An early look at Illinois.

Illinois Fighting Illini

Last meeting: 10/18/2008 (Illinois 55, IU 13 in Champaign)
Last IU win: 10/7/2006 (IU 34, Illinois 32 in Champaign)
Series: Illinois leads 43-20-2
Coach: Ron Zook (4th year, 18-30)

Perhaps no program has seen a wider variety of highs and lows over the last decade than Illinois.  Ron Zook's four years at Illinois include three losing seasons, but the winning season included a shocking win at Ohio State and a Rose Bowl appearance.  His predecessor, Ron Turner, had six losing seasons in his eight years, but his two winning seasons included a Big Ten title in 2001 and road wins over Ohio State and Michigan in 1999.  In the last twelve years, Illinois has been to two BCS bowls but has three 0-8 conference seasons.  I doubt any other program can say that.  Unfortunately for Illinois, the dual personalities persisted in 2008.  A season after making their first trip to Pasadena since 1983-84, the Illini fell back to 5-7.

 

 

Here is Illinois's NCAA stat summary and the Statsheet page.  The Illini's overall numbers were thoroughly mediocre, with few really good or really bad numbers standing out.  On the season, despite finishing 5-7, the Illini were +25 in points scored.  The Illini were #19 in the nation with 438 yards per game and allowed 350 yards per game on defense.  They averaged 8.2 yards per passing play (#16 nationally) and passed for 269 yards per game).  Juice Williams replicated his 57 percent completions from 2007 and threw an handful more touchdown passes.  Given that information, few would have predicted such a step back for Illinois.  After a horrid freshman year that led to an indefensible amount of publicity, Williams became a passable passer.  Unfortunately for Illinois, numbers that were good enough for the Rose Bowl in 2007 weren't worth as much in 2008. 

Who else is back for the Illini?  A website called Isportsweb.com has a comprehensive preview of the Illinois offense, defense, and special teams.   Arrelious Benn, by far the Illini's leading receiver with 1055 yards but only 3 TDs, is back.  The Illini lost Will Judson but return leading TD receiver Jeff Cumberland.  Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui also returns, as does most of the offensive line.  Williams led the Illini in rushing last year, but literally every player who gained a rushing yard for Illinois in 2008 is on the 2009 roster.  

On defense, the Illini better hope that Ron Zook's recruiting has been as excellent as reported.  Illinois replaces its entire starting defensive line in 2009.  The Illini return two starters in the secondary and one at linebacker.  In other words, the Illini offense may have to carry the load this season.

IU's 2008 game against Illinois was one of the low points of a really bad season.  IU lost badly, 55-13 in Champaign, in front of a prime time audience on the Big Ten Network.  Here's what I said then:

 

Illinois nearly doubled up IU in total offense (563-313); averaged 6.6 yards per carry to IU's 3.2; passed for 271 yards to IU 172; averaged 8.5 yards per play to IU's 4.3; and turned the ball over once to IU's twice. Last year, I made quite a bit of fun of Juice Williams, so it's only fair to note that he is much improved as a passer, and his 72.7 completion percentage last night was his career best. Other thoughts:

  • The Seven Blocks of Limestone are more like Seven Bags of Mulch. Ben Chappell was sacked four times in his first college start, and the O-line's failures continue to hurt every aspect of the offense.
  • While the line takes its share of the blame, Chappell, filling in for injured Kellen Lewis, completed only 10 of his 29 pass attempts against a previously mediocre Illinois defense.
  • Austin Starr and Greg Middleton need not worry about repeating as All-Americans this season.
  • What in the world possessed Bill Lynch to kick field goals down 34-7 and 48-10? I suppose I can understand the last one, trying to restore Starr's confidence. But a 20 point deficit in the middle of the third quarter is not insurmountable. Don't misunderstand, I'm not saying IU would have won if Lynch had gone for it there--we probably wouldn't have gotten the touchdown. But midway through the third quarter is too early to wave the white flag.

So, this might be an interesting game.  Illinois is a talented team that probably was a bit better last season than the record would suggest.  Still, the Hoosiers have lost two in a row in this series since Austin Starr's game winning field goal at Champaign in 2006.  Hopefully, IU can bounce back.

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