5 wins, 7 losses. If you’d told the Orange & Blue faithful back in August we’d be looking at a 5-7 season, most would scoff or malign you as a negativo. We were all thinking 7-5, 8-4, even 9-3… 5-7? Surely not! The Zooker surely has the beginnings of a bald spot from the continuous head-scratching he’s subjected himself to this year. Like most of us, he was left wondering why the 2008 Illini Football team just wasn’t good enough.
On the heels of a great year in 2007, a Rose Bowl year, the disappointment seems even more bitter. The team was painful to watch at times; not because they were bad, but because you saw the potential. So now the Beemsville Pentagram brings you five points to ponder at the close of the season…
-The athletes are there. Gone are the days of Turner and Tepper, when we didn’t even have the horses to run. Even against Top 10 teams like Penn State, OSU, and Missouri, you never had the sense Illinois simply couldn’t compete physically. Illinois was in fact in striking distance at various points in all three of those games but did not execute (see below). This is testament to the Zooker’s recruiting prowess and cause for continued optimism. We may not get Top 5 national recruiting classes, but if continue to land Top 20 classes and fill key needs, 5-7 should continue to be unacceptable.
-The execution is/was not. Third downs? Red zone? Special-F*$@ing-Teams? Lack of execution was the most consistent aspect of the team’s inconsistency. Whereas last year the Illini found ways to win in some close games, this year was the opposite. Turnovers at the most vital times. Stupid penalties. Special Teams meltdowns. In most every game, the team gifted the opponent a touchdown or more on plays like this. Against Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Western Michigan(!), the lack of execution led directly to losses against teams with less talent. Against Penn State, Ohio State, and Northwester, they allowed the opponent to separate enough to put the games out of reach. And why the lack of execution?
-Coaching staff problems. The Zooker is here for awhile, so let’s forego too much criticism there. He’s an idea man, an energy guy, our recruitnik-in-chief. (Beemsville would like to recommend he take a long hard look at retaining the Special Teams coaching duties.) But what Ron Guenther must insisit upon in the off-season is a new (single) Defensive Coordinator. The dual-hat role assigned to Mallory and Disch has not worked, will not work, could not work. The Defensive schemes and play-calling have been terrible. We need new blood and now. One guy, accountable for the D — and he needs to be a detail-oriented guy. Most would agree that while the staff is good at recruiting, we could really use a tactician/execution guy. As for the much-maligned Lox, let’s hope someone hires him away. He’s rumored to be a hot commodity. Yet as an Offensive Coordinator, he’s exhibited a lack of creativity and flexibility, and an inbability to adapt to shifting gameplans. At the end of the year we were still running the same 15-20 plays, and every other team knew them as well as we did. We had no short passing game and no plan to address blitzing schemes. Our philosophy of spread-to-run was inherently flawed. With the WR talent on this team (a position of strength next year as well), we should’ve been a pass-first team. In fact, at points during the year when the Illini were in pass-first or pass-only positions, they looked very good… And let’s not even get into the play-calling that would invetibably follow a turnover, or the ultra-conervative first quarter strategy. Let’s just hope, Locksley gets his head-coaching gig. Sure we’d lose the D.C. area recruiting connection, but if we brought in a dynamic play caller (and another detail-type guy) with a good spread resume, the Illini could be one of those teams that consistently puts 40 to 50 points on the board. And if the D was just a little stingier…
-The Juice factor. Of course the QB is the lightning rod for both acclaim and criticism. Juice Williams had a very good season according to the stats. He was 58%, with 22 TDs, and rushed for nearly 1,000 yards. He’s moving up the Illinois team record books. He also threw 16 interceptions, and many of these were back breakers. And anytime Juice turned it over, you could see his confidence waver (no doubt made worse by the inevitable ultra butt-clench follow up play-calling by Locksley). You got the sense the game wasn’t really slowing down for Juice the way we’d all hoped it would. He still seemed to have trouble checking down. He actually looked less effective at the end of the year. Part of this was a banged-up and disappointing Offensive Line, part of it was the aforementioned crap offensive gameplan and same 15-20 plays… So where does that leave us? Well, Juice is the man next year. No way he doesn’t start every game unless he gets hurt, so let’s just hope he can eliminate some of the bad throws and continue to improve. Some new plays and a better offensive strategy might work wonders here.
-Prospects for 2009. Another good recruiting class, headlined by WR Terry Hawthorne of East St. Louis and D linemen Craig Drummond and Lendell Buckner of Chicago. Florida transfer WR Jarrod Fayson will be eligible. Miami Thomas should be back at corner, so even with the inevitable loss of Vontae Davis to the NFL, and the possibility of Rejus Benn leaving early, the Illini will be strong at the skill and speed positions. The biggest player questions will reside on the Offensive Line and at Linebacker. Much of this will be moot without some shakeups on the Coaching staff, however. Illinois has a rough schedule next year, with non-conference games against Missouri, Fresno State, and Cincinatti. Illinois State is the lone cupcake. Purdue and Michigan State move onto the Big10 schedule, Wisconsin and Iowa are off. So where does that leave us? Much depends on the Zooker and his staff – can they really “continue to get better”, as he likes to say so often? Can the coaches address their own shortfalls and make the needed improvements to their overall strategy and attention to detail? The talent is there; a run at the Big10 title is not out of the question. A more realistic goal, however, would be a winning season and a non-joke bowl bid. We shall see.