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2011 Closing Arguments - Illinois


"We've got to play the type of defense you have to play in the Big Ten Conference."

- Ron Zook

I. Case History/Opening Statement

A. Case History

Ron Zook is nothing if not resilient.  After a 5-7 season in 2008 and a 3-9 season in 2009, Zook miraculously managed to keep his job at Illinois, but not without being ordered to overhaul his entire coaching staff.  A grateful Zook obliged, bringing in offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, quarterbacks coach Jeff Brohm and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning from Arkansas, FIU, and Kansas State respectively.  Anytime you mess with the chemistry of a tightly-knit coaching staff you run the risk of disaster, but somehow, someway, the gamble paid off for the Illini in 2010.  To be sure, a 7-6 season isn't a cause for celebration in Champaign-Urbana, but it's a solid step in the right direction for a team that looked and played as decently as it has since a 9-4 Rose Bowl campaign in 2007.

Sure, there were impressive wins (Penn State, Northwestern), and humbling losses (Minnesota, Fresno State), but the spirit of the 2010 Illini can't be expressed in such simple metrics.  This was a team that maintained the offensive production of the Juice Williams/Arrelious Benn era, while fielding a legitimately-threatening defense.  Even more impressive is the fact that they did it without a palpable passing attack or pass rush.

As I wrote in the Illinois Cocktail Party Preview in May, the Illini really know how to get it done on the ground, with Top 5 rushing attacks in the B1G since 2006.  Not so much in the air.  Illinois has ranked in the bottom 2 in conference for passing yards four out of the last five seasons.

Gone are Mikel Leshoure, Corey Liuget, Clay Nurse, Martez Wilson, Nate Bussey, Jarred Fayson, and Eddie McGee, but there's reason to believe that maybe, just maybe, the 2011 Illini have got what it takes to shake things up a bit in the Leaders Division.

B. Opening Statement

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, I submit to you that the most important indicator of a team's potential for success in the Big Ten Conference is its ability to play defense.  You're going to hear a lot in the coming days and weeks about how Nathan Scheelhaase can't lead his receivers, and Jason Ford isn't nearly as nimble as Mikel Leshoure.  These perverse doom and gloom forecasts are designed to distract you from the truth.  The truth that the Illini return a defensive line that -- with 320-pound OL-turned-DT Craig Wilson stepping in for Corey Liuget -- should be just as difficult to run against as it was last year.  And a secondary that's as deep as it has been in the Ron Zook era.

The evidence will show that Illinois will be a tough team to score points on in 2011, and that means they're going to be in games until late in the fourth quarter.  Does that mean they won't suffer a few heartbreaking losses?  Of course not.  But it does mean that they'll also surprise a few teams in conference play, and ride a ridiculous eight home game schedule to their second bowl win in as many seasons.

II. Discovery

What We Can Learn From Pop Culture

Sure, jump the shark is a phrase one usually assigns to television shows that wear out their welcome, but it's also a perfect way to describe Ron Zook's staying power on the sidelines.  Add the fact that, like the Fonz, Zook loves to show off in the water, and Richie's orange and blue sweater, and it's the perfect embodiment of Illinois football heading into 2011.

II. Emotional Plea

Look, Illinois football is still a work in progress, but you have to respect what's right in Champaign-Urbana.  An up and coming sophomore dual-threat quarterback who is bound to improve in the pocket, a big bruising running back that can do damage between the tackles, an oversized defensive line, and seemingly endless secondary.  Sure, there's room to improve in run/pass balance, in the pass rush department, and in the linebacking ranks, but the Fighting Illini are primed to be just that in 2011, a team capable of pulling a few punches.

IV. Verdict

A. The Staff Calls the Games

The Off Tackle Empire staff foresees on average just over 6 wins and just under 6 losses for Illinois in 2011.  Ted and I are the most bullish on Ron Zook's squad although 7 of our 11 writers predict that the Illini will be bowl eligible for the second year in a row.

Bama Hawkeye
  4-8 (1-7 B1G) losses to Arizona State, Northwestern, OSU, Purdue, Penn State, Michigan,  Wisconsin, and Minnesota

Ted Glover 8-4 (4-4 B1G) losses to OSU, PSU, Wisconsin, Minnesota

Jonathan Franz
8-4 (5-3 B1G) losses to Arizona State, Ohio State, Penn State, and Wisconsin

6-6 (2-6 B1G) losses to Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota

7-5 (4-4 B1G) losses to Arizona State, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, and Wisconsin

Ricardo Efendi
5-7 (2-6 B1G) losses to Arizona State, Northwestern, OSU, Penn State, Michigan,  Wisconsin, and Minnesota

Paterno Ave
6-6 (3-5 B1G) losses to Northwestern, Ohio State, Purdue, Penn State, and Wisconsin

6-6 (3-5 B1G) losses to Arizona State, Northwestern, OSU, Purdue, Penn State, and Wisconsin

Hilary Lee
7-5 (3-5 B1G) losses to Northwestern, Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota

5-7 (2-6 B1G) wins over Arkansas State, South Dakota State, Western Michigan, Indiana, and Purdue

Graham Filler
5-7 (2-6 B1G) losses to Arizona State, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota