At least two publications, the obsessively inimitable Phil Steele and the more conservative Sporting News pick up on something I noticed while writing about Illinois for a magazine - at newsstands soon! - last month: the Illini, 2-10 each of the last two seasons and 2-30 in the Big Ten since 2003, are a veritable perfect storm of upward mobility. Both Steele and TSN, more ambitiously than the sentimentalist Indiana fans at Athlon, have Illinois pegged for the Insight Bowl in December, its first whiff of a postseason game since the 2001 conference champs lost to LSU in the Sugar Bowl.
Picking any team to match its win total over the previous two seasons combined is a risk, and in itself that would only get Illinois to 4-8. To earn a bowl game, the Illini would have to match its win total over the last three years, which is something only one sadsack squad seems to manage in any given year, and never one coached by Ron Zook. So why Illinois, and why now?
Youth Is Served: The Illini returned 19 starters in '06, nine on offense and ten on defense, and improved from 0-8 in the Big Ten to 1-7, so it's not just about returning a ton of starters. But Illinois was significantly better last year than its record (see below), and for the second straight year returns 19 starters, ten on offense and nine on defense, and, logically, ten of them will be in that capacity for the third straight season. The freshmen and sophomores who bore their share of heavy-handed licks in Ron Zook's first season are juniors and seniors now, alongside an influx of more highly-regarded sophomores - five of last year's top recruits ended the season as starters - who have also learned from taking it on the chin.
The Offense Can Already Run: Illinois led the Big Ten in rushing by a fairly wide margin, not only by averaging 192 yards in conference games, but also by averaging 5.3 per carry against league defenses, too, where eight of the conference's 11 teams averaged less than four per carry in Big Ten play and only Ohio State cracked four and a half. This on an offense that had no outside weapons (again, see below) and essentially no passing threat - The Sporting News calls the offensive line "abysmal in pass coverage," and a lot of yards were created from scrambling necessity by freshman quarterback "Juice" Williams (a team-best 770 before sacks), but somebody's winning some physical battles somewhere or either has superb technique to produce the best cumulative and per capita ground game in the conference, and said individual(s) is/are returning with everybody else.
Well, the exception to the staying party is Pierre Thomas, leading rusher the last three years and generator of nearly six yards a pop as a senior, but the mystery is how Thomas held on to the feature role with the nicely-named Rashard Mendenhall breaking off bigger chunks (8.2 avg.) and eating up one of the best defenses in the country (161 on just 14 tries against Penn State, his only "extended" action) in a major upset bid, after which he still only touched the ball about a half dozen times per game over the closing month. Mendenhall only had half of Williams' carries on the season, which would look best if it was the other way around.
Pay attention to J Leman's productivity, not his incredibly dangerous technique.
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The Defense Is Already Decent: Illinois finished 91st in scoring defense, but 33rd in yards allowed (a more thorough explanation for which comes below) by actually holding up well physically, better in terms of yards per carry than Wisconsin and especially softie bowl teams Iowa, Minnesota and Purdue and dead even by that measure with conference king Ohio State, with far less of a pass rush than OSU (i.e., far fewer sack yards obscuring the results of the real in-the-trenches shoving, though the relative lack of pass rush is not exactly a positive influence). Chris Norwell and J Leman were tough up the middle, and Leman made more plays in the backfield than any other player in the Big Ten except Purdue's Anthony Spencer. In a three-week span, January-bound rushing behemoths from Wisconsin, Penn State and Ohio State combined to average 2.3 per carry against the Illini. Again, not getting shoved around here.
Sixty-One Percent Incompletions Can't Happen Again: Maybe the TSN bit about the line was true, and Steele's assertion that he was plagued by dropped passes, but Juice was loose with his accuracy, to say the least. He was the only starting quarterback in the country to complete fewer than 40 percent of his passes and finished as the lowest rated passer anywhere after hitting an awful 20 of 66 with no touchdowns in the last three games.
But, aside from his being a hyped freshman who adds tremendous value with his legs, Williams showed a couple less obvious promising traits: a) He averaged a healthy 14 yards when he did manage to complete a pass, and had a dozen go for longer than 40, so he is not limited to dinking and dunking and the like, and b) He didn't throw a ton of interceptions. He melted down once, in a 9 for 32, three-interception debacle against Iowa in his first start, but ended the year with an okay 1:1 TD-INT ratio (9-9). This should get better because Williams should get better, but also because...
Talent! Mostly alleged talent, to be perfectly clear, but Williams is one of seven projected starters on the offense once ranked among the top 25 players in the country at his position out of high school, along with Mendenhall, brand new receivers Arrelious Benn and Chris James, tight end Jeff Cumberland (6% body fat!, according to Steele) and senior linemen Martin O'Donnell and Akim Millington, a transfer from Oklahoma. Mendenhall and his absurd yards per carry is the only one of the five skill players there whose game might be anywhere near its potential "ceiling"; Benn and James have not played (James caught five passes as a true freshman, four in the last three games) but immediately leapt last year's top three receivers and the incoming freshman was the obvious hit of the spring, while Cumberland managed to catch 14 Williams Wobblers over the second half of his first season, four apiece against Wisconsin and Ohio State.
The Turnover Thing: Ay, the rub: Illinois was just a couple boots from achieving the worst turnover margin in the country. It lost an incredible, national-high 20 fumbles, including two to Penn State (one for a direct, game-changing touchdown), three to Northwestern and four each to Purdue and Ohio U. of Ohio, all games in which the Illini led or were tied in the second half. If you wonder how the run defense can match Ohio State's for yards per carry yet allow twice the touchdowns on the ground, this is the reason (along with the horrible post-Weatherford punting - a Big Ten-low 29-yard average, due to an over-abundance of short rugby style kicking that basically performed the role of the average interception).
A shame, but a correctable shame.
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This has been a problem far beyond the Zook Era (the team was minus-11 his first year, after being minus-6, minus-18 (!) and minus-8 Ron Turner's last three years), but it's more than unlikely so many balls come free or bounce so fortuitously into opponents' waiting arms again.
All 2-10 Seasons Are Not Created Equal: Illinois was just crap in 2005, and there's no way around that - it managed to beat Rutgers in overtime and then San Jose State to start 2-0, then lost its last nine games by an average of 30 points without coming any closer to winning than 17 points, even at Indiana (36-13). It looked like a high school team that quit in a televised shellacking against Penn State. The defense gave up 5.5 per carry (that's getting shoved around) and the team was last or next-to-last in the Big Ten by every official offensive or defensive measure, including turnover margin.
The seven league losses last year were by an average of 8.5 points, including a two-point loss to Indiana, touchdown losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin and close games with Purdue, Penn State and Northwestern that got away late. They ran the ball very well and were solidly in the middle of the pack defensively. Steele points out in bold print that the Illini actually outgained foes on the year by an average of 346-310!! as evidence that, down for down, Illinois held up just fine with the average teams in the conference, and a few of the really good ones. It's getting really familiar around here for Florida fans justifiably skeptical of all things Zook, but this fall is about being competent enough with experience to clean up those two or three plays that make the difference in last place and .500 with a spot in the Insight Bowl. If this team can't at least threaten that kind of improvement with every conceivable wind of momentum at its back, Zook should be banished from the profession.
Long live the indicators! Long live the box score!