2009 Spring Preview Series - Illinois Fighting Illini

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Stepping Back on the Damn Rollercoaster

Cedar Point has got nothing on the Illinois football program. During the last 10 years, the Fighting Illini have compiled three seasons with 2 or less victories. Yet amidst these fits of ineptitude, the Illini have compiled a Big 10 title in 2002 and a 2008 Rose Bowl appearance. Last years team continued this lack of consistency. A highly hyped team with a veteran quarterback and exciting playmakers showed a lack of passion and cohesiveness while running up a hugely disappointing 5-7 record and losing to a MAC school. The Orange missed out on a Bowl while placing Ron Zook in an ever warming coaching seat. This offseason added another setback when super recruiter OC Mike Locksley left for the head coaching job at New Mexico.

 

Wellllll??...We're Waiting...

Judge Smails and Big 10 fans are asking that same question of the Illinois program. The Illinois offense, led by Juice Williams and a bevy of fast wide receivers, will be the make or break catalyst for success in Champaign-Urbana. In 2008, the Illini offense broke down at the end of close games, allowing game changing sacks and turning the ball over. Williams, improved mechanics aside, led the Big 10 with 16 interceptions. But he was leaned on constantly due to a lack of running game - Can new offensive coordinator Mike Schultz improve run blocking with his youthful line? Will one running back break out of the crowded pack?

Strategy Note: Hail to the Orange outlines how the improvements in the downfield passing game helped Illiois lead the Big 10 in passing yards. Of course this same reliance on deep throws suffered when he weather got cold (18 ppg and 4 losses in games after October 25) and the competition was ramped up.

Defense, Clap Clap, Def...Oh, We're In Trouble

When Hail to the Orange is still lamenting the loss of linebacker J Lehman, who hasn't played since Rose Bowl '08, you know the 2009 edition of Zook's defense will struggle mightily.  Some horrid statistics from the 2008 Illinois defense:

  • Only twice held opposing offenses below 20 points, worst in the Big 10.
  • Allowed 1835 yards rushing, third worst in the Big 10
  • 27 combined sacks and interceptions, tied for worst in the Big 10.

The vanilla defensive scheme of 2008 simply did not alter games in the Illini's favor. Plus, All-Conference defenders Brit Miller and Vontae Davis have departed, making room for young players to step up and make a name for themselves in Spring Practice.

 

                    2009-2010 Schedule

 

9/5/09

vs. Missouri

St. Louis, MO

9/12/09

vs. Illinois State

Champaign, IL

9/26/09

at Ohio State

Columbus, OH

10/03/09

vs. Penn State

Champaign, IL

10/10/09

vs. Michigan State

Champaign, IL

10/17/09

at Indiana

Bloomington, IN

10/24/09

at Purdue

West Lafayette, Ind.

10/31/09

vs. Michigan

Champaign, IL

11/07/09

at Minnesota

Minneapolis, MN

11/14/09

vs. Northwestern

Champaign, IL

11/21/09

vs. Fresno State (changed to Dec 5)

Champaign, IL

11/28/09

at Cincinnati

Cincinnati, OH

 

Must Win: Michigan State (10/10/09)

A whipsaw of games against ranked opponents ends in Champaign versus the reloading Spartans. Illinois cannot afford a 1-4 start - a home win over MSU could stop the season from spiraling downhill.

Rivalry Comment

Ron Zook has Twitter. And I just found out that the Fresno game has been changed to December 5...from his Twittering.

Predicted Finish: 5-7 (3-5 conference)

2009 Esquire Rating: 2 out of 5 Cigars

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More of The Rivalry, Esq.'s 2009 Spring Previews: Purdue, Indiana

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