As we transition into our new site you can look at the rest of the 2010 Exit Survey's we've done at this link.
2010 CFBZ Prediction: 9th place in the Big Ten
2010 Actual Finish: Tied for 4th place in the Big Ten (7-6, 4-4)
It was a strange year for Ron Zook and the Fighting Illini. They lost to some good teams (Missouri, Ohio State, Michigan State), they beat some pretty good teams (Penn State, Baylor, Northwestern, Northern Illinois), they beat some bad teams (Southern Illinois, Indiana, Purdue) and they lost to some teams that they shouldn't have (Minnesota, Fresno State). At one point in the season Illinois was 5-3 with the tough part of their schedule behind them and winnable games in front of them but they faltered down the stretch losing to Michigan (67-65 in 3OT), Minnesota (an inexcusable loss as the Golden Gophers were 1-9 coming into this game) and Fresno State and finishing 6-6 in the regular season.
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One bright spot was the play of Mikel Leshoure as he led the Big Ten in rushing with 1706 yards and 17 TD. He was second to only LaMichael James in rushing yardage. Unfortunately for Illinois, Leshoure will be taking his talents to the NFL next year. Another key cog this year was freshman QB Nathan Scheelhasse, who threw for 1825 yards and 17 TD vs 8 Interceptions in his debut season (he added 859 yards rushing and 5 rushing TDs). Illinois made some strides in 2010 and made great improvement from their 3-9 season in 2009 but the questions remain if they can continue to move forward in 2011 and in the future under Ron Zook. We caught up with Paul M. Banks of TheSportsBank.net to answer our questions about the Fighting Illini.
1. In our Pre-Season Preview you said that a bowl berth/win would be nice but that it really wouldn't matter until Illinois posted consecutive winning seasons. Now that the season is over do you feel it was a success, failure or somewhere in-between?
Success all the way, because they aced the mid-term. Now they need to pass the final exam next post-season to complete the course with a sufficient grade. Illinois football has shown a consistent tendency to a.) sometimes play spectacular when no thinks much of them nor extensively prepares for them and b.) epically fail when expectations are placed on them. They haven't posted consecutive winning seasons since 1991-92, so the pressure's on now.
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2. Ron Zook has been on the hot seat for a while. Where is he right now on the temperature scale?
His seat was as hot as the sight of of an Oregon Ducks Cheerleader before, now it's more like your average cheer squad member at a mid-major school. The two coordinators acted like a fever reducer, because both of the high-priced coaches- Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning improved their units dramatically. And like the cliche says, "winning cures everything," and 7-6 is a decently successful season in Champaign. "I can remember my senior year, we lost our bowl game," said Koenning. "And we were proud to go to the bowl game, but there's not a better feeling in the whole world than winning it. For coaches, we start having stomach acids, sleepless nights, days and weeks sometimes before a game. And to win makes it worthwhile. And when you lose, it's a lot of pain, agony and stress, and hours and hours of work and time away from your family and stuff, so when you win it makes you feel like it's worth it."
3. Which player was the biggest surprise of the season and on the flipside who was the biggest disappointment?
Mikel Leshoure- I knew this would be his team, especially with a freshman QB and rebuilding the WR corps. And I knew he'd be solid. But I had no idea he'd become Rashard Mendenhall part deux in almost every way possible and break all the major Illini rushing records.
For disappointment, I would say wide receiver Jarred Fayson. When he transferred from Florida he was touted to be a speedy play-maker, but he never amounted to much; in both his years here. In '09, he was named Athlon's top receiver transfer and preseason second-team All-Big Ten by Phil Steele Magazine. Yet he scored only one touchdown in Champaign, averaged about 300 yards a season, and never had more than 90 yards receiving in a game.
4. Who are some of the guys that need to step up next year to become major players for the Fighting Illini?
On offense, it has to be QB Nathan Scheelhaase's team now, and he'll need A.J. Jenkins to actually be a legitimate #1 receiver to make that happen. On defense, I expect them to plug in some new starters at linebacker, some "system guys" and they should be fine. However, the talented juniors and sophomores in the secondary (Trulon Henry, Tavon Wilson, Terry Hawthorne) need to set the tone. At least two should develop into all-conference level athletes.
5. In what area(s) does Illinois need to improve on the most this off-season?
That's easy- pass defense and the passing game. Scheelhaase has a decent arm, but certainly not a great one. He needs to keep going vertical early and often, like he did against Baylor in the Texas Bowl. But he needs help too. Rookie WRs Darrius Millines and Ryan Lankford and tight end Evan Wilson need to keep making plays like they did in Houston.
"I think I told some of you (the media) that those two really improved during bowl practice, and at the end of bowl practice. You saw three freshman make big time plays out there tonight," Petrino said after beating Baylor in the Texas Bowl. On the other side, the secondary was consistently banged up all year long. Once they're healthy, and playing together, this unit's talent will begin to surface as they play with some cohesion. Provided of course the defensive line continues to be a pleasant surprise in generating pressure. I guess it helps their body of work that Illinois no longer has to face Blaine Gabbert/Jeremy Maclin/Chase Daniel and the rest of Mizzou in the pre-conference anymore.