Friday, October 14, 2011

Strange Times in Illini Nation

We all remember the 2007 season. The incredible recruiting classes showing themselves on the field, especially Arrelious Benn's ridiculous year. We remember the wins over Penn State, Wisconsin, and of course, the epic win over #1 Ohio State. And of course, we remember the Rose Bowl, albeit with the USC knockout punch.

After a couple of REALLY down years, and last year's nice rebound bowl season, we're left with the 2011 Illinois football team. Losing Mikel Leshoure, Martez Wilson, and Corey Liuget from last year's team left dim hopes in Champaign and the rest of Illini Nation for this season. Yet, the team is 6-0, with great wins especially over Arizona State and Northwestern. The question is, how, why, and where does this leave us going forward on the eve of a huge game tomorrow vs. Ohio State?

It all started with the hiring of Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning prior to the 2010 season. The Zooker finally realized (or was forced to) that calling plays on offense and defense (kind of important to a football team) wasn't his specialty. Rather, Zook's expertise remained at schmoozing alumni/boosters, being the face of the program, and recruiting well (which is just fine for head coaches to do; see Mack Brown). Petrino and Koenning took an Illini team that had been down on its luck, and with the leadership of Nate Scheelhaase and Mikel Leshoure on offense, and a ferocious, ball hungry defense, turned a 3-9 team into a 8-5 bowl winning team.

In 2011, the Illini are different. Gone is the unreal running skills of Mikel Leshoure (see the game against Northwestern at Wrigley), the athleticism of Martez Wilson, and the penetration and dominance of Corey Liuget. Here now is the passing prowess of Nate Scheelhaase, receiver extraordinaire A.J. Jenkins, and the new dominant faces on the defense.

The Scheelhaase to Jenkins connection is ridiculous. Just look at Jenkins' game log this season and it's no wonder he's leading the nation in receiving. Scheelhaase and Jenkins, both previously 4 star recruits, are finally realizing the potential that their duo could have on the field. It is difficult for defenses to key on Jenkins when the likes of Spencer Harris, Jon Davis, Ryan Lankford, Darius Millines, and Evan Wilson are on the field. The only issue I have on offense is the running game. Zook is loyal to his players to a fault, and its showing in his continuous faith in RB Jason Ford. Ford is big, slow, and fumble prone - not exactly the traits looked for in a RB. True freshman Donovonn Young is a stud, and has all the makings of a RB who can continue the trend of stud RB's to come through Illinois. So why does Ford start?? ZOOKER - TAKE FORD OUT!! Ford's fumble near the end of the NW game should have been the final straw. With a 6-0 team on the line, establishing and maintaining a solid running game is key to diversifying our offensive schemes. We can't continue to rely on Nate to run the ball.

On defense, Illinois continues to put out good defensive tackles with the solid play of Akeem Spence. The guy is a load up the middle, and allows defensive end Whitney Mercilus and "Bandit" player Michael Buchanan the freedom to use their athleticism to tear after the QB. All of this is also possible because the strength of the defense is the linebacking corps. Trulon Henry, Jonathan Brown, and Ian Thomas are tackling machines. Brown especially is ferocious, making plays all over the field (see the Arizona State game) but can let that get to his head sometimes and make stupid decisions. The secondary, of course, is led by super-athlete Terry Hawthorne, with enough speed to shield any opposing WRs.

So where does this leave us going forward? The rest of the schedule is interesting: Ohio State at home tomorrow, then at Purdue and Penn State, home against Michigan and Wisconsin, and then at Minnesota. Theoretically, Illinois could win each of those games except Wisconsin. I think that Wisconsin is a power house this year that could legitimately contend for national hopes (well, maybe if the dominance of LSU, Alabama, or Oklahoma doesn't get in the way). The rest, though, is winnable. Even if Illinois laid a giant egg and lost to OSU, PSU, Michigan, and Wisconsin, that still leaves them with an 8-4 season. But more realistically, Illinois ends up 9-3 or 10-2. That would be an amazing season, and one that would only help with the recruiting that could use an uptik this year.

All in all, it's exciting as hell for a fanbase that doesn't see it that often. It's frustrating to be an Illinois football fan; we see the recruiting gold mine that is the midwest and the state of Illinois, and even get some of those prospects. But until Zook brought on legitimate coaches like Petrino and Koenning, we never saw results. Now, though, all the ingredients are in place for a special season and more in the future.