Summer Snapshot '11: Illinois Fighting Illini

There is no way I’m going to discuss at any length what happened last year. Let’s just say, it should be another interesting season for the Illini.

The Past Few Seasons…

Illinois is one of the more schizo programs in the Big Ten, especially looking at the last two coaching administrations–Ron Turner from 1997-2004, and Ron Zook from 2005-now. Both coaches had or have losing records leading the Illini, yet somehow both also have Big Ten championships under their belts. Both had or have three-wins-or-less records in at least three seasons, but also a BCS Bowl bid each. Illinois has been at the very bottom. It’s been at the very top, too. And all of it’s happened in the last 15 years. Tell me that makes any sense and I’ll buy you a beer on opening gameday.

2010 Penn State vs Illinois-56

Ron Zook

When Zook took over in 2005, Illinois was bad. Let’s put it this way, Indiana beat the Illini 36-13 in Zook’s debut season. Then again, every team that year seemed to beat Illinois by 20 points or more. But the following season, the Illini were better, but you wouldn’t know it, only matching the previous season’s two wins. Zook was getting the recruits he needed, but it was taking time to develop them into winners.

That winners’ mentality came sooner than later, surprising many as Illinois went 9-3 in 2007, beating No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus for the Big Ten’s Rose Bowl berth. All three regular season losses were by a combined 20 points, including a close opening day loss to eventual No. 1 Missouri (40-34), and a letdown loss to Iowa (10-6), followed by yet another letdown a week later to Michigan (27-17). Zook had Illinois pointed in the right direction, or so we thought. The next two seasons, Illinois fell back to earth, going 8-16 after starting 2008 ranked.

So brings us to last season.Though Illinois only finished 7-6, things were looking up once again. True frosh Nate Scheelhaase was named Big Ten freshman of the week six times, finishing with the second-most rushing yards for any quarterback in the conference. Late in the season, Scheelhaase threw 13 touchdowns to only one interception in the final seven games. Mikel Leshoure ran for more than 1,600 yards, while the defense played well with the leadership of stars like Martez Wilson, Nate Bussey, Travon Bellamy and Cory Liuget. Illinois topped off the year with a very nice bowl win over Baylor.

What to Look For in 2011…

Illinois loses three huge players early to the NFL–Leshoure, Wilson and Liuget. They were the best players on the team last year, but elected to forgo their final seasons of eligibility. That’s bad news for the Illini, as those three players would have made up a potent core of experienced, very talented leaders on both sides of the ball. If they returned, even just two of the three, Illinois would be in the top three of the Big Ten’s Legends (East) Division heading into the season; likely even the top four in the entire conference. But now it will be an uphill battle for Zook & Co.

2010 Penn State vs Illinois-29 Scheelhaase and his top target, A.J. Jenkins, from 2010. Jason Ford has started games at running back since 2008, but hasn’t been able to lock down the job. It looks to be all his this season, as no one we know of has jumped ahead of Ford. The offensive line could help matters, with four returning this year who started at least six games in 2010. The loss of Leshoure will hurt, especially early in the season. But there are enough pieces of this puzzle to make the offense equal or improved to last season. If anything, the experience factor will help with consistency.

The defense loses not only Wilson and Luiget, but also Nate Bussey, who single-handedly tore the heart out of Penn State last year in one play. That’s a lot of talent to lose from the front seven. Fortunately for Illinois, the defensive backfield should be much improved over the past few seasons. With three starters and seven of the top eight overall returning in the secondary, this will easily be the strongest unit on the defense, if not the entire team. Terry Hawthorne and Trulon Henry lead the group. It should also be mentioned that losing punter Anthony Santella could sting. He was great last year, averaging a net 38 yards per punt.

The schedule isn’t easy, but it’s no breeze. Illinois has eight home games, with six of the first seven in Memorial Stadium. It’s really an ideal situation for a team looking to find its leaders and cohesion. The non-conference slate has one decent opponent in Arizona State, meaning 3-1 is likely the worst Illinois can come out of September. The Big Ten schedule is tough, but with some luck is manageable for this team. Figure seven wins as the minimum for 2011, but eight or even nine is very possible.

09-03-2011Arkansas StateChampaign, IL
09-10-2011South Dakota St. (FCS)Champaign, IL
09-17-2011Arizona StateChampaign, IL
09-24-2011Western MichiganChampaign, IL
10-01-2011NorthwesternChampaign, IL
10-08-2011IndianaBloomington, IN
10-15-2011Ohio StatChampaign, IL
10-22-2011PurdueWest Lafayette, IN
10-29-2011Penn StateUniversity Park, PA
11-12-2011MichiganChampaign, IL
11-19-2011WisconsinChampaign, IL
11-26-2011MinnesotaMinneapolis, MN
Indianapolis, INB1G Championship Game
Season Totals

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