Nobody believed in us. But we we worked hard every day and tried to get better. Just wanted to help the team and prove the doubters wrong. Just need to execute our gameplan, control the line, and limit the turnovers… Any of these sports cliches sound familiar? You’ve heard them before – especially the ‘nobody believed’ – and you’ll continue to hear them from Coach Ron Zook’s 2011 Fighting Illini football team.
Major publications have pretty much panned the Illini, picking them way down in the depths of their division in the Big 10, with most doubting they’ll be above .500. The venerable one, Loren Tate, has noted this trend and talked about it for weeks – pointing to the way last year’s team man-handled the likes of Purdue, Northwestern, and Penn State, and should have beat Michigan as well, yet all these teams are projected above Illinois. You can almost see the distatesteful sneer on Loren’s face as he concedes the Illini football ‘brand’ is such that the team fosters doubters.
At least one journo has picked Illinois as a surprise winner – a Pennsylvania writer known for his wit and sarcasm. He noted that Illinois may be the most schizophrenic team in college football, with a pedigree that includes two BCS games in the past decade, as well as two double-digit losing seasons.
In Beemsville, it’s hard to get too excited about the Orange & Blue under Zook, but we manage to do it anyway. Here’s why:
- The schedule. No more opening loss to Missouri, eight(!) home games, and the tougher games at home. When you contrast it with the schedules of say, Michigan State or Nebraska, there’s cause for optimism.
- The two coordinators. Vic Koenning doesn’t have as much talent returning, but he had the defense playing much, much better last year. Paul Petrino is the real deal on offense, and his unit could break some records. Both these guys were major upgrades with the potential to make the Zooker look good.
- The offense. Led by second-year QB Nathan Scheelhaase (aka ‘Steelhorse’, according to the Rube), the offense should roll some teams. Maybe not Boise State rolling, but they should be putting points on the board. The O-line is good, the backs and receivers are good, and it should be fun to watch.
Illinois doesn’t have the depth of more highly regarded teams, especially on defense, so a few injuries could drastically alter the course. But in Beemsville we are hoping for at least eight wins in the regular season and another bowl appearance and victory as the capper. If the team manages seven or less (especially with this schedule), we would fully support new AD Mike Thomas making a move. It’s what new ADs do, and the Zooker has had ample opportunity. Illinois needs to somehow build some momentum with the football program – it’s the only way to improve without resorting to Miami-like hijinks. If the Illini stay healthy, if Coach Koenning finds a way, we’ll be looking to smack some of the high-and-mighty down, prove the doubters wrong, and upset some national projections.
Here are our key questions for the season:
- Can the team stay healthy – especially on ‘D’? The only area with some depth on defense appears to be the secondary. The d-line and linebacker corps need to avoid too many injuries if the Illini want to compete.
- Can the offense score enough to win some shootouts? At the end of last year, Steelhorse and Co. rolled up the yards and points – even with a somewhat limited playbook. Now, according to Petrino, the skill positions have improved, there’s depth at running back, and O-line is nasty. That’s good, because Illinois will likely need to score 30 or even 40 to beat the better teams.
- Will this year’s team avoid the slop results? Seems like every year, the Zooker lays down a stinker against teams that should be handled. Last year it was Minnesota and Fresno State. Previously it’s been Western Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio U. If the Illini can just beat the teams they should, they’re bowl eligible.
- Who will lead the defense this year? Coach Koenning has lamented some lack of leadership, and with last year’s best players now in the NFL, someone needs to step up. Ian Thomas at linebacker and Terry Hawthorne at corner seem the most likely candidates. The D will need to force some turnovers and find some unexpected stops at points.
- Will special teams finally stop sucking? OK, we’ll give the field goal unit a pass, because Derek Dimke is all-conference, but the return teams and the coverage teams need to improve. And did we mention a true freshman, Justin Duvernois, handling the punting? Kinda funny that with the two new offensive coordinators, Zook has continued to coach the special teams…
- Which games look pivotal? The Arizona State game will tell us a lot about this team in a couple of weeks. Beat Northwestern at home (Oct. 1) and you start to build some momentum. The game at Penn State (Oct. 29) is the second in consecutive road trips and the game before the bye week. The Lions will be looking to avenge last year’s loss. The Wisconsin game at home (Nov. 19) is one you don’t expect to win but could be huge, and the final game of the year at Minnesota (11/26) seems like the classic trap.