanawanui, C-Ryan McDonald, RG-Jon Asamoah, LT-Xavier Fulton
Loses(4): RB-Rashard Mendenhall, WR-Jacob Willis, LG-O'Donnell, RT-Akim Millington
Year the Illini possessed a dynamic rushing attack that averaged 229 yards/game ranking them fifth in the country. Running back Rashard Mendenhall was the main reason tallying 1681 yards and 17 touchdowns. Quarterback Juice Williams added 755 yards on the ground, but replacing Mendenhall will be the key to the Illini maintaining their offensive success. His brother, Walter, was a backup running back who left the team in the offseason, so this spring there were only three running backs participating in drills. Daniel Dufrene seems to be the one emerging to the front, but he will see pressure from redshirt freshman Darius Purcell who comes over from safety and true freshman Mikel LeShoure. Freshman Troy Pollard may also work his way in there if his rehab from knee surgery goes well. In any event the rushing game is going to take a serious step back as all of the running backs combined for minus 11 yards in the spring game.
And this spells trouble for Juice Williams and the passing game. Last year Williams completed 57% his passes which was a vast improvement from 39% in 2006, but he only netted an additional 250 yards and four touchdowns through the air, and his TD/INT ration was a less than stellar 13/12. Arrelious Benn returns wiser and bigger than a year ago so that should help tremendously as long as he's healthy. Benn suffered a shoulder injury that hampered his offseason. He will have to catch more than one touchdown, as he did in 2007, in order for this offense to be effective. Kyle Hudson will also have to return from his injury and get back to his 2005 and 2006 form.
Defense Returns(6): DE-Will Davis, DT-David Lindquist, DE-Doug Pilcher, LB-Brit Miller, CB-Dere Hicks, CB-Vontae Davis
Defense Loses(5): DT-Chris Norwell, LB-Antonio Steele, SS-Justin Harris, FS-Kevin Mitchell, and of course Captain America.
The 2007 Illini defense was nothing special. They held opponents to 132 yards on the ground and 244 yards through the air, good enough to be ranked #5 and #10 in the conference in these two catagories. The Big Ten as a whole looks tougher this year, so the Illinois defense is going to have to step it up if they want to compete. This may be difficult with the losses they have suffered.
The defensive line looks like a solid group with a lot of talent returning, but I have questions about their depth at tackle after Lindquist and Josh Brent. D'Angelo McCray seems like the only other option, and he's coming off a knee injury that cost him the entire 2007 season.
The linebacking corp takes a significant hit with the loss of Steele and Leman. Only Brit Miller returns, and he may find himself staring at two freshmen linebackers in the huddle with him.
The cornerbacks both return, and Vontae Davis is the real deal. But Zook has to replace both safeties, and again there aren't any veterans to plug in. The middle of the secondary is going to be inexperienced, but probably more athletic.
To sum up Illinois special teams last year in one word: horrible. They ranked #92 in the country in net punting. #88 in punt returns. #103 in kickoff returns despite Benn's touchdown return against Penn State. The only bright spot was Jason Reda who hit 16-of-18 field goals, and he's gone now. Benn returns to field the kicks, and he averaged a very impressive 28 yards per return. Kyle Hudson and Vontae Davis may share the punt return duties like last year. I expect things will start turning around in this area has Zook has been recruiting well and has several good athletes to use on special teams going forward.
|Aug 30||@ Missouri||Toss Up|
|Sept 6||Eastern Illinois||Easy Win|
|Sept 13||Louisiana-Laf.||Easy Win|
|Sept 27||@ Penn State||Probable Loss|
|Oct. 4||@ Michigan||Toss Up|
|Oct 11||Minnesota||Easy Win|
|Oct 18||Indiana||Easy Win|
|Oct 25||@ Wisconsin||Probable Loss|
|Nov 1||Iowa||Toss up|
|Nov 8||@ Western Michigan||Easy Win|
|Nov 15||Ohio State||Loss|
|Nov 22||@ Northwestern||Probable Win|
BSD Difficulty Rating: 8 out of 10. They get Ohio State at home, but have to play Penn State, Michigan, and Wisconsin all on the road. The out of conference schedule features three cupcakes but they do play Missouri on the road which should be a difficult challenge.
Rashard Mendenhall was probabaly 60% of the reason Illinois did so well last year with the defense being the other 40%. This year they will have to rely on Juice WIlliams and Arrelious Benn. Benn sat out the spring and Williams still hasn't proven he can be an effective passer. The offense is going to have to work harder for their points than they did in 2007. Couple that with the fact the safeties and outside linebackers will be replaced with inexperienced players and the defensive tackles are basically a three man rotation and I think the defense, which was already pretty average, is going to have problems.
The out of conference schedule is weak enough to guarantee three wins, and with Minnesota, Iowa, and Indiana all at home they should qualify for a bowl game, but I see a step back from the magical 9-4 Rose Bowl year of 2007. I'm thinking a 4-4 conference record with three out of conference wins. BSD says 7-5 and a trip to the Alamo Bowl. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.